Johnny Flynn’s star has been on the rise in recent years, and will be propelled a little higher on Jan. 29 with the release of period drama “The Dig” on Netflix, in which he appears alongside Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James. Flynn most recently drew acclaim for his performances as Mr. Knightly in “Emma,” and as a young David Bowie in “Stardust.” Variety spoke to the British actor and musician about his choice of roles, and how he approached these films.
Flynn broke through in 2017 playing a charming psychopath in the BAFTA-nominated psychological thriller “Beast,” and as the young Albert Einstein in National Geographic’s anthology “Genius,” for which he was nominated for a Critics Choice Award. Other television credits include “Vanity Fair,” “Les Miserables” and “Lovesick.”
He was seen in three movies last year, playing opposite Anya Taylor-Joy in the comedy drama “Emma,” in noir thriller “Cordelia,” alongside Antonia Campbell-Hughes, and in “Stardust,” which was released in the U.S on Nov. 25 to mixed reviews, and opens in the U.K. on Friday.
He recently filmed heist musical “The Score” and World War II drama “Operation Mincemeat,” in which he portrays Ian Fleming, playing alongside Colin Firth. He has been cast in Holocaust drama “One Life,” in which he stars alongside Anthony Hopkins, and in the role of Dickie Greenleaf in Steve Zaillian’s “Ripley” for Showtime.
As well as choosing films that range across genres, Flynn selects a mix of leading and supporting roles. “Playing David Bowie, although it was quite a short shoot, was a lot of work and a lot of preparation obviously, [as well as] losing weight and studying his voice and his movement,” he says. “And then if you’re in every scene like that on a film, it’s quite nice not to go into another thing where you’re doing the same because I give quite a lot of myself to the projects — I give everything — and it would kill me to go from job to job playing the person who’s carrying a story.”
He adds: “I see myself as a character actor, looking for interesting people, and interesting stories, and stories that need to be told because they might change people’s lives for the better; it might affect them in a good way, and shine a light on something that people don’t know about.
“So I think about the broader story and then the characters and whether I can do a good job with them, and often it’s also about who you will be working with. Something like ‘The Dig’ was a bit of a no brainer — to work with those amazing actors and everybody that worked on it. It was a ‘pinch me’ moment doing scenes with Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, Lily and Ken Stott.”
In “The Dig,” which is set in 1939 as Britain prepares for war with Germany, Flynn plays Rory Lomax, the cousin of Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow (Mulligan), who has hired an amateur archaeologist (Fiennes), Basil Brown, to excavate the burial mounds on her property at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. Rory assists with the work and takes photographs of the dig. When they unearth an Anglo-Saxon burial ship, a team from the British Museum led by Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), and including young female archaeologist Peggy Preston (James), descend on the site, demanding that they should take charge.
“I love it as a history geek for connecting these two moments in the past: the summer of 1939, when there’s this sense of impending doom as Europe starts to dive into its own version of the Dark Ages [and the early medieval period],” Flynn says. “They unearth this kind of portal to another time that allows them to see beyond the horizon of their own very dangerous situation in that temporal moment. I found it profound and weirdly moving for that reason.”
In the film, we learn that Rory has applied to join the Royal Air Force, where he will train to be a fighter pilot, ready to fight for the skies above his home country with the Luftwaffe — a period of the war that would come to be known as the Battle of Britain. The danger facing Rory is hinted at when Edith repeats something her late husband had said to her: “If you want your sons to die, let them join the Royal Air Force.”
Flynn says: “My character is a vehicle through which you go: ‘Oh, my God, he’s this young, emblematic character, a symbol of the young men that are about to go off to war.’ And in my research, I was reading a lot about young pilots’ experiences of going off to fight in the Battle of Britain, and you learned that nearly all of them died within the first six months of the war.”
“Stardust” is also a period film of sorts. It is set in 1971 at a low point in Bowie’s career, during a disastrous trip to the U.S. to promote his album “The Man Who Sold the World.” During this time the seeds were planted that led to the creation of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, and a flowering of his creative output.
Flynn had been wary of playing the role at first, even though he was a “big fan” of Bowie. “I thought this is just a really risky thing to take on, and I’m not sure if it’s something that can be done well,” he says. However, after meeting the director Gabriel Range, he was convinced. “There is this amazing story about David that we don’t really know. We think that he just arrived as this kind of confident, God-like superpower of pop culture, but actually he was desperately insecure and fragile in this period, and had had a lot of failure.”
An important part of the story, told in flashbacks during the film, relates to the bouts of mental illness that afflict Bowie’s brother Terry, prompting him to fear that his life will be similarly blighted.
“We’re all fragile in one way or another, and I found that [storyline] really helpful, and it spoke to me at a time when there’s so much stigma around mental health, and the way people are treated. [Bowie] is terrified of his mind falling apart and crumbling, and I understood that Ziggy was born out of this desperate need to save himself from himself,” Flynn says.
He compares the film’s exploration of Bowie’s past to archaeology. “You think of something so fresh and interesting and weird and wonderful and innovative as Ziggy Stardust, but when you go along the different strands of what makes it up, you can work out: ‘Oh he was putting together the energy of New York punk with this strand of French chanson.’”
There are two pivotal scenes in the film that illustrate Bowie’s growing interest in alternative personas. In one, he witnesses a doctor using role play as a form of therapy at the psychiatric hospital where Terry is confined. In another, he goes to see Velvet Underground play in New York, and after the gig he talks to the lead singer, who he thinks is Lou Reed but turns out to be Doug Yule. “We have this cheeky scene where [Yule] says, ‘Well, what’s the difference between really being a rock star, and somebody pretending to be a rock star?’” Flynn says.
Through such interactions, the film suggests, Bowie was able to make the leap to becoming Ziggy. “He suddenly goes, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be my tortured, authentic self; I can find my artistic truth by being somebody else. And it felt like, for me, the big realization in playing him and what the story is about is that he had what he needed all along: he was just looking in the wrong place,” Flynn says.
The actor doesn’t rule out a move into blockbuster movies, but would want the films he appears in to have artistic merit. “I feel like if I’m going to give my heart to a film — knowing the way I invest in things and what I give to projects — it has to be really, really, really good, and morally valid. You know, there’s a danger with big commercial films that there’s a degree of cynicism in them, and I can’t really make things with any compromise.”
He adds: “I find that the stories that I’m really interested in telling and the characters that I’m interested in playing are outsiders or they’re quite often real people who we’re looking at from a different perspective, whether it’s Ian Fleming or David Bowie or Albert Einstein. I’m not so interested in those kind of clichéd, leading man type roles, usually. And often the stuff that I find is really valuable is in those smaller films, with greater risks taken. I’m interested in taking risks.”
“Stardust” will be released in the U.K. and Ireland on Jan. 15. “The Dig” arrives globally on Netflix Jan. 29.