Callum Turner talks to Glass about his ascent to become Hollywood’s next leading man

Glass Man talks to British actor Callum Turner about his ascent from estate kid with a passion for football to Hollywood’s next leading man

From Winter Issue 56

“I’m ready for it,” pauses Callum Turner. “But it took a lot of work to get here”. It was in the corner of an empty café in Marylebone that the actor reached this conclusion about his forthcoming projects. 

For a Monday morning, this sort of self-reflection may have seemed a bit heavy, but the 33-year-old actor has waited more than a decade to get himself to this crucial juncture. The lead in Steven Spielberg’s new series, Masters of the Air. And the lead in George Clooney’s next film, The Boys in the Boat. Put together, the sum of these two projects is an inevitable undeniability of who he is. 

But Turner knows this wasn’t always the case. As he sits across from me, nestled into a pilot jacket with a polished mop of tousled dark hair, I understand how easy it would be to think otherwise. At 6ft 2 with feverishly handsome looks and a laid-back charm, Turner looks like Britain’s answer to Disney’s Prince Charming. As if he was destined to be seen. Except, it was his desire to transcend his appearance that led him here.

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Raised on World’s End estate off Edith Grove in Chelsea to a single mother, Rosemary, a club promoter, his memories are laced with vivid images of New Romantics. “I was actually with my mum last night,” he says. “She just got the home recording tapes made into DVDs. It’s funny because I was watching all these videos and there’s a constant stream of house music in the background.”

He had completely forgotten about the pulsating bass that had sound-tracked his childhood but could clearly recall the faint cheers coming from Stamford Bridge. Despite having witnessed a kaleidoscope of subcultural beats from a young age, it was the latter that played at his heartstrings. Turner’s first love was football. 

“I had this wallpaper and it was the pitch with fans on it,” he remembers. “Then I had two massive stickers of cut-out life-size images of [Chelsea footballers] Marcel Desailly and Dennis Wise.” Envisioning himself in the blue of Chelsea FC, he never took off his tracksuit or Astro trainers. After school, he would walk to the Brunswick Club in Fulham to play centre back for his local youth team. 

It was here that Turner was shaped on and off the pitch. “We were all so naughty and in different kinds of trouble,” he explains, touching upon his old coach, Danny Volino. “He used to do the craziest things to teach us lessons. Like make us wait in the changing room for 30 minutes while he did nothing, just to teach us respect for the rules. It was how we learnt discipline.” 

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Leaving school at 16, however, was not an act of rebellion. The conventional corridors of academia felt slightly claustrophobic, and besides, Turner had managed to gain a place in Fisher Athletic FC. “The set-up was professional but not to the same level. We would train four times a week and play two times a week,” he recalls. 

The catch was he had to attend college in Richmond. “The only reason I went to college was to play football for the team. That was the rule. You either get a job or study.” The 5 am wake-ups, buses to Sloane Square and trains to West Dulwich quickly took their toll. “It only lasted three months. It was just untenable. It was too much. I was getting up so early to go and do the thing that I wanted to do.” By 17, the dream of standing on the pitch he could see from his bedroom window began to fade. 

Film, unlike football, was more of an interest rather than a passion. Like most kids growing up in the ‘90s, his gateway was his local cinema on Fulham Road and Prime Time video rental. But it wasn’t until he watched Shane Meadows’ A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) that something changed in the boy.

“We didn’t really know what it was about,” he says. “Turns out it was quite a violent film. I was shitting myself. It reminded me of the people I grew up with on my estate. It was definitely one where it made me feel something different.”

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Although he slowly began gravitating towards more deeply specific narratives, for a teenager with no experience in drama, acting wasn’t a fallback after football. But modelling was. “My mum’s friend, stylist Sascha Lilic, called me,” he explains. “I was on my way to college and picked up the phone. He was like ‘What are you doing? Do you want to go to Paris tomorrow?’ I remember looking back at this horrible grey building and was like ‘Absolutely’.” What came next were two years of travelling across the world, meeting people and partying – as he puts it. 

Upon his return at 18, a friend on his estate offered him a job at Dover Street Market in the West End. “I had no idea what it was, I just wanted to make some money.” It was at this time he realised he wanted to try acting. In between shifts, he signed up to Casting Call, scouring for auditions and working according to when drama classes were available. “I would work four days a week there, and then three days a week it was about acting. I was so regimented and driven.” 

After a scattershot of minor roles, he finally found himself on the opening credits. But I wondered if he had ever felt like the odds were against him. “Even when I was working in my first professional job, people would say ‘go to drama school’. I did have it in my mind to go but actually, by that point, I had already achieved that thing you go to drama school for and got an agent,” Turner points out.

“I treated the first three years between 22 and 25 as my drama school. I didn’t know if this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I could do it. When I started, I wasn’t amazing, but I liked it. And I liked getting better at it. In those years I did projects like Green Room [2015], Queen and Country [2014] and Glue [2014].” 

Photographer: Edward Cooke

“Can we walk and talk?” asked the actor. Putting our layers back on, we wandered through the backstreets of W1 in the midday sun. Having once navigated the concrete walkways of World’s End, he now effortlessly blends into the refined energy of the upscale neighbourhood we have found ourselves in. 

This change began when he was cast in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald as Theseus Scamander. It wasn’t just the opportunity to join a big-screen fantasy saga or work alongside the likes of Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne, it would be Turner’s biggest acting lesson to date. 

“I learned so much,” he shares. “There’s a balance of caring so much about what you do and then letting it go. What I learnt the most is that you have to hand it over. I learnt a different rhythm of working; doing something in three go’s rather than 10 – having to compress it and just go for it.” 

It was while filming its sequel, the third and final instalment of the wizarding franchise, that the script for Steven Spielberg’s series, Masters of the Air came through. “I auditioned for it in September 2020.” 

“Colleen [Atwood] who was doing the costumes, was also going to do them for Masters. She was very good friends with Gary Goetzmann [executive producer]. She came to me one morning and said ‘Hey buddy, it’s looking good’,” he adds. “I was really excited about it and then didn’t hear anything for two and a half months. I thought it had gone away.” 

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Days before Christmas, Turner received a call to audition again – but this time for the part of Major Gale Clevan. Just before New Year’s, his phone rang again. “You’re not Clevan. You’re Egan.” Turner joined Austin Butler and Anthony Boyle as the leads in the mammoth $250 million budget Apple TV+ war drama that follows the 100th Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Forces from 1943 to 1945. 

“It felt incredible,” affirms Turner. “I’ve wanted to take the responsibility of something on that scale for a long time. It felt so right. All the directors I loved were going to be a part of it. Then [Tom] Hanks, Spielberg and Gary Goetzmann too. These are top level people.” 

Playing Major John Egan was unlike anything Turner had done before. This was a role that demanded in-depth research, respect and an element of pressure to do him justice. “I built this character from everything I read. But John Egan’s 5 ft 5 in real life and I’m 6 ‘2. I’ve got a massive body in comparison,” he says, explaining why he didn’t wish to be a facsimile of the pilot.

“Instead of leaning into being skinny, I was like ‘How would my body react to the diet he was on in the ‘40s and what he was doing?’ So I just got big. I got chubby. I ate shit, drank a lot of alcohol and listened to lots of Irish music.”

He adds, laughing, “You would want to go out with him.” There’s a memorable scene when his character takes the microphone during a barrack party and sings despite his friends’ embarrassment. His preparation had paid off. “The most fun I had was definitely when I was singing.” His karaoke song of choice? Blue Bayou – but Alicia Vikander’s version. 

Photographer: Edward Cooke

“Ultimately he’s a war hero,” Turner acknowledges. “I really wanted to take that character as far as I could the other way, so when it came to what the show is actually about it landed more. This is a very serious matter. It’s about war and why it isn’t good. You can’t repeat the same mistakes. Then again, we’re still human, so it’s showing every colour of that.”

For all the 10 months of hard work Masters of the Air took to film, it was George Clooney’s upcoming biographical rowing drama, The Boys in the Boat, that took the biggest toll on Turner. The story follows the University of Washington rowing team that came to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His part is Joe Rantz. 

Physically, of course, he had to get fitter. His preparation consisted of rowing for two months, four hours a day. But it was emotionally where Turner became more insular, permitting him to understand Rantz’s childhood abandonment. “It affected me a little for sure,” he admits. “You’re tapping into your own experiences. It was when I saw it after that it really hit me.”

I asked his co-star Joel Edgerton what it was like watching Turner tap into this. “I think Callum is a really fascinating and special actor. He has a quality that is relatively rare,” he explains. “When you’re standing opposite him or when you’re watching him, he draws you in, there’s a real sense of curiosity about what’s going through his mind. It feels very human”. 

His performance is bound to awaken audiences to the profound depth of his ability, though he’s keen to credit Clooney for his. “I did my work and he brought his stuff alongside it. It was never a compromise, it was a natural evolution of an idea. He knew that the boundaries were really tight with the performance and I could play within the lines.”

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Edgerton commended his unwavering dedication. “The thing that impressed me most was his full commitment to the work he was doing. On a number of levels, I could tell that he really cared immensely about what he was doing,” emphasising the hours of work it took to become Rantz. 

“He spoke in the accent of the character the whole time, whether he was arriving in the morning for make up, up until he left at the end of the day. So it was strange not so long ago when I caught up with him socially and heard him speak in his British accent. It felt like a surreal experience, like I was meeting a different person”. 

London has been both witness and stage for Turner’s metamorphosis. The city has adorned him with the quiet confidence of someone intimately acquainted with both adversity and aspiration, helping him go from hometown boy to leading man. As Turner walks into the distance, days away from his imminent ascent to cinematic stardom, he leaves me with the impression that he won’t stray too far from the World’s End. 

by Imogen Clark

Photographer: Edward Cooke

Stylist: Sophie Casha

Hair: Tariq Howes

Grooming: Lesley Vye using Boy de CHANEL and CHANEL Sublimage L’Extrait de Nuit

Producer: Aleisha Digby

Production: WMA STUDIOS

Styling assistant: Amirah Goodwin

Location: The Lanesborough Hotel

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