The British musician and actor discusses his latest lead roles – in dark thriller Cordelia and the Bowie biopic Stardust
He’s an actor equipped with “weapons grade animal magnetism” (according to the Observer’s critic Mark Kermode). Over the past decade or so, he has steadily built an enviable CV across film, TV and theatre, flitting seamlessly from edgy contemporary thrillers to classy period adaptations. He’s also a singer and band leader, who has topped off a role in a forthcoming David Bowie biopic by writing and performing a new “Bowie” song. Is there anything Johnny Flynn can’t do?
Chat shows, he says, without missing a beat. “I’m very shy and I get quite overwhelmed. I’ve turned things down in the past on the premise that when the film comes out I’ll have to go on one and I can’t do it! I’ve got over that a little bit, but I’ve been very wary of that type of notoriety.”
His latest film, Cordelia, is a stylish exercise in chamber noir, directed by Adrian Shergold, which puts Flynn’s charisma to use in subverting the comforting stereotypes of boy and girl next door. The eponymous Cordelia (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) is suffering from a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and initially Frank seems just the friend she needs. But for all his friendly, easy-going veneer, he speaks with a slightly lingering intimacy that sends shivers up the back of your neck.
There’s no trace of this menace when our video interview blinks open in his east London home. It’s late, because Flynn has spent all day filming, and he displays a disarming combination of candour and reluctance to make any eye contact at all. “I just want to take risks basically and I thought this [Cordelia] could go really badly wrong, but it could be really interesting,” he says. He was unsure which way it had gone until he sat down to watch the finished film with his mother. “It was encouraging because, in the middle, she said: ‘I can’t stand it because you’re going to be horrible.’”
Frank is the latest in a line of what Flynn calls “my broken-neck roles”, in which you know someone is going to come to a bad end without being quite sure who. In Michael Pearce’s 2017 debut feature, Beast, he was the Heathcliff-like poacher, Pascal, who lights a wildfire under a combustible Jessie Buckley. Their dynamic is so strange and alive, as one critic noted, “that you don’t know which one to look at”.
Two years earlier, he took the theatre by storm as the cocky intruder Mooney in Martin McDonagh’s multi-award-winning Royal Court hit Hangmen, which transferred to the West End and on to New York. McDonagh, who went on to direct the multi-award-winning black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, was unaware of the actor before he turned up to audition for Hangmen “and blew us all away”. What were the qualities that so impressed? “Danger, sex, kindness. A beautiful attention to detail.”
The five years since Hangmen premiered have been as much of a whirl for Flynn as the merry-go-round that opened each episode of 2018’s Vanity Fair, in which he played Dobbin, long-suffering admirer of Amelia Sedley. The TV miniseries was one of three early 19th-century makeovers he filmed in a single year, culminating with his role as Mr Knightley in Autumn De Wilde’s skittish film adaptation of Emma.
Look carefully, Flynn confides, and you’ll spot moments where Knightley looks oddly gaunt. That’s not due to the pain of watching his beloved make a fool of herself, but because the actor spent the last part of the shoot on a crash diet, losing two and a half stone in preparation for a very different role – as David Bowie. Stardust follows Bowie across the US in a beat-up Ford in 1971, just before he found his mojo as Ziggy Stardust. It’s a mark of Flynn’s versatility that you could watch it back to back with Emma without having any idea that the skinny, effeminate wannabe is played by the same actor – or indeed that, at 37, Flynn is 13 years older than Bowie was at the time.
When I say that I enjoyed the film, Flynn is briefly overwhelmed. Its festival premiere was delayed by the Covid pandemic and it’s another high-risk project, not least because it has no Bowie music in it “and we’re potentially going to get a lot of flak from the Bowie army”. The song Flynn wrote for it, as part of his process of psyching up for the role, barely turns a head in the film when Bowie sings it at a convention of vacuum-cleaner salesmen. Of this unflattering reflection, he says: “I don’t think it’s crap, but I knew it didn’t have to be a brilliant song. He had this sense of failure, he wanted to be someone else and hadn’t found a way of capitalising on that yet. So I tried to write this song as Bowie ripping off Lou Reed.”
Flynn himself forsook early Bowie fandom for “a lot of Bob Dylan and old blues and stuff that was trying to be really earnestly authentic when Bowie was all flamboyance and pretence”, a route that led to setting up his own “anti-folk” band, Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit. He accepted the role in Stardust on the basis that director Gabriel Range wasn’t attempting a dogged biopic so much as a portrait of an artist struggling with his demons.
It’s a subject Flynn knows a bit about, having only recently come face to face with one of his own. He was looking into attention deficit disorder on behalf of a friend, when he realised that “I definitely have it”. He tracks the symptoms back to his secondary school days when, as a music scholar, he found it impossible to knuckle down to practise his violin, reducing his teacher to screaming rage. “When I arrived at the school I was playing Bach partitas, and by the time I left I wouldn’t do anything. But it was partly because I couldn’t be in a room on my own and it’s taken me a long time to realise that,” he says.
How does this condition manifest itself today? “I’m not completely in control of time, which I find quite suffocating,” he says. “I have a notebook in my pocket and my computer in the car. I pass the piano on my way out and play a few notes.” He’s not bothered enough to get a formal diagnosis. “It’s good to have this frenetic energy, until I’m asked to sit down for an hour and read a script. I find that really hard. That’s why I think I start loads of different things, but also they all inform and bleed into each other.”
As we speak, he’s a day away from wrapping production on The Score, “a heist musical with a love story in the middle”, constructed from his old songs. In January he premiered a co-authored radio satire on big capital collusion between the US and Russia, Magnitsky the Musical. And he’s busy hatching plans for when the theatres reopen with Matthew Dunster, who directed him in Hangmen and a 2018 West End revival of Sam Shepard’s True West.
Both music and acting run deeply through his family, which remains close even though it was scattered across two continents in his early years. His parents met and married in South Africa, where his mother had grown up and his actor father was touring in a play. Eric Flynn had made a name in musical theatre (he played Bobby in the UK premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Company), and his two sons from his first marriage had already followed him on to the stage. But returning to the UK when Johnny was two years old, he found it hard to regain his perch, so the family led an itinerant life, living in a succession of rented cottages and at one point lodging with an aunt.
After Johnny’s own musical talent became evident when he took up the violin at the age of six, a helpful teacher suggested he try for a music scholarship. With financial help from his half-brother Jerome (of 90s pop duo Robson & Jerome, who is best known today as Bronn in Game of Thrones), he went to board, aged eight, at Pilgrims, a cathedral school in Winchester.
But though his music flourished there, it was an unhappy time. “It was a utilitarian Victorian throwback with a lot of teachers who were bullies, and I was a very gentle, very trusting child,” he says. “I‘ve blocked a lot of it out, but it really broke my heart.” His younger sister, Lillie, who sings in his band, went to the local comprehensive. “I’ve totally forgiven my parents now, but there was a time when I found it very confusing: they loved me, but they sent me away.”
At 12, he won a second music scholarship to a more progressive boarding school, Bedales, where he rebelled by teaching himself the guitar, joining a band and playing old folk songs on his violin rather than Bach partitas. In the sixth form, he teamed up with Beatrice Minns, now a designer for Punchdrunk theatre company, with whom he has three young children. But at first they set off in different directions. While she went to art school, he decided to aim for a career as an English teacher, heeding his father’s insistence that he should on no account become an actor. At the last minute, he changed his mind, turning down a university place to apply for drama school. He was rejected, which he now regards as “a blessing”, because his dad was terminally ill.
By then Flynn’s parents were running a bed and breakfast in west Wales, and he spent half his gap year helping out, while working on a fishing boat. When it was over, he travelled for six months before reapplying for a three-year acting course at London’s Webber Douglas academy. While there, he hooked up again with another school friend, the singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss, AKA Emmy the Great. “She’s the reason why I’m a musician really, because she’d come to London ahead of me and was already in a band, and to me that was the coolest thing. I ended up living on her floor for about a year,” he says.
Before he had even finished his course, the acting offers started coming in. He turned down an invitation to join Edward Hall’s touring theatre company, Propeller, opting instead for a “trashy” ITV drama. Within a year he was starring in an equally trashy time-travel film. “But what I really wanted to do was work in studio theatres, and I came out of that first year saying I wasn’t really living up to my dream.”
He wrote to Hall, begging for another chance, and was cast in international touring productions of two Shakespeare plays. He had already set up his band, and was also running club nights with Emmy the Great. “Brilliant as it was, it nearly killed me,” he says. A record contract offered him an escape route, “so I ran away to do that, and did it exclusively till I got offered a play at the Royal Court”.
That play was Richard Bean’s The Heretic, in which he appeared alongside Juliet Stevenson in 2011, giving a performance as a gangly young climate activist which was hailed as “totally magnetic”. A role opposite Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem followed in 2012, and he went on with Rylance to two all-male Shakespeare productions at the Globe, playing Viola to the older actor’s Olivia and Lady Anne to his Richard III.
His screen career was still stuck in a romcom rut, his boyish good looks making him ideal for romantic leads far younger than himself, “and if it’s boring playing a 24-year-old in love, it’s really boring playing a 16-year-old in love,” he sighs. But once he reached his 30s, that started to shift. In Cordelia as well as Beast, the suggestion of menace is underlined by the camera’s caress of a scar that runs diagonally up from one eyebrow. It was the result of an attack by a dog during a trip back to South Africa when he was three years old, which required “a lot of reconstructive surgery, because there wasn’t much left of my lip and my face”. At first he was self-conscious, but now he considers it “quite cool”, saying: “I’d probably still look like a 16-year-old if I didn’t have it.”
In Cordelia he plays a cellist whose playing can be heard day and night through the ceiling of a mansion-block flat that is home to the title character and her identical twin. When Frank finally appears in person, he shambles along in broad daylight carrying his cello on his back, jokily instructing a dazed Cordelia, who is drinking coffee in a piazza, to “Watch Valerie will you. I wouldn’t want her running off”, while he bumbles off, uninvited, to settle the bill.
From this first encounter it’s clear something is a little bit off, a boundary has been broken, but it’s not the victim narrative you expect. It deals with the shadow side of humanity, he suggests, with trauma that can be direct, inherited or part of a common consciousness. “Especially at the moment, I feel like there’s no clarity. We’re realising about ourselves that we’re all these different shades of grey as we plug into this wider consciousness aided by the internet.”
The fact that it’s a small, claustrophobic film suits Flynn just fine; Stardust has underlined how far his ambitions are from those of a stadium superstar like Bowie. “I’ve been on tour with really big bands like Mumford & Sons, and seen how much crap they have to deal with. I still really love and cherish playing to 100 people in a room and hearing everybody breathing, though obviously it’s not happening right now,” he says.
Though he’ll be back on location early next year for a new TV adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (as Dickie Greenleaf, foil to Andrew Scott’s Ripley), increasingly he’s taking his career into his own hands. He turned down a chance to go with Hangmen to Broadway this year – before the pandemic delayed the transfer – because it would have taken him away from home for too long. “The family is the thing that brings the most shape for me,” he says. “Nothing is as important to me as being a regular part of their lives.”
But that’s not all there is to it. “I’ve started to be really picky because, really, what stories do we need to tell?” he asks. “The world feels like a pressure cooker at the moment, and this thing that I do – acting – often feels very trivial, so I feel I need to do things with urgency. It can be humorous, but it needs to be important to me or to the wider world.”
In particular, he says, “I like things that deal with shifting truths, so that slowly you begin to see things from a different perspective. If you can show that we’re changeable and malleable, and that we’re all damaged, that’s a good thing to be honest about. It’s responsible storytelling for this strange time we’re living through.”
With that he’s off, notebook in pocket, to spend what’s left of a long day with his family.
This article was amended on 18 October 2020 to correct a Vanity Fair plot detail.