Interview: Alex Lawther on 'The End Of The F***ing World'.
On the phone, British actor Alex Lawther is polite ("How is it going in New Zealand? How is the weather? Thank you for speaking so early in the morning!" / "Get some sleep! Go to bed! Good night!"), pensive ("The more you find out about the world, the less you know about the world"), and personable ("Platforms, that’s such a funny word, such a 21st century word") - rather unlike any of his renowned on-screen characters, such as self-declared psychopath James in 'The End Of The F***ing World', or a paedophiliac protagonist in the 'Black Mirror' episode 'Shut Up And Dance'. And although he's prone to swearing every few minutes, conversation with Lawther is more likely to include him thanking you for "such an erudite question" (read: this is a real thing that actually did happen), than talk of murderous thoughts and illegal activity.
London's Evening Standard proclaimed Lawther "the next Ben Whishaw" back in 2013, accompanied by some glowing praise of his stage debut (in David Hare’s play 'South Downs') from none other than Dame Maggie Smith: "Most of us spend our lives trying to do what you’ve achieved." And for his role as a young Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game', Lawther was awarded the London Film Critics' Circle Award for Young British Performer Of The Year, and The Evening Standard last year, again, reviewed him as "excellent" in critically acclaimed play, 'The Jungle', about the Calais refugee camp.
Needless to say, this is but the beginning of the rest of Lawther's life of receiving highly complimentary recommendations.
We talked to Lawther recently while he was on-set in France, to discuss his upcoming and recent projects...
...falling in love for the first time, or just meeting another human being who makes you feel strongly about something for the first time, it’s so fucking scary that it can feel like the end of the world.
COUP DE MAIN: How's filming gone for your new film 'Les Traducteurs'?
ALEX LAWTHER: We’re on week two now, and it’s my first time working in France, in the French language. I couldn’t really have asked for a nicer bunch of people to have that first slightly daunting experience with. Régis Roinsard, who made a film called ‘Populaire’ a couple of years ago, is directing this, and he’s intelligent and kind, and it’s nice, because it’s quite a collective ensemble piece, and it’s nice to be with a gang of Europeans hanging out in Paris doing the movie. It's really lovely.
CDM: You had to learn French for the film, right?
ALEX: Basically. I mean, I could always speak a little bit, I’ve got some French friends that have helped me over the years get my French a bit better. But no, I’m not fluent, but I’m getting better every day. For the film, my character is a translator from the French language to the English language, so his French is much better than mine - so it’s been a challenge, but I think it’s going to be okay.
CDM: I’m proud of you.
ALEX: Thank you!
CDM: Real talk: 'The End Of The F***ing World' is so good! I wanted to binge-watch it all in one day but my flatmate wouldn't let me because she didn't want it to end too fast. What were your first thoughts while reading the script?
ALEX: <laughs> My first thoughts were, ‘This is really weird and I love it.’ And then I read it again and thought, ‘Wow, it’s actually really funny.’ And then I read it for a third time and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s really sad.’ Those two things, very funny and very sad, are things that I find myself drawn to very often, so I was really thrilled when they wanted me to be a part of it.
CDM: James is a self-diagnosed psychopath, but seems to be trying out psychopathic traits in a similar way to how a non-American might watch an American TV show and try to assimilate themselves to American culture. Do you think that a person's personality can be something they choose for themselves?
ALEX: That’s very interesting! That’s such an erudite question, thank you. I think when we’re teenagers especially, though I don’t know if it ever stops really-- we spend our life trying on different types of masks and seeing if they fit, and seeing if they suit us, and if other people buy into them or not - if other people take us for what we’re trying to pretend to be. I think James’ own self-diagnosis as a psychopath is in the world of 'The End Of The F***ing World’, this sort of strange world that we’ve created. For him, it’s easier to accept that reality because the facts in his mind add up - he doesn’t really seem to feel much, he spent some time when he was younger killing small animals, he has a real lack of emotional attachment to his Dad - it’s easier to accept, or cooler to accept and give himself a sort of badass psychopath diagnosis, than perhaps the potentially less cool but more human diagnosis, that he’s a sad lost boy. That he feels too much, rather than he doesn’t feel anything at all. And so, yes, I think that there is a sense that we can fill the space that other people give us, and we can end up, as a way of coping, coming up with very strange mechanisms in order to do that. So yeah, I think it is possible that a problem can manifest itself in a very confusing way, especially when you’re a teenager, and I think James calling himself a psychopath, it’s sort of easier and less painful than maybe a more likely truth. We want to be individuals, and we want to be capable of being - particularly young men - tough, unaffected, and strong. James suffered such trauma, and eventually he’s forced to face that, but at the beginning when we first meet him, he’s come up with a very complicated way of avoiding real life. Alyssa forces him to face the adult world for the first time, head-on.
CDM: And everything is so heightened when you're a teenager.
ALEX: That’s very true.
CDM: What's your most vivid teenage memory?
ALEX: Oh, that’s a good question too. I guess just everything always feeling like it was the end of the world, all the time. <laughs> Which is sort of what I really liked about the title of our show. The irony that as an audience member watching it, when I’ve been watching it, I know that it’s not the end of the world, but I can see that falling in love for the first time, or just meeting another human being who makes you feel strongly about something for the first time, it’s so fucking scary that it can feel like the end of the world. I love that the show sort of runs with that. I like that Charlie [Covell's] writing is always undercut with a strangeness and extremeness. There’s very teenage deadpan humour (although British, maybe) and shitty parts of U.K. motorways, very un-American, unglamorous locations, juxtaposed against this very intense, very heightened maybe-love story. Although it’s a very stylised piece, I think it’s Charlie’s way of explaining what it’s like when things happen for the first time, and when you’re experiencing things for the first time. Everything feels like the end of the fucking world.
CDM: And it is, it’s the end of the world as they know it.
ALEX: Exactly! The more you find out about the world, the less you know about the world. <laughs> The more you know, the less you know - the more complicated things become.
CDM: How do you think James would fare hanging out with Patrick Bateman from 'American Psycho'?
ALEX: Ah, that’s funny. I think it depends which sort of variation of James, because I think James by the end of the series has kind of grown up a bit, even though it’s only over the course of maybe a week in real time. I think he’s learnt some big life lessons, and maybe he might look at Patrick Bateman and think, ‘Come on, man. It’s time to let those walls down and let an Alyssa into your life.’ So he might sort of weirdly empathise in a big brotherly way <laughs> with other wannabe psychopaths. Because James has found a higher calling than the psychopath calling, he has found love - hooray!
CDM: Have you seen Craig Roberts in Richard Ayoade's 'Submarine'? Sometimes James reminds me a little bit of him.
ALEX: Yes, I have! Actually Craig played James in the--
CDM: Original short film?
ALEX: Yes! Craig is brilliant. I think that in 'The End Of The F***ing World’ there is a sort of off-beat 'Submarine'-ish-ness to it, in terms of the colours and the interior monologues. I think there’s naturally comparisons to be made. And with the parents too, the slightly useless parents, like Sally Hawkins’ character in ‘Submarine’ having her own complicated life and not really knowing how to connect to her child, that sort of reminds me of some of the relationships in 'The End Of The F***ing World’ too. I like all of that genre of oddball British drama-comedy, so I’m very proud that there would be a connection in any way with the very brilliant ‘Submarine’, which I’m a big fan of.
CDM: Craig wrote and directed his debut film a few years ago and he's working hard to do more. Is that something you would ever want to get into as well?
ALEX: That’s interesting. Yes, I mean, the more I’m working in film, the more I’m interested by every aspect of it - how a film is made, what the experience is like on the opposite side of the camera. What I really like about my job is that I get to tell other people's stories and I get to get very involved and obsessed about that. Perhaps I would find that enjoyable too, in the form of a director. But at the moment I’m still getting to grips and learning my craft as an actor, so I think one day at a time.
CDM: Well you’ve just mastered French! So your baby steps are coming along.
ALEX: <laughs> Thank you! First French, and then the rest of the world!
CDM: You have a filmography of such interesting characters. Do you specifically ask your agent to search out unusual characters for you? Or is it all happenstance?
ALEX: I think it is. So much of casting is to do with chance, and being in the right place at the right time and fitting a director's interpretation and idea of what they’re looking for, but then also having some imagination - well, hopefully a lot of imagination of your own. It’s funny, I was speaking to a friend the other week, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I have played some real oddballs,' but I guess I'm just sort of naturally at the moment more drawn to the stranger ones because I just find it more interesting. In terms of writing, I don’t know if this is true, but I can often really sense a feeling of the writer's enjoyment when they’re writing strange characters, and they take bigger risks with them and take their imagination a bit further than someone who might be slightly more sitting inside the box inside a more normal category. It’s just been chance, but I’ve enjoyed it and I'm proud of it.
CDM: And it's so rad to see you helping to bring more on-screen representation to LGBTQ characters. Why do you feel it's important to help tell those stories?
ALEX: I think all human stories are important, and on screen and in theatre there’s a lack of diversity of voices, and I often find in the same way, stories of people who’ve actually had to struggle against something - in terms of struggle in opposition against a society in which they’re a minority - I find that in terms of drama and story-telling, it’s automatically dramatic, and therefore it’s a pleasure to be a part of telling those stories and an honour to be giving a voice to those stories and being allowed to tell those stories. I’m chuffed.
CDM: It makes it harder to be lazy research-wise for an interview, but I really respect that you don't have any form of public social media. It's kind of sad that now when actors are being cast for parts, their social media followings will also be thrown into consideration.
ALEX: It’s crazy. Also, I get people coming up to me sometimes and being quite angry, like, ‘Why don’t you have Instagram?!’ Or, ‘What’s wrong?’ I think, ‘I’m really sorry!’ It’s nothing that I have against those platforms, I just don’t really understand them. I also think as an actor, sometimes, you’re trying to convince people that you’re other people and therefore there’s a kind of magic involved in that, and therefore the less - weirdly, I mean it’s a slight contradiction that I’m saying this in an interview so I understand that it’s contradictory, me saying it, talking about myself to you - that people know about you as an actor, the more space you have to make people believe that you’re another person. Does that make sense? I really admire actors who manage to keep a sense of mystery about them. I’m not saying that I’m very mysterious myself, but I think that’s one of the reasons that I don’t have those platforms. Platforms, that’s such a funny word, such a 21st century word. <laughs> Platforms!
CDM: To any of those angry people, you should just be like, ‘Dude, have you watched ‘Black Mirror’?’
ALEX: Well, yeah, and there’s also that too! We live in such a strange world where information is stored and used and sold on. That’s what I’ll say in the future: ‘Dude, have you watched ‘Black Mirror’? <laughs> And then I’ll give them my Netflix password so that they can watch it.
CDM: Your episode of 'Black Mirror' is terrifying.
ALEX: I’m sorry.
CDM: I put a sticker on the camera of my laptop straight after watching that.
ALEX: A lot of people have said that too. I’ve done it too! And apparently it’s very possible that people can hack into your webcam and just watch you eat breakfast in the morning or whatever. We live in a very strange time of privacy and the public and all of that stuff. I’m sorry if that episode traumatised you.
CDM: Do you have a favourite episode from the new season?
ALEX: I haven’t watched any of Season 4 yet, I’ve been slightly submerged in filming in France. But as soon as I have my next day off... Oh, I’m probably not going to binge them because I’ll probably get very unwell--
CDM: And sad!
ALEX: And sad, if I watched more than one at a time. I think you need a decompressing time period after each episode of ‘Black Mirror’, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. It’s a brilliant look into Charlie Brooker’s mind.
CDM: How do you think Christopher Robin Milne would have coped with his celebrity status if he had been growing up in a time of social media?
ALEX: Poor Christopher Robin. I never met the man that grew up to be Christopher, but from the research and the things I read and the people I spoke to about his childhood, he did what he could to get away from it when he grew up and I can understand that, particularly if the fame comes from something you have no control over yourself. I can only imagine it being a very, very strange thing, especially when you’re growing up, how to work out your own personality, when everybody else is telling you you’re one thing or the other and making decisions for you based on what they read about you as this boy Christopher Robin in books. It leads us quite nicely back to James, and I think that’s sort of what I found quite charming about 'The End Of The F***ing World’, is that these two kids together they are fiercely trying to figure themselves out and push against their misunderstanding parents, or lacklustre parents rather - in order to figure out what they think about the world. I think James and Christopher might’ve had a lot to talk about, who knows.
CDM: Lastly, true or false? On your Wikipedia page, it says that you often kayak down Camden Lock in your spare time?
ALEX: That’s false! It's false!! It's false!!! I have no idea where this comes from. Oh my god. Don’t believe anything you read on the Internet - that’s the first rule of the Internet. I’ve also been asked, I never went to University, but apparently I went to Kings College and studied History, which is quite nice, I’ll accept the diploma that I actually never worked for. All sorts of funny things are out on the Internet.
CDM: Well you do make it difficult for people. They're probably wondering all sorts of things, like, 'Does he like music?'
ALEX: <laughs> Yes, I like music! But no, I don’t kayak down Camden Lock - although I’d like to try! I mean, I’m not against it.
CDM: It can be your next effort. Now that you've mastered French, kayaking is next, and then the world. You could kayak from England to New Zealand.
ALEX: I can! Speaking French all the way.
Watch a trailer for 'The End Of The F***ing World' below...