JUST YOUR AVERAGE JOE
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
‘YOU CAN’T JUST SIT THERE WAITING FOR THE PHONE TO RING’
‘SUCCESS TO ME IS DOING THINGS THAT MAKE ME HAPPY’
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?’