Above image: All clothes by Celine by Hedi Slimane SS19
When it comes to troubled teens – introvert, vulnerable and bristling with insecurity – few balance the nuances of a typically cliched archetype like Alex Lawther. From the unassuming victim of nefarious webcam hackers in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, to a knife-obsessed high school loner on a path to psychotic self-discovery in The End of the Fucking World (TEOTFW), Lawther’s pensively understated on-screen energy has paved the way to prospective stardom.
His latest role in Toby MacDonald’s debut feature Old Boys, an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac set in 1980s England, sees Lawther take on the spectacled and floundering public school softy, Amberson. In this chest-thumping arena of rampant testosterone, group chanting and a school sport known as Streamers that amounts to an organised brawl in a river, Amberson’s artistic flair and love of French poetry singles him out as much as his elfin frame and nonexistent co-ordination. Caught between loyalty for his only friend, the school stud Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), and his infatuation with Agnes (Pauline Etienne), the wildly distracting daughter of maverick new French master Babinot (Denis Ménochet), Lawther excels as the overlooked mediator of this ill-fated love triangle.
Finn Blythe: I’m curious to know whether that hyper-masculinised school environment of Old Boys resonated with your own experience?
Alex Lawther: I went to school in Hampshire and my experience differed from Amberson’s because I was lucky to have a wonderful group of friends who I really can’t speak more highly of. It isn’t really until Amberson starts this… surprising relationship with Winchester that he stops trying so hard to fit into this very particular mould the school demands of him – or at least has an outlet for this imagination he has. I was lucky because I joined a school at eleven and met people who were also very imaginative and now we’re in our twenties, a lot of them have moved up to London and I don’t know, when you’re that age you hope to have really good friends because being a teenager is confusing. Amberson definitely doesn’t have that. He might be brilliant in some ways but he’s very unwise in others because he’s not really had much experience of friendship.
FB: There’s that great moment of realisation when he’s so caught up in his pursuit of Agnes and Winchester turns to him and says, “You know what, sometimes you can be a bit of a dick”.
AL: Yeah, I’m also responsible for the feelings of somebody else and I’m not living in this world entirely alone. Winch, who is goofy and a labrador, is wise in ways that Amberson is not. I don’t think he expects to learn anything from Winchester, which is what’s so beautiful about their relationship.
FB: Right, we conceive of intelligence as something embodied by Amberson, but there are many different forms of intelligence and perhaps Winchester excels at a certain social intelligence that Amberson can only dream of.
AL: Absolutely. And a physical intelligence – like Winchester knows how to get by in the world physically, even the way he moves about a room. Amberson’s falling over all the time, whereas Winchester will always have balance, which is something I always admire in people who never trip and never spill glasses of water…
FB: Do you often trip and spill glasses of water?
AL: Yes, but I love that too. We watched a bunch of Buster Keaton films during the preparation for the film and this idea of creating sympathy for Amberson in the way he moves, the way that he falls and the way that he’s unstable… but resilient in the way that Buster Keaton and his characters are too. The Great Stone Face, as he was nicknamed, where he’s sort of sad and moon-like, but always gets back on his feet. I love that about Amberson too: that he will get knocked down but he’ll get back up.
FB: Did you watch The General?
AL: No, I watched a collection of his short movies. We’d rehearse a scene, have a lunch break and Toby [MacDonald, director] had given me a box of Keaton’s short films, so his major movies I’ve not seen, but I saw his first film with Fatty Arbuckle. You see him learning from Arbuckle and then start developing stuff on his own and then becoming Buster Keaton as we remember him today, this huge silent movie star.
FB: And what kind of discussions did you have with Toby MacDonald regarding your relationship with Winchester? Did you ever discuss a love that was more than just platonic? Did you even feel that?
AL: No, it’s funny, I hadn’t noticed it until I watched the film back and then I realised that of course it’s in the story. This was a proper love triangle in the sense that, when you’re a teenager… this was maybe Amberson’s first friend and for Winchester, Amberson’s weird and a friend that he’s never had before. There’s a camaraderie and a love that comes with that. It surprised me when I saw the film, there were times when I thought, “Oh, I didn’t realise what, potentially, was growing there”, which makes it all the sadder when Winchester leaves and then Agnes does too.
FB: I didn’t think there was any explicit suggestion of sexual attraction but certainly a love that he had for his friend and doing what he did for him was a means of exorcising his feelings, not just for Agnes but Winch too.
AL: It’s cool in its complicatedness. And they’re sort of striving together to woo Agnes, yet them also building a relationship together and realising that they’re mates, I like that. I love stories about friendship, which maybe sounds a bit twee.
FB: Talk to me about your stage work, I know you’ve just finished Jungle, but I wondered whether you find it nourishing to have that moment on stage to counter-balance your work on screen?
AL: Yeah it is because the rhythm is different. There’s a slowness to theatre in one sense because of the rehearsal process and the time that gives you to get to know your other actors and to really interrogate a scene. It’s a very particular rhythm that flexes a very particular muscle. Filmmaking can be slow too, maybe you’re called in the morning but actually you won’t be working until the evening and it’s just a scene of you picking up a glass of water and putting it down again – but I love that. Juliet Stevenson was in one of the first films I worked on and she said she loves filmmaking because it’s like you’re making a mosaic. You take each little piece and you polish it, you put some glaze on it and you leave it to be put in the kiln and you don’t really know how all those pieces will fit together. Someone else is going to assemble them for you, but you try your best with each little piece. I love that image. In theatre there’s a sense of whole, whereas in film it’s a case of tiny composite pieces. They’re both trying to do the same thing – tell a story, but just in a slightly different rhythm. I feel really happy when I’ve finished a film shoot if I know that I’m going to do a play next and visa-versa.
FB: So TEOTFW, it’s returning for season two.
AL: Season two is happening, but I’m yet to read the script. Do you want there to be a second season?
FB: I would love there to be.
AL: Cool, good, well there will be one.
FB: It must be odd to return to off the back of season one’s success; it’s kind of a different animal now.
AL: Yeah I’m terrified [laughs]. I love the idea of a second season, I re-read the comic book by Charles Forsman, it’s really good, but what Charlie [Covell, series writer] has done in order to adapt it onto screen is just really brilliant and I can’t praise her enough really. Writers are often under-celebrated and actors are over celebrated for things they have no responsibility for. When someone’s like, “I loved that line”, I’m like, “Nothing to do with me, I just turned up and said it.” So yeah, if Charlie wants to see where these characters go next…
FB: But hypothetically, you’d look forward to re-assuming the role of James?
AL: Even if Charlie sat me down and was like, “Look, he’s dead, let it go, we’re going to do this instead,” there probably would be a part of me that would be like, “Oh, OK, fine” [laughs]. But I would also be sitting down when it comes out a year later or whenever to know what Charlie has dreamt up, whether it’s for Alyssa or whoever. The more obsessed I get with writers the more I appreciate how difficult it is to write something good, so when you have a good writer and they want to write something and have the capacity and want to see where it goes next, that’s exciting. I’ve got friends who are hoping there’s not going to be a second season, and I’m like well, you’re a coward, if Charlie has the guts and the imagination then she should go for it. Nobody got anywhere with that state of mind.
Special Q&A screenings of OLD BOYS with Toby and the cast will take place around the country, details at oldboysmovie.com, the film will be released in cinemas on 22 Feb