Fresh from his jaw-dropping turn in Emma, the chameleonic actor talks to Maybelle Morgan about dealing with fame, loving his characters’ flaws and transforming into Bowie for the big screen.
Recently, Johnny Flynn has had the curious sensation of being watched. Not a slow-building Rear Window Hitchcockian terror. But a startling realisation that dawns on you almost immediately, and can only come from another’s eyes suddenly meeting your own. It wasn’t long ago that the actor was sitting in his east London living room when, without warning, his own gaze — eyes magnified in size and plastered on a film poster flanking the side of a bus — loomed through his window like a sinister Great Gatsby T.J. Eckleburg motif.
“From our couch in the living room, there’s a bit of glass at the top of the window that isn’t frosted, and there’s a bus stop opposite, and suddenly I’m just peering down at myself through the window,” he chuckles when we meet in a hotel in Soho. “I nearly fell off my bike when I saw it riding around London.”
The film poster in question touts the impeccably stylish reboot of Jane Austen’s Emma, masterminded by prolific music photographer Autumn de Wilde (known for her work with Childish Gambino and the White Stripes), and sees the 36-year-old actor don a top hat as romantic lead, George Knightley. It’s an adaptation that has already been widely lauded; a dose of sugary, fondant-covered escapism for a time when reality outside has never been more uncertain.
(LEFT) Turtleneck and coat BALENCIAGA
(RIGHT) Shirt and trouser FENDI, vest ZIMMERLI, belt ROCHAS
Turtleneck and coat BALENCIAGA
Shirt and trouser FENDI, vest ZIMMERLI, belt ROCHAS
Flynn knows that instances like this are only going to become more and more commonplace; an occupational hazard for someone whose rise to Hollywood notoriety has, up to this moment, been steady and measured, but has now hit boiling point – especially since the announcement of what will no doubt be the role of a lifetime. Flynn will play a young David Bowie in forthcoming biopic Stardust, out later this year. One of the most influential, trailblazing music icons of all time, Bowie (and the various incarnations of his fluid identity) subverted and permanently redefined the world’s perception of sexuality, style, and genre. Bowie was a truly chameleonic performer – something with which Flynn is all too familiar. A certified master-of-all-trades, Flynn deftly traverses screens both big and small and West End stages, all the while maintaining a successful music career as a folksy troubadour. Sometimes the two even seamlessly overlap (he sings in scenes in Emma and also penned a song for the soundtrack).
On-screen, his skin-shedding range has seen him cover a multitude of bases and characters. In beloved Channel 4-turned-Netflix series Lovesick, he plays the good-humoured nice guy who has to regretfully inform past one-night stands that he has chlamydia; and in eerie indie film Beast he lurks as a violent and potentially murderous drifter, loosely based on the “Beast of Jersey” that terrorised the island in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Time and time again, he has immersed himself in period drama: from loyal colonel William Dobbin in ITV’s glossy rendition of Vanity Fair, to the loathsome Félix Tholomyès in the BBC miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables. He even injected a dose of rebel-rebel into a spritely portrayal of a young Albert Einstein in National Geographic’s biographical show Genius. “I tend to get cast as sort of everyman characters,” Flynn observes mysteriously when I question him on whether there is a method in the madness of his roles so far. “[I’m] the character [that] the audience has to live through or project themselves onto, and I like playing characters where there’s stuff to hide behind or lean into.” He tells me he is enamoured by characters with flaws —or, as he calls them, “crinkles” — and he seeks out people who are possibly hiding “demons, but [that are] also relatable through their vulnerability.”
Born in his mother’s native South Africa, Flynn’s family — who campaigned for the end of apartheid — left the country when he was just two years old, subsequently moving around a lot. London. Hampshire. Wales. His father was also an actor, mainly in West End musicals, and his mother was a painter and ceramicist. His older half-brother Jerome Flynn lit up our screens as deadpan Bronn in the HBO series Game of Thrones. He attributes one teacher in particular with igniting his love of acting around the age of 16 at a liberal Hampshire boarding school to which he won a music scholarship. “I was with this teacher who taught me Emma for A-level actually,” Flynn remembers. “He used to direct us in scenes from plays that we were studying, and he’d get up and perform things. I think I just realised that I wanted to be inside stories and tell them from the inside, because I wanted to feel things that the characters felt.” He adds fondly: “It’s always been powerful for me.”
Waistcoat and shirt ROCHAS, trousers HERMES
Waistcoat and shirt ROCHAS, trousers HERMES
For Flynn, choosing a role goes much deeper than ticking a box for his portfolio. It is a considered process. He describes his character George Knightley in Emma as “kind and of the earth,” and the film makes a point of displaying Knightley’s proximity to nature. He is a kindred spirit to Flynn, who agrees that “there’s an absence in modern living as we tip into a situation where most of the world now lives in an urban situation.We’re disconnecting from the Earth and we need to reconnect to save the planet, and harvest compassion for trees and animals.”
In real life, he is soft-spoken and almost otherworldly, a spell broken as our conversation continues, his eyes and hand gestures animating amiably whenever he is impassioned. Over the course of our conversation he talks about Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Little Women three times, lauding it as a “powerful feminist narrative,” and making jokes about his wife “fancying the sexy French man” from its cast. He is also frank and earnest, and voices concerns regarding a previous interview, musing on whether he’d answered questions about diversity in Emma responsibly and eloquently enough (he had). He also talks about his craft in-depth, not in a pompous, self-aware way, but in a way that is contemplative and mindful, positioning the audience as someone he fundamentally has a responsibility to. It was this sense of duty that meant that when he first heard there was a film being made about the legendary Bowie, he wasn’t interested – undoubtedly an alien concept to a generation of young actors who would leap through panes of glass for such a life-changing opportunity.
“I thought, ‘You can’t do that! He’s too great an artist and too important and you can’t pay enough respect to his legacy,’” Flynn remembers. But then, director Gabriel Range came on board. A journalist and filmmaker known for his acclaimed political documentaries, Range took Flynn out for drinks after seeing him in a play in New York, and pitched him his vision for the film. As fate would have it, Flynn had been to see a Bowie exhibition that very same day and was entranced by the musical icon’s iridescent threads of influences. “It was incredible that he decided to put French chanson with New York punk and crazy couture, and what he was influenced by in the early ‘70s created these bizarre and fantastic stories and universes for people,” Flynn’s eyes glimmer as he observes. “It’s like, where did that come from? This suburban kid from Bromley.” Rather than an overambitious, sweeping biopic, Stardust is set to be a snapshot that will chronicle Bowie’s first road trip to the US, where he listens to Iggy Pop for the first time, goes to his first Velvet Underground gig, meets Andy Warhol and, indeed, discovers his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. “David’s in Middle America with long hair wearing this dress and being snubbed everywhere and not taken seriously, and he hasn’t got his shit together and he goes there and sees all these things,” explains Flynn. “And he goes home at the end of the film and puts it together, and the last moment of the film you just see the very beginning of Ziggy. And so, it’s just a moment. That’s the story that is so important to people who are trying to find their voice, and it spoke to me as an artist looking for a story that I can tell.”
(LEFT) Jacket, shirt and jeans CELINE
(MIDDLE) Full look GUCCI
(RIGHT) Jacket, shirt and trousers ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Jacket, shirt and jeans CELINE
(MIDDLE) Full look GUCCI
Jacket, shirt and trousers ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Flynn lost about two stone for the role, skipping breakfast for several months, trying on “weird teeth and contact lenses,” and going through a myriad of tests. “It was the first time I had to really devote myself to not just physically changing, but that level of going into somebody was a lot to get my head around,” he adds.
He admits that he feels the pressure and is nervous about the film’s reception, which like every beloved historical retelling is bound to draw scrutiny from some super fans. But there is no doubt that the film will be a success. It’s an irresistible smorgasbord, uniting Flynn’s Midas touch with Bowie’s timeless appeal and the industry’s current predilection for biopics of musical greats. Let’s not forget Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody landing Rami Malek (who played Freddie Mercury) an Oscar for Best Actor last year.
The roles are rich and textured, and thickly pouring in, with the actor appearing to spin several big-name projects at any given time – to whatever degrees of completion. In other buzzy news, Flynn is also set to star opposite Fleabag’s Andrew Scott as rich playboy Dickie Greenleaf in the upcoming Showtime TV adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that Flynn is one of the most hard-working actors in Hollywood right now.
As our conversation draws to a close, we circle back to where we started, and I nudge him on whether he thinks life will soon be irrevocably changed, especially now he has hit household name status and his face so ubiquitous it has even begun encroaching on his own living room. “I mean I do worry about that, and I value my anonymity and I try to make decisions that maintain that, as I certainly wouldn’t want that to impact my family,” he admits. “I feel because of the way I lead my life or even when I play gigs, the way I relate to audiences, I hope I treat everyone like a friend. I’m interested in people; I don’t see separation between myself and other people. I see friends gain notoriety and they feel like they have to rush around in dark glasses, and I’ll never stop just kind of being in the world, and hopefully that will reflect in the way I’m treated in the world. I’m not interested in being famous or going to Hollywood or being a movie star. I’m just interested in doing good work.”