‘Your sexuality doesn’t have to define you’
Playing Freddie Mercury’s muse helped Lucy Boynton set a few things straight, she tells Jane Mulkerrins
After production ended on Lucy Boynton’s latest film, Bohemian Rhapsody, the 24-yearold British actress was surprised to find herself dating Freddie Mercury.
The film begins in 1970 when Farrokh Bulsara, a Zoroastrian Indian immigrant (played by Rami Malek), is working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport. By the final scene, set 15 years later, he has become Queen’s lead singer, performing a Live Aid set watched by a packed Wembley Stadium and a TV audience of 1.9billion. When filming wrapped in February, Boynton and Malek started seeing each other.
After watching the film, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Malek as Mercury, who died of Aids-related pneumonia in
1991 at the age of 45; the 37-yearold American actor disappears entirely into the role. Learning to speak – and sing – through prosthetic teeth was only a small step on the way to a transformative performance that Brian May, Queen’s guitarist, has called “flawless”.
“He became Freddie so closely that I assumed many of those idiosyncrasies must be his own,” says Boynton. “Then we started hanging out, and I realised that he could not be more different. Having got to know him better, and then gone back to watch the film, I just think… how?”
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Boynton plays Mary Austin, Mercury’s one-time fiancée, who remained his closest friend and muse long after their romance had dwindled and he was living out his true sexuality. The relationship between the two characters is the emotional heart of a film that has had a far from straightforward journey to the screen.
Talk of a Mercury biopic first began in 2008, to be scripted by The Crown’s Peter Morgan and produced by two of the surviving members of Queen, May and the drummer Roger Taylor. Two years later, Sacha Baron Cohen was said to have been cast as Mercury. But in 2013, he quit, amid reports that he wanted the film to be a “gritty, R-rated tell-all centred around the gifted, gay singer”, while May and Taylor were intent on a more respectful narrative.
In 2015, Anthony McCarten, whose credits include The Theory of Everything, was hired to rewrite the script and the following year Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) signed on to direct. Finally, last year, with Malek installed as the lead, filming began. Yet, even once the shoot was under way, the problems were not over. Last December, Singer was fired for “unprofessional conduct”, and after a six-week break in filming, Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith, Eddie the Eagle) was called in to finish the job.
Though she is far too wise to bad-mouth former colleagues, Boynton calls Fletcher “a godsend” and admits that “it does really bind you as a cast when things take an unexpected turn, to put it politely”.
When I meet Boynton, in the bar of a hotel in West Hollywood, she gently deflects my questions about her relationship with Malek – “I’ll keep you posted” she quips – but reveals that her co-star has retained a few of Mercury’s mannerisms. “You get a gesture here and there sometimes – it’s thrilling,” she says.
Boynton, whose accent is so
RP as to be almost retro, was born in New York – where her British journalist parents, Graham Boynton (The Daily Telegraph’s former travel editor) and Adriaane Pielou, were working – and lived there until they moved to London when she was five.
There, she attended the prestigious James Allen’s Girls’ School, sister school to Dulwich College, but suggests that it wasn’t quite the ego-boost you might expect. “An all-girls school, when you have 800 girls from the age of 11 to 18, you would think, should be a prime opportunity to really inject a sense of confidence and power,” she says. “And instead, we were very much taught in relation to men, in terms of what the brother school would think of us.
“We were always told not to wear skirts that were too short, because what will the male teachers think of you? Or, when we started sharing classes with boys in sixth form, what will they think of you if you are wearing a miniskirt to lessons? That becomes so deeply ingrained in your psyche that you do begin to wonder, is it my fault if someone then objectifies me?”
‘At school, we were told: if you wear short skirts, what will the male teachers think?’
At the same time, Boynton’s acting career was taking off. With no professional experience, she scored her first role aged 11, as the young Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter, alongside Renée Zellweger. Then, she played Posy Fossil in the adaptation of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, and Margaret Dashwood in the BBC serial of Sense and Sensibility. She has since negotiated the transition from child to adult roles, starring last year as Countess Helena Andrenyi in Murder on the Orient Express.
Landing the role of Mary Austin in Bohemian Rhapsody gave her pause before signing on, not least because the real-life Austin, now 68 years old, declined to be involved. “It must be a very odd thing, having strangers tell the story of someone you knew better than anyone,” says Boynton. “I would really just like to calm those nerves. I have a letter that I have written to her, which I will send if there does come a time at which I am allowed to contact her.”
The film’s early trailer (viewed more than five million times in the first 24 hours) was criticised for “straight-washing” Mercury’s sexuality, showing him flirting
A KIND OFLucy Boynton in Bohemian Rhapsody, with co-star and boyfriend, Rami Malek, left; below, in Miss Potter, 2006