An actor on the rise – Alex Lawther

Glass talks to actor Alex Lawther about his sterling ascent on stage and screen

Alex Lawther began swapping school plays for professional acting roles at just 16, when – having never attended drama school – he landed the lead role in David Hare’s play, South Downs. Four years later, the Hampshire-born Lawther has gone on to appear in The Imitation Game (where he played the young Alan Turing), X+Y, and most recently the play, Crushed Shells and Mud.

His latest film, Departure, directed by Andrew Stegall, in which he stars alongside Juliet Stevenson, opens at cinemas in March next year. Glass spoke to him just days before he was due to fly to New York, to play the lead role (Billy Bloom) in Trudie Styler’s film adaptation of James St James’ bestseller Freak Show.

Alex LawtherAlex Lawther. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You’re going straight from Crushed Shells and Mud into your next role in Freak Show, that’s not much of a break. Can you tell us about your new role?
No, but it’s sort of good, I think, to go into something straight away. Your head is already in that quite creative and imaginative place. It’s a film called Freak Show, and I play the lead, Billy Bloom, this 17 year old in America, who has dedicated his life to being fabulous, and is sort of a drag queen in training.

Do you find it hard to get your head out of one character and into the next?
I don’t find it too hard to switch. There are some characters that I miss more than others when I no longer get to play them. It’s sort of like … some people you get closer to than others. But in terms of starting new jobs, it’s all new people, new actors, new directors, new stories – and so in my head, the character is quite quickly replaced.

Alex LawtherAlex Lawther. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

It’s interesting that you describe missing your characters as you would real people and missing some more than others, is there one that stands out for you particularly from your work so far?
For my first job, I played a boy called John Blakemore in a David Hare play called South Downs. That character was also at school. He was precocious but he had a very bad time at school because he kept asking questions and could never understand why things had to be so.

I don’t think I was John Blakemore but there was so much about how he thought about the world … And also it was my first job. It was a really beautiful first job, with beautiful people, and a wonderful director, and David Hare’s writing. It’s sort of like you get to hold these people’s hands for a while – these characters – or you put them in your pocket, and then you have to let them go.

It was my first experience of doing that and it was quite upsetting. It was also my first job and I’d made friends with the cast, and then I had to go back to school to finish my A levels. So I went back to school for six months and barely went outside, just studied, did my exams, and, very fortunately, starting working again.

Alex LawtherAlex Lawther. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Did you do much acting as a child?
I did plays and wrote things at school. We had a sort of illegitimate drama club at school which had no teacher provision. We got into a lot of trouble for that and, eventually, it was shut down because parents rang up to say, “My child’s had such a lovely time at drama club, who’s supervising it?” And then the school said, “We don’t have a drama club”…

Who do you admire as an actor and what do you think of as good acting?
I really admire Sally Hawkins. I think in everything she does, she’s almost transparent, so alive. She’s amazing to watch. I really admire Ben Whishaw’s work too, he’s always electric – just a fascinating person in any scene he’s in. I admire so many people.

I remember speaking to an actor about a year ago, and he’d been working for a long time, and he said “I’m really jealous of you because you’ve come from that world of school plays and doing plays just because you want to, with your friends.” He said how much he missed that. From my experience, a good actor has the work as their sole focus and that sense of working for the joy of the work

Alex LawtherAlex Lawther. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Are there certain things you do to prepare for a role?
It varies according to the specifics of a role. This next role [Billy Bloom, Freak Show] is going to be very physically different from who I recognise myself as, and who they are physically in the world …

From a broader perspective, when I get a script, I try to kind of break the script down into its component parts to find out what happens. Then I try to put that all back together again to find out what my character is doing within that, and what is happening to get what it is that he wants. That is the base of it for me – want, action, emotion.

What are your hopes for the future?
I’d like to carry on being able to do roles that I feel I’m a bit scared of and I feel I could learn a lot from because I think I’m most happy when I’m learning something. I’d like to do some classic plays … all the answers that any 20-year-old actors would probably say really!

I’d like to carry on doing interesting stories and working with interesting people. I hope I get to continue to work, that would be lovely. That would be ideal.

by Tara Wheeler

Photographs: Justin van Vliet