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The Look

The Unstoppable Rise Of Mr Joe Alwyn

Why you will be seeing a lot more of the British actor in the near future

Fame is a funny thing, able to operate on different frequencies at once. Mr Joe Alwyn is a case in point. On the one hand, the 27-year-old British actor is still in the rising firmament – he’s not causing riots on the Tube quite yet. On the other, he is living through something exceptional, the subject of a million clicks. Who is this actor whose very first film was not only directed by Mr Ang Lee, but featured him in the leading role? Who has already modelled a campaign for Prada? And who has for the best of two years been the other half of Ms Taylor Swift? Not bad for someone who, by his own admission, “only left school about three years ago”. The star is born, but we blinked and missed the conception.

This winter you can see Mr Alwyn in the cinema three times, which goes some way to reminding us what a very good actor he is. In the gay conversion drama Boy Erased, in the feminist retelling of Mary Queen Of Scots and in the wacky period intrigues of The Favourite, he capitalises on that first incredible leap forward, when Mr Lee cast him, straight out of drama school, in 2015’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk. Back then, he had sent in a tape, was shipped out to New York for a weekend and ended up staying two weeks (the film’s producer had to go out to buy him new underwear). By the end of it, he was a Hollywood lead.

“I really do owe everything to the first film that I got, and the breaks that came with that. I’m very aware that I’m very lucky that I’ve had these opportunities, and quickly,” says Mr Alwyn, who is polite, personable and determinedly down-to-earth, in a well-bred north London way. But here’s the thing: although he claims to be surprised, he actually doesn’t sound it. The key to his rise is probably his startling self-possession. The idea, for instance, that he might be on a rollercoaster ride is always kept to a determined minimum. “You just do the things you’ve always done,” he says with a shrug. Sitting in the restaurant of a smart London hotel, getting ready to do a junket, he looks utterly suited to the job at hand, although there is a sense of illusion to it. “I don’t own any of these clothes,” he laughs cheerfully, of his chic sandy-coloured jacket or his sweater with “interesting” holes. Then again, that in itself is indicative – he’s clearly most at ease in a role.

The films, then. In one he is a courtier, in another he’s a troubled soul, and in the third he’s a courtier with a troubled soul. It’s the latter which is the most straightforward for him. In Mary Queen Of Scots, Mr Alwyn plays Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, the favourite of Queen Mary’s great rival, Queen Elizabeth I. Under Ms Josie Rourke’s direction, Mr Alwyn has the conventional role, a paragon of romantic love and loyalty. It could have been different: there’s a persistent rumour that the Earl pushed his wife down the stairs. In Ms Rourke’s telling, though, he’s the royal court’s sole decent bloke. “There’s definitely a darkness that could be there as well,” admits Mr Alwyn, and though he is only deeply complimentary about the project, you soon sense that he wouldn’t be averse to a little action on a staircase.

Boy Erased is an adaptation of the memoir of Mr Garrard Conley, relaying his experiences of gay conversion therapy in the Deep South this century, a deeply troubling system that continues even today. “It’s just crazy,” says Mr Alwyn. “The fact that those places still exist in some 36 states, and that [US Vice President] Mike Pence is on record speaking in favour of them, is just absolutely mad.” Mr Alwyn’s character, Henry, seems a pretty clear product of repression and homophobia; it leads him to do something terrible. “He’s kind of shiny on the outside, the all-American good guy, and then obviously kind of deeply cracked underneath. I like those contrasts.”

All of which leads us to The Favourite. In Mr Yorgos Lanthimos’ hands, the private life of Queen Anne, who died in 1714, becomes a darkly funny love triangle filled with sadism, lesbianism and a menagerie of pet rabbits. Ms Olivia Colman, as Queen Anne, and Ms Rachel Weisz and Ms Emma Stone have the peach parts, but Mr Alwyn has nearly as much fun as Baron Masham, a courtier in love with Ms Stone. Or, as Mr Alwyn puts it, an “airhead”.

Rehearsals didn’t involve analyses of Stuart history or their characters’ motivation, but rolling around the floor, screaming, singing, switching parts and tying their bodies together instead. “It was fun,” says Mr Alwyn matter-of-factly. And the results are no less surprising. What looks set to be a conventional ballroom scene turns into a weird avant-garde bump’n’grind; Mr Alwyn even seems to break-dance.

“The thing I like about it is that Yorgos has completely thrown out the textbook on what a period drama is,” says Mr Alwyn. “Who knows what it was like back then? It probably wasn’t as refined as we think it is, or as it’s often performed. It can be quite tidy… the edges can be sanded off a bit.”

What about his edges, though? Scratch as you can, Mr Alwyn presents a resolutely smooth exterior. This seems part temperament, part design. The son of a documentary filmmaker father and a psychotherapist mother, he might seem well-equipped for a job all about studying and empathising with other people. He knows this, but only because everyone has started telling him so. “I’m not good at answering these questions because I’ve never really thought about them,” he offers apologetically. He struggles to think what each parent gave him (he has a brother, too), eventually settling on his height (he’s a lithe 6ft 1in) and slight sarcasm from his dad; he says he doesn’t have anything “really mad and crazy in terms of hobbies”. Well, do you like football? “Football? Yeah. Am I allowed to say those kinds of things?”

Suffice to say that Mr Alwyn is aggressively, determinedly normal. He doesn’t consider himself famous, the attention hasn’t been overwhelming (“maybe bits and pieces at a time – it’s been a readjustment”) and he doesn’t even think he’s had to fight for his privacy, even what with dating you-know-who.

“I don’t think more than anyone else. I don’t think anyone you meet on the streets would just spill their guts out to you, therefore why should I? And then that is defined as being ‘strangely private’. Fine. But I don’t think it is. I think it’s normal.”

The next normal thing in his life is a drama about the slave-turned-abolitionist heroine Ms Harriet Tubman, an African-American saint to many. Is it true he’s playing a slave owner? “I am. I’m not playing Harriet, not this time,” he says wryly. To be clear, Mr Alwyn’s small CV already includes a Nazi, a slave owner, a rapist and an airhead. He laughs when they’re all lined up. “I mean, I don’t feel like they’re just bad, bad people,” he volunteers. “And I do think it’s interesting to look at the bigger picture of why people are the way they are.” With just a couple of honourable exceptions, of course.

The Favourite is out now; Mary Queen Of Scots is out 18 January; Boy Erased is out 8 February