Introducing a man to watch for the next quarter century, Brit actor Joe Alwyn, star of Ang Lee’s upcoming Iraq War epic
In an issue dedicated to considerations of the past, a new name to look out for: 25-year-old Brit Joe Alwyn is about to be very famous indeed as the star of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel set during the Iraq War
In the spring of 2015, Joe Alwyn was a drama student in London. He’d just signed with an agent, who suggested he audition for the director Ang Lee’s new film. (Lee is the man, in case you didn’t know, behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), among other Oscar-winners.)
“I got my dad to tape some [audition] scenes in my room,” remembers the 25-yearold, “and asked some friends to tape me in my lunch break at drama school, and I sent the tapes to America.” Two days later, he was on a plane to New York to read in person for Lee and the casting director for Lee’s next project, an adaptation of the best US novel so far to come out of the Iraq War, Ben Fountain’s critically revered Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Alwyn was auditioning for the part of Billy.
Lee and the casting director kept Alwyn in New York, asking him to try different scenes, then took him to Atlanta to read more in make-up and costume in front of the 3D cameras to be used for the film proper, then eventually — perhaps sympathetically — put him on a plane back to London. In bed the next night, he got another call telling him the part was his. Four days later he dropped out of drama school. According to Alwyn, it was “a very strange week”, an understatement that perfectly reflects his unassuming demeanour.
It isn’t often one gets to meet someone in the days before they go from regular person to international star. Joe Alwyn is about to be everywhere, and yet no one’s ever heard of him. (Also in Billy Lynn: Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel and Steve Martin.) Alwyn grew up in north London with a filmmaker father and psychotherapist mother, and never really exhibited a desire to act at first. “I was never the loud kid, the precocious kid,” he says. “In my mind, the idea of an actor was one of those people who put themselves out there all the time. I was, and am, more introverted, I guess.”
However, the desire soon grew throughout his education. He acted whenever he could at school and, in addition to English literature, studied drama at Bristol University, taking numerous productions to Edinburgh as an undergraduate. The dramatic career began in earnest at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, but when he sent those tapes to Ang Lee in the States, he was still very much an unknown quantity.
It’s this rawness that may have given Alwyn the edge for the role of Billy Lynn. The film tells the story of a teenage soldier who comes home a hero after a particularly grisly battle in Iraq, and is presented to America on a tour culminating in an extravagant halftime live show at a Thanksgiving Day football game. It’s the story of a young man — a boy, really — thrown into a world he doesn’t yet understand and then presented on a pedestal to the world: parallels with Alwyn’s own story are obvious.
“There’s an echo [between his and Billy’s stories], and I was aware of that. Ang likes his actors to be raw. They’re unformed and have no habits in front of the camera. You’re just trying to be truthful to the situation, rather than having any knowledge of how a film set works, and you have no barriers up,” he says.
In the movie, when the dazzle of the stadium pyros have faded, Billy goes back to reality. Joe Alwyn’s time in the limelight is just beginning. We’ll next see him in a BBC production of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending starring alongside Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Emily Mortimer. Beyond that, he doesn’t know, but Alwyn isn’t fazed either way: “People who I don’t know so well expect things to have changed a lot, like something huge has shifted in me. And I don’t feel that at all.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is in cinemas on 6 January 2017