Callum Turner is more than just an actor and has no interest in being defined as such. Whether writing, directing or performing, there is a reluctance to confine himself to traditional notions of a career or sketch out his future in even the faintest terms. Nothing is ever over, out of reach or no longer possible. Instead, his sense of self derives from his family, his London upbringing and an unerring sense of opportunity in everything he does.
Having left school early, as much to pursue footballing dreams as escape the prescriptive pathways of higher education, he was never initiated in the conventional institutions of an aspiring actor and has benefitted all the more because of it. Success is not grounded in his job, acting is just one element of his life that he refuses to let govern the rest. He recently finished playing Eddie Redmayne’s older brother Theseus in the second chapter of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Turner’s excitement surrounding the project is palpable, but has nothing to do with its global enormity, rather the opportunity to challenge himself on a different stage.
Finn Blythe: So you’re off to New York tomorrow for Fantastic Beasts, when did you stop shooting?
Callum Turner: In December, then actually as soon as I finished that I shot a short film, one I directed.
CT: We edited it throughout the next four months, screened it at the end of May and I’ve just been doing a lot of me time, you know? A lot of seeing my friends, seeing my family, and taking it easy. I haven’t shot another film as an actor.
FB: So what’s the short about?
CT: It’s about a guy who – do you know what a Halliwell is? [Leslie] Halliwell basically wrote ten thousand reviews for films, they’re really short, so it’s a book called Halliwell’s Film Guide. Anyway I have a Halliwell for it, let me see if I can find it – my acting coach suggested it as part of the process, you Halliwell what you’re going to do and then you go further and anecdote the whole thing.
FB: So it’s a writing exercise?
CT: An acting exercise, a very loose, basic one to find the essence of the thing you’re going to do.
FB: So you extrapolate from something very small and then work from that?
CT: Yeah. So the Halliwell for the film – it’s called Shift a Plane – is all about someone shifting their consciousness. [Proceeds to read] “A working class man helps to raise his younger brother while trying to find the courage to fly the nest and become a stand-up comic.” So that’s the Halliwell version of it, the root of it is about money. I made one ages ago about money too, about a working class boy who just left college and couldn’t find a job and didn’t know what to do. This one is about a man who can’t afford – even though he’s got a full-time job – to leave home, which is a situation lots of people I know are in and there’re millions of people, especially in London and it’s like, what does that mean for us? So that was the original idea, someone stuck and something that’s representative of this moment in time, that you can’t afford to live in the city you grew up in.
FB: That’s something I think about almost daily. I was born and raised in London and I love my area, but I’m increasingly aware this city isn’t really for me anymore. I’m never likely to afford a house in the area I’ve lived all my life and that will probably only get worse.
CT: It’s like you’re rejected from your home and I think it’s the case with all the major cities in the world, New York’s the same, I don’t know about LA but I know Toronto is in a similar situation with rising house prices. So that’s the idea that the short is born out of, and what it means when a man or a woman can’t afford their own home.
FB: It’s displacement. So how much did you feel was biographical or came from lived experience?
CT: A lot, from both. I wrote it with my friend who’s in it because he started doing standup and he’s really good, I was inspired by him and it’s basically a picture of his life. It’s funny, he says, “I can’t see the film in there at all, it’s just me” [laughs]. But then there’s lots of different stories pinched from different people. I had an amazing time doing it and I’d like to do another one.
FB: How long have you wanted to write and direct your own stuff?
CT: I’d say longer than I wanted to be an actor.
CT: Yeah if I thought about it, I got into acting because I liked films and… I’ll just give it a go, you know? I didn’t really have much, I left school at sixteen, I wanted to be a footballer – at seventeen that was over.
FB: Did you do the classic: get picked up by an academy and leave school?
CT: No [laughs], I played for a semipro team when I was sixteen, seventeen. We were good for our level and we got quite far in the FA Youth Cup but actually I wasn’t consistent enough to be… you know, I’m not an athlete, those guys that play… I just loved it man, I loved being part of a team, I loved having responsibility. You’re playing in your position and it’s the same thing translated into acting in a film, I have a position on set, whether it’s as an actor or a director or whatever, and I know what my job is and my responsibility and team morale, team bonding – it’s very similar setup.
FB: So this period in which you’ve been writing and not acting, would you say it’s been quite introspective?
CT: Yeah completely. I do a lot of work on myself, mentally, physically, spiritually and that’s even more important. It’s been frustrating because I like acting, I really like it.
FB: I first saw you in Green Room and thought you rocked it.
CT: That’s a good movie man.
FB: A24 [the film’s distributor] are generally very good.
CT: Yeah Jeremy Saulnier is an amazing director, he gave me the best note by not giving me a note, it was really interesting. I asked him a question and he just stood there for a minute and I think he was quite awkward about it, because I didn’t know his thing was, “You bring it and I’ll play with you.” It was about something specific that had changed and then him not answering, intentionally so, gave me the impetus I needed, so it was a really big lesson in actually just reacting. It was the moment where Anton’s [Yelchin] hand gets cut, you know? And I only realised afterwards what I did in the moment.
FB: But had he fed you a direction it would have been completely different.
CT: Yeah exactly, I would have been like “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” but I learned in that moment that directors want you to bring it, that’s why they cast you, you know? They trust in you, in the same way that your editor won’t stand over your shoulder and dot the i’s and cross the t’s, a director doesn’t do that either, they want you to bring what you’re going to bring and that’s your unique selling point: you, how you see it, your life experiences up until this point expressed.
FB: And so have you translated those experiences into your personal projects?
CT: Yeah, for Shift a Plane, there was so much love. Everyone was upset when it was over, we had so much fun. My girlfriend did the cooking, her sister was the producer’s assistant, organised everything, the producer was a friend of mine and then we had Parkville Pictures backing us, who’d just done The Miseducation of Cameron Post, so there was a real family ethic, but then with an established production company behind us.
FB: And so does that family involvement speak of the way you’re trying to reconcile your commitments as an actor, being away, on set, travelling, with seeing your family?
CT: Yeah, because when I do something I don’t speak to anyone, really.
FB: You don’t find it useful?
CT: No, I just zone out and do my own thing. If I’m doing a project which is tops two months I’ll speak to them intermittently but not really. Maybe a FaceTime with my mum just to see how she is, but yeah I zone out. I’m lucky enough to be welcomed into a world – I’m experiencing that moment in that time and that space and it’s important to stay in that because one, it’s a luxury and two, it’s fun. I don’t have children so it would be different if you had those sorts of ties, but as a younger man I like to immerse myself as much as possible, whether that’s just the environment or with the people.
FB: You’re at a really interesting stage in your career where you’re having to make a lot of choices about the sort of work you want to do and the people you want to work with. Do you ever contemplate a particular career trajectory?
CT: Not at all really. I don’t want to be defined as a person by my job, I don’t think anyone should be in whatever they do. I’m defined by myself, by who I am, and I’m lucky enough to do something that I really enjoy and as long as that continues and I work with people I like… Ultimately I’m a film fan, I love films, I like directors, I like soundtracks, I’m not obsessed but I like it and I want to just keep working with people that inspire me and push me. For instance I had a meeting with a director the other day, it was just a meeting but I did some of my best acting in that room, [laughs] you know? I felt very lucky to even just have that, whether it goes any further is something else.
FB: I get that.
CT: I don’t want to look at a career trajectory. Those guys, Dustin Hoffman, Pacino, De Niro, they don’t think about careers, Pacino said, “I didn’t know what a career was until I was thirty-five”, and when I’m thirty-five that doesn’t mean I’m going to be an actor still, I could be doing something else. I’m not saying I want to do that, it could be anything, I always dream of – my best friend did his coaching badges and I was like, “Ah fuck I should have done it,” but I actually went to do The Only Living Boy in New York – it wasn’t the right time to do them.
FB: Jeff Bridges, coaching badges – that’s a toss-up?
CT: Yeah I picked Jeff Bridges [both laugh]. But do you know what I mean? My career could be anything, it could be opening – not that I want to, but opening a coffee shop.
FB: Tell me a little about this new Harry Potter film, did you catch the hype when the books first came out?
FB: That’s interesting because, like the rest of us, you’re so familiar with the Harry Potter we all grew up with and so to re-visit that world is quite bold because people are often reluctant to move on from a set image, of what Dumbledore looked like or…
CT: I don’t know if I agree with that actually, because there’s a play, which is one of the biggest in the world right now, written by Jack Thorne and JK Rowling, that’s set in the future, and this is an exploration of the past. You see all the people that set things up for the stories we love and are accustomed to, and in a sense it’s almost like an archaeologist or a time-traveller, you can go forward or you can go back and people just love the world. It’s good vs evil.
FB: The eternal battle.
CT: Exactly, and yeah it was fucking incredible to be invited to play in JK Rowling’s world. JK Rowling is like Hemingway or Tolkien, she’s a living fucking legend, she’s going to go down in history as one of the most influential people of all time. Then you’ve got David Yates who’s a supreme filmmaker, Eddie Redmayne who’s one of the best actors in Britain, you’ve got Jude Law who was in one of the best films of all time, The Talented Mr. Ripley, you’ve got Katherine Waterston who is an amazing actress, Zoë Kravitz who’s incredible – all of them, Ezra Miller who I’ve loved for a long time. I’m with people that I’ve always enjoyed watching and who turn out to be some of the loveliest people going. The whole thing was a pleasure.
Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2018.