The thoughtful actor opens up about masculinity, individuality and working with Wes Anderson (for two days)...
Rising, or rather catapulting, to fame in 2017 after the Netflix pick-up of Channel 4 hit show The End of the F***ing World, Alex Lawther has since entered the realms of highly-sought-after silver screen star. At just 24, he’s been the lead in a Black Mirror episode, dismantled privilege in Old Boys, turned Francophile for The Translators and has even got a Wes Anderson credit under his belt, all the while remaining refreshingly modest and uniquely thoughtful. As far from the stereotype of masculinity as his EOTFW character James is, Alex actively seeks to challenge himself in both his professional and personal lives. As an always quoted ‘white middle-class male’, privilege to him is “a daily thing that one should be conscious of moment-to-moment…to make sure one is not taking too much space”. As involved in activism as he is acting, Alex Lawther is a rare kind of ordinary and extraordinary: approachable and kind, but overwhelmingly impressive in equal parts. We meet Alex at the HUNGER studio as he readies his return in The End of the F***ing World‘s long-awaited season 2 to hear all about the journey so far…
Do you remember the moment you fell in love with cinema?
I remember doing plays and shows with friends at school, and always looking forward to drama lessons. I think I never anticipated becoming an actor because it was just something I was only ever doing for pleasure, but then fortunately when I was 16 I got to act professionally for the first time. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’d never thought about a future in acting at first: you just do it because you love it.
Did you have much of a cultural upbringing?
I mean some people are proper immersed in culture since they were like 10 years old. My mum’s side of the family loved music and loved dressing up. On Halloween, we’d go trick-or-treating and I think she would enjoy it more than her kids did. She had this witch get-up and would apply fake warts to her face with green face make-up and a broom. I was always used to the fun of dressing up and being silly. But no, nothing really academic about the culture. I was introduced to dressing up boxes rather than box sets.
You’ve spoken before about your experiences growing up as a white middle-class male, a quote which gets pulled up for you quite a lot. How do you think privileged people should address their privilege?
It means that we’ve got to be aware of our own privileges. I remember doing that interview and the writer, I don’t think it was him that chose the header, but I think he was asking me about a play I was doing at the time, which was a story probably furthest away from my own life experience. It was a play called ‘The Jungle’, which was set in a refugee and migrant camp in Calais in France. We had a wonderful cast of about 20 actors, some were first-time actors, some were actors who had come through Calais to claim asylum in the UK themselves. Some had been in the UK for 10 years but had originally come here as refugees, and through the process of the play, they applied for British citizenship or received it in order to work abroad. One cast member was a Syrian actor who had been living in Britain for over a decade, but Trump has particular rules about who he lets into the country… But we got past those rules. In everyday life, I suppose the first thing is just checking one’s self for privilege all the time and then giving space to others. I think it’s a daily thing that one should be conscious of, moment-to-moment, but just make sure one is not taking too much space and sharing the space.
What does masculinity mean to you?
That’s such a big question, masculinity. I suppose it’s something that affects everyone, women and men and everyone outside of that binary as well… It’s a part of this gender construct that when it becomes toxic ends up being harmful to everybody. But it feels like we live in a time where stuff is getting made that is examining that and that’s really cool.
You have been involved with Extinction Rebellion and other activism, how do you feel those socio-political causes you care about fit into your acting work?
I suppose it’s always really energising when work also aligns with your social beliefs, I hesitate labelling XR political because climate change is just a fact. I mean what they’re aiming for is a rebellion against the government and government inaction. In that sense, politics are involved but actually it’s saying here are the facts that the scientists have been saying for the last 40 years and here’s what we know can we please do something about it?
Do you think about that when you choose roles?
When I read something it’s about the gut instinct you have, and that gut instinct is probably going to be swayed if that story is someway aligned with how I see the world.
Do you think they can have an impact on these issues, there can be change through art?
I hope so. I hope it’s always a question. Sometimes change is enough so that someone goes to see a play or watch a movie and then they go home and google that thing they didn’t know about. They might talk to their friends about it in the pub and that is still something. Whether doing a play about climate change is going to get Boris Johnson off his ass but I’m not sure. I don’t know if Boris Johnson goes to the theatre, I wish he would because it would maybe get him to at least start thinking about things and it seems like there’s no thinking going on. It’s also nice because it can galvanize a group of people and that might not seem like a lot of experience because it sometimes feels like we’re a bit alone with our beliefs, worries and anxieties about things that are going on in the world. Theatre and film are opening up those spaces for dialogue really well, as well as being a place to take your mind away from the situation which is important too.
End of the F***ing World has had global fame, why do you think it’s been so universally appreciated?
I think because it’s so weird. I’m so proud of its strangeness. I think it was a massive surprise for us because we were aware of this strangeness and we didn’t realise that it would please so many people in different ways, that’s such a nice thing but why I have no idea… I really enjoy the show so I get to say, I feel very close to James and Alyssa as characters, and Bonnie too. It is heartbreaking because when I try and work out what all the characters do, they’re trying to connect with each other and often failing miserably. I think that is really touching and reaches a lot of people and really touches me. Charlie’s [Covell, the show’s screenwriter] genius is being able to take something really sensitive and make it into a really engaging, funny, bizarre thing so you don’t even realise that your being affected by these youngsters and you’re already on their side. From the outside, you might not think you would be I mean he’s a self-diagnosed teen psychopath and Alyssa is Alyssa, yeah it was a surprise…
Although he’s a self-proclaimed psychopath, are there ways you relate to your character James in the End of the F***ing World?
Yeah because he’s not a psychopath, he’s just a sad boy… He diagnosed himself with that because reality feels much less cool, much more vulnerable.
You’re not on Instagram, publicly anyway, why is that?
No, I’m not, but Jess [Barden] keeps me informed… She sends me memes and stuff, “ah look at this funny thing this crazy kid has done”. I guess, I don’t know, I suppose at first I just hadn’t, I wasn’t on posting things. Then, as you said, people ask you about it so then I started trying to think of a reason why and I suppose I like the idea that you don’t have to be. I get that Jess loves it and she’s really good at it, as a lot of people are. I sometimes think, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ But I think we’re persuaded that we have to have this online presence and I don’t think you do if you don’t want to you don’t have too. And with everything that’s going on, you’re like ‘are they listening?’… I just did a really interesting play about GCHQ and I think I don’t know, I need to ask if the play is based on truth or not… But our phones being tapped without us knowing, makes it sound like a conspiracy films when actually it just shows this is how easy it is to export all of our data and all of our personal information. I’ve got that sticky note over my webcam, I hate that…
Up next you’re in Wes Anderson’s next film… How was that experience?
It was great… I literally did two days in the South of France it was magic. It was a teeny tiny part but I was so happy to have met him, to see how he works. He works with the same cinematographer, the same gaffer, the same grip, the same technical team, more or less I think for the last 5-10 years. Which means they all work as a machine of many parts and they all, they know, they have such a shorthand for each other because then Wes then has a lot of free time for his actors. As a director he’s incredibly present, he’s there with his little monitor and shooting on film. Although it’s you know this big production, he tries to run it feel like as much as a low budget indie film in the sense that everyone, all the actors, they live in the same house and we’d all have dinner together with Wes every evening. Well, I was there only two evenings, but he was there every night sitting at the table, sort of like this big old family… I can’t wait to see it because there’s so much ingenuity involved in everything from the construction of sets and the artistic direction, to the cinematography and set design: it’s so beautiful and there’s a lot of craftsmanship.
What else is coming up next for you?
I’ve got another French film coming out with director Régis Roinsard: he did a film called Populaire a couple of years ago. This is his second film which apparently is based on the bestselling author Dan Brown. There was a story about how he did a secret translation of his book with a group of various translators, and basically willingly they went in an underground bunker for a few weeks away, removed from the internet, phone service, so none of them could leak the stuff online. They all translated this novel into different languages around the world… All I can say is, suddenly everything goes a bit crazy.
End of the F*****g World is out on Netflix now.
5 November 2019