You’d think that a backto-back Hollywood movie ca­reer and a megas­tar girl­friend might have changed Joe Al­wyn, but he’s quick to as­sure Nathalie Whit­tle that his feet re­main firmly on the ground


Hollywood ac­tor Joe Al­wyn on fame, ro­mance and his TV de­but

‘ So you didn’t see the part where the aliens at­tack?’ asks Joe Al­wyn, a play­ful smirk on his face. He’s re­fer­ring to his lat­est film, Har­riet, which I had a sneak pre­view of the pre­vi­ous day, although a fire evac­u­a­tion (false alarm) meant I missed the end­ing. The bi­o­graph­i­cal drama tells the story of Har­riet Tub­man (played by Cyn­thia Erivo), the his­toric abo­li­tion­ist who es­caped slav­ery and led hun­dreds of oth­ers to free­dom. Al­wyn plays her in­suf­fer­ably cruel and capri­cious slave mas­ter Gideon Brodess. He is, of course, jok­ing about the aliens. At least, I hope he is. To­day, we’re tucked away in the cor­ner of a dimly lit bar at Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den Ho­tel. It’s the sort of driz­zly af­ter­noon that might dampen the moods of most, but not Al­wyn. He ap­pears cheery and at ease, sport­ing coun­try ca­su­als: a grey mo­hair jumper, blue jeans and brown boots along with an unkempt beard; per­haps an at­tempt to dis­guise the boy­ish good

looks he’s be­come known for. He stops to in­ter­rupt me only once with a look of alarm: he’s for­got­ten to of­fer me some­thing to eat or drink. I can have any­thing I want, he as­sures me.

At 28, Al­wyn has had the sort of ca­reer tra­jec­tory that most as­pir­ing ac­tors wist­fully dream about for years, even decades. His ed­u­ca­tion in­cluded a de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture and drama at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, fol­lowed by a BA in act­ing at Lon­don’s Royal Cen­tral School of Speech and Drama. But within two weeks of his grad­u­ate show­case, Al­wyn re­ceived a life-chang­ing phone call. He refers to it as the thing

‘I owe ev­ery­thing to’.

‘I’d just signed with an agent and I was kind of pinch­ing my­self, you know, how sur­real is that?’ he says. ‘She sent me a por­tion of the script for a film, Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk, that Ang Lee was di­rect­ing. I’d grown up watching his films – Broke­back Moun­tain and Life

Of Pi – so I couldn’t be­lieve I was even go­ing to do a tape for some­one like that. I got my dad to film me in a scene in my bed­room and some mates to film me dur­ing a lunch break. The next thing I know, Ang wants to meet me in New York.’

Cue a se­ries of au­di­tions and screen tests that led to Al­wyn bag­ging the ti­tle role in his first big-bud­get Hollywood film. He was just 24. ‘It was so much so fast that I didn’t re­ally com­pute what was hap­pen­ing,’ he con­cedes. ‘Be­fore that film, I was just a poor stu­dent who barely un­der­stood how peo­ple got au­di­tions, let alone landed roles.’

Did he have any other jobs be­fore that? I ask. ‘I did have this one job in Lon­don,’ he says wryly. ‘Do you know that frozen yo­gurt place, Snog?’ I’m strug­gling to pic­ture Al­wyn serv­ing up frozen de­lights. He’s laugh­ing now. Was it a good gig? ‘Ex­cep­tional!’ More laugh­ter fol­lows. ‘I mean, I was paid some money! Then I worked in a menswear shop. I did what I could to make some ex­tra cash.’

A far cry from the frozen-yo­gurt counter, doors started open­ing to big­ger and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties as soon as Billy Lynn had hit cin­e­mas. The next script Al­wyn read was Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’s

The Favourite (re­leased in 2019), in which he se­cured a small but ri­otous role as young baron Sa­muel Masham along­side act­ing greats Olivia Col­man and Emma Stone. ‘Putting on gi­ant wigs and run­ning around in make-up chas­ing Emma Stone through the for­est – what more could you want?’ he laughs. The film earned wide­spread crit­i­cal ac­claim, re­ceiv­ing seven BAFTAS and a record 10 Bri­tish In­de­pen­dent Film awards.

Hav­ing fur­ther honed his craft in sub­se­quent films Mary Queen Of Scots and gay con­ver­sion-ther­apy drama Boy Erased, Al­wyn is about to en­ter into un­known ter­ri­tory. This Christ­mas, he’ll play Bob Cratchit in his first-ever TV drama, BBC One’s

A Christ­mas Carol; a ‘darker, twisted, less glossy’ ver­sion of the Charles Dick­ens clas­sic. He’s ‘feel­ing good about it’, but I’m cu­ri­ous as to how he’s ap­proached his change of scenery. Was he not ner­vous? ‘Oh, very. I tried to watch other peo­ple. It’s the sec­ond time I’ve worked with Guy Pearce [who plays Scrooge] and I asked him a lot of stuff, which prob­a­bly an­noyed him. I watched the way he works and the ques­tions he asked on set when he was ap­proach­ing a scene.’

Two peo­ple who will def­i­nitely be watching Al­wyn’s TV de­but are his mother, a psy­chother­a­pist, and his father, a doc­u­men­tary­maker. ‘They’d bet­ter be watching!’ he laughs. Born in Lon­don’s Tufnell Park, Al­wyn re­calls be­ing given stacks of videos ev­ery birth­day and ‘watching them to death, un­til the tapes burned up’.

One of his favourites was The Mask Of Zorro. In fact, he was so ob­sessed with it that he and his best friend took up fenc­ing classes at a lo­cal com­mu­nity cen­tre in Crouch End where, by chance, he was spot­ted by a cast­ing di­rec­tor for the hit Bri­tish rom­com Love Ac­tu­ally. She asked him to au­di­tion for the role of Sam; he breaks into a wide smile when I ask what he re­mem­bers of it. ‘I didn’t know much about what the film was; I was most ex­cited about the fact I got the day off school! But I re­mem­ber be­ing in a room with Richard Cur­tis and Hugh Grant read­ing scenes, many of which didn’t make it into the film. And I left the au­di­tion think­ing, “I re­ally recog­nise that guy from some­where.”’

Al­wyn didn’t get the part. In­stead, he for­got about act­ing for a while, with the ex­cep­tion of sum­mer hol­i­days, when his par­ents would send him and his older brother off to ‘some drama camp as a way of pre­oc­cu­py­ing us’. He ex­plains that when he later re­alised he wanted to act on a se­ri­ous level, he kept it a se­cret. Was it be­cause he was wor­ried how his par­ents would re­act to a some­what pre­car­i­ous ca­reer choice? ‘Well, it meant putting my­self out there in a per­for­ma­tive way, and that wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily some­thing I did or was used to do­ing. It felt like it should be quite a “look at me” job, and that wasn’t re­ally how I felt grow­ing up. I wasn’t a painfully in­tro­verted kid, but I wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly ex­tro­verted one, ei­ther. So maybe I was self-con­scious about the idea of say­ing to peo­ple, “Look, I can do this.”’

He cred­its drama school with giv­ing him ‘per­mis­sion’ to go for it. ‘Plus my par­ents were great about it. They’re both



free­lance them­selves, so while they recog­nise the per­ils, they also couldn’t say to me, “We can fol­low what we want, but you can’t.” There wasn’t a bound­ary, which helped a lot.’

I won­der if it’s been dif­fi­cult ac­cli­ma­tis­ing to the level of fame that’s come as a re­sult of his roles. ‘There have def­i­nitely been changes that have taken some get­ting used to, whether it’s sit­ting down and do­ing an in­ter­view or some­one recog­nis­ing you,’ he says. ‘There are things that have changed in my life, but I still very much feel like the same per­son. It prob­a­bly helps that I’ve been hang­ing out with the same friends lit­er­ally ev­ery day since I was 12 years old. Maybe it’s when those things change that peo­ple change, I don’t know.’

It’s fair to say that the level of in­ter­est in Al­wyn has, in part, been height­ened by the fact that, in his spare time, he plays the role of Mr Tay­lor Swift. The pair re­port­edly met in late 2016 and be­came an item shortly af­ter­wards.

I’ve been warned ahead of our meet­ing that Al­wyn ‘doesn’t talk about that’, and he’s keen to jus­tify his stance in per­son. ‘I feel like my pri­vate life is pri­vate and every­one is en­ti­tled to that,’ he says. ‘I’ve read sto­ries re­cently about peo­ple like Ben Stokes and Gareth Thomas, which are a gross in­va­sion of their pri­vacy and of their lives. It’s dis­gust­ing. That’s not jour­nal­ism, that’s just in­va­sive.’

It must be tough, I suggest, be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship that is sur­rounded by so much scru­tiny. ‘I just don’t read the head­lines,’ he says. ‘I re­ally don’t, be­cause I can guar­an­tee that 99% of them are made up. So I ig­nore it.’

Re­cent ru­mours suggest the pair are en­gaged, and are owed in part to the lyrics of one of Swift’s lat­est songs, Lover (‘My heart’s been bor­rowed and yours has been blue. All’s well that ends well, to end up with you’), as well as a piece of string tied around Swift’s ring finger in a Vogue cover shoot. Ac­cord­ing to die-hard fans, this means some­thing. But to Al­wyn it’s clear it means noth­ing at all. Is he never tempted to re­spond to the mis­truths, to shut them down? ‘No, be­cause it’s just point­less,’ he sighs. ‘It won’t change any­thing. I just don’t pay any at­ten­tion. I have my life and it’s kind of sep­a­rate to all that stuff.’

I’m cu­ri­ous as to how much time he gets to sim­ply en­joy the wave of suc­cess he’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. ‘There’s lots of time not work­ing, I wish there was less in a way!’ he laughs. ‘I go to the pub, play foot­ball, go to gigs, watch TV (he’s just fin­ished sea­son three of True De­tec­tive), pretty nor­mal things. There’s no “se­cret life”. But, ul­ti­mately, I worry about find­ing the next job; that’s the truth. In the midst of ev­ery­thing, there’s al­ways that feel­ing of “I’m never go­ing to work again”. It’s a cliché, but you can’t just sit there wait­ing for the phone to ring. You have to try to take con­trol. You’re at the mercy of the things you seek out – the di­rec­tors and the con­nec­tions – so I try to be as on top of that as I can and read what I’m sent and be dis­cern­ing. I try to pick wisely and fol­low up on peo­ple and leads that I’m in­ter­ested in.’

Is there an end point he wants to get to, when he’ll feel like he’s made it? ‘Things have cer­tainly shifted in my twen­ties,’ he says. ‘Suc­cess to me now is do­ing things that make me happy and that make me feel ful­filled, do­ing what I want to do and be­ing on the right track. Not in terms of a results-based track, but just do­ing some­thing I love.’ He pauses and smiles. ‘That sounds a bit sen­ti­men­tal, doesn’t it?’

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