Johnny Flynn turned down the role of David Bowie in a new film. The British actor tells Will Hodgkinson why he then changed his mind.
Who would play David Bowie in a movie? Any film about a beloved rock star runs the risk of creating an image that clashes with the one in the minds of fans, but with Bowie that danger reaches another level. He was everything from the alien rock god Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke of the mid-Seventies to the Goblin King of the 1986 kids' classic, Labyrinth. Idolisation of Bowie has gone into the realm of deification. When he left us in January 2016 it came as a seismic shock, not least because he seemed too clever to fall victim to something as mundane as death.
There is certainly nothing Bowie-esque about the slightly scruffy, wholesomely handsome, rather shy 37-year-old before me. Sitting in a quiet corner of a cinema café in Hackney, clad in a woolly jumper and neckerchief, Johnny Flynn has walked over from his house, where he lives with his set designer wife, Beatrice, and their children, who are nine, four and two years old. There are no PRs present which is unusual. Flynn has come here on his own to talk about what it is like to play Britain's greatest rock star in the Bowie movie Stardust – and to deal with the fallout.
Johnny Flynn is an increasingly familiar screen face. He turned kind, wise Mr Knightley into a hunk of animal magnetism in Autumn de Wilde's 2020 version of Jane Austen's Emma. Television adaptations of Vanity Fair and Les Misérables have showcased Flynn as a breeches-wearer par excellence, while roles in the Royal Court's 2015 production of Martin McDonagh's Hangmen and the 2017 psychological thriller Beast have helped him develop into one of the most promising actors of his generation. In his other job as a singer-songwriter he has released five albums of folk rock, written and performed the melancholic theme tune to Mackenzie Crook's delightfully gentle Detectorists and recorded a retelling of Gilgamesh with the nature writer Robert Macfarlane. Playing David Bowie, though, is a different challenge altogether.
"It began with an email from [the film's director] Gabriel Range and the headline: Do you want to play Bowie?" says Flynn. "And the answer was, 'No. Absolutely not.' I'm not into music biopics because they create a spectacle around someone who is already a spectacle. I had been cast as Roger Taylor in the Queen film [We Will Rock You] and as it went from Sacha Baron Cohen to Ben Whishaw playing Freddie, the script kept changing to something more homogenised and less interesting until eventually I pulled out. So I was reticent about playing Bowie. It seemed like a poisoned chalice."
Stardust is Gabriel Range's portrait of Bowie's first trip to America in February 1971, after he had tasted success with 1969's Space Oddity but was yet to find either his persona or his confidence. Flynn plays Bowie as a fey, uncertain fish out of water, sparking the suspicion of US customs with his "man-dress" from the flamboyant designer Mr Fish and reeling in a rather camp fashion at the indignities America throws at him. Having failed to get a work permit, he plays tiny acoustic spots and corporate gigs rustled up by his only ally, his enthusiastic publicist. For all of us familiar with footage of Bowie knocking them dead as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, watching him warble out acoustic whimsy to a roomful of uninterested vacuum cleaner salesmen is sobering indeed.
Flynn changed his mind about doing the film in February 2018. In New York for a transfer of Hangmen, he visited the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where an installation of Bowie's childhood home reminded him of the Hampshire one he grew up in. From there, he began to see the parallels with someone who had escaped provincial life and adolescent trauma to reinvent themselves.
Stardust flashes to Bowie visiting his schizophrenic brother, Terry, in an asylum, something he sang about on 1970's The Man who Sold the World but never talked about in interviews. Flynn had to deal with the death of his father when he was 18. He saw that this could be a low-budget film about a single, vulnerable moment in an artist's life, rather like Sam Taylor-Johnson's John Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy.
"I knew that I couldn't do an impression of David Bowie, but if I could channel his spirit, it might just work," says Flynn. "This is a small movie, filled with events I could relate to. I know what it is like to be pressured by PR people and record labels and to feel misrepresented. I know what it is like to put out an album and not believe in it. And I can sing. So I thought, might as well be me."
That leads to the film's biggest sticking point. In February 2019 Bowie's son Duncan Jones announced that Stardust did not have the family's blessing, nor did the film-makers have the rights to use his father's music, which has led to the same controversies of the portrayal of real people that have surrounded the latest series of The Crown.
"I am not saying this movie is not happening," Jones said when he heard about the film. "I am saying that this movie won't have any of Dad's music in it and I can't see that changing. If you want to see a biopic without his music or the family's blessing, that's up to the audience."
"From the start, Gabriel was not seeking the permission of the estate or the rights of the songs," Flynn tells me. "Nobody is interested in me singing David Bowie songs, just like I'm not interested in Rami Malik singing Queen songs. As for the lack of the family's permission, I feel that has been spun out. We all love Bowie, but the film was made independently and I believe it is the right of a storyteller to do that."
I suggest that Stardust's focus on Terry's mental illness and the film's insinuation that Bowie's multiple personas were a reaction to his own fear of schizophrenia might also have been a reason for the family to keep its distance. "Yes, and if this were a bigger-budget movie, a studio would probably tell you to take that stuff out," says Flynn. "That happened with the Queen film, which is why it ended up with its manipulated, emotional finale."
Flynn's own music could not be farther from Bowie's. Albums such as 2008's A Larum and 2010's Been Listening evoke a world of warm ale and bonfires, not cocaine and spotlights. His songs for Detectorists are suited to that show's portrayal of men in sodden expanses, rooting about for ancient relics. And Flynn, who talks rapidly while struggling to look you in the eye, comes across as a serious man. He's certainly not starry.
"I remember going on tour with [alternative pop singer] Anna Calvi and she was putting on this sparkly jacket," says Flynn. "She said, 'Johnny, don't you want to dress up a little bit before going on stage?' We all have masks, but I want to strip everything away and get to the truth, even if that is a mask itself.
"And the actor side of me satisfies the desire to dress up and be other people, like playing a woman in a Shakespeare play," says Flynn, who cut his acting teeth in the all-male Shakespeare troupe, Propeller.
His lack of frivolity can be traced back to childhood. Flynn was born in South Africa, where a mauling by a dog left him with facial scars, to anti-apartheid campaigners who moved to Britain when he was two. The family lived for a spell in Hampshire, ran a B&B in Wales and got their son into The Pilgrims' prep school in Winchester and Bedales in Hampshire on music scholarships. Being a scholarship boy, even at liberal Bedales, whose alumni include Daniel Day-Lewis and Lily Allen, turned out to be a bit of a prison sentence.
"There was so much expectation," he says. "I had to be grateful because my parents couldn't afford the fees without a scholarship, which meant I had to spend my whole time in the chamber choir and the orchestra. I couldn't even be in the school plays."
Flynn's father, Eric, was an actor with two sons from a previous marriage, one of whom, Soldier Soldier's Jerome Flynn, joined a spiritual cult in 1996, not long after scoring a massive hit in the duo Robson & Jerome with Unchained Melody. Flynn says his father had not wanted his son to follow the family tradition, in part due to the family's worry over Jerome (he returned to acting in 2010 as Bronn in Game of Thrones), but also because of the uncertainty of the job.
"Then my father died when I was 18," he says. "It meant that I was going into the world just as he left it, in a sense. He was great, my dad, but kind of judgmental and hard on me, so his death gave me the freedom to become an actor with a blank canvas. I was hungry to be in plays. I was cripplingly shy, but I thought, I can learn my lines and concentrate on a role and it will be a release from a body restrained by inhibition. I could become someone else and break free." It sounds not so dissimilar to what Bowie did.
Flynn says the hardest part of launching an acting career was the feeling of being an imposter, a rural bumpkin barging into a sophisticated world. "Going to audition after audition, which I found psychologically and emotionally exhausting, meant I had to release myself from all that inhibition and shyness and pretend I wasn't actually terrified in my own skin," he says. That's why I liked being a musician. I could get on stage and crinkle up into the natural folds of myself."
In Emma, Flynn displayed more natural folds of himself than he perhaps would have liked. A decades-long passion project for the Los Angeles-based photographer and rock video director Autumn de Wilde, Emma is a loose and rambunctious adaptation of Jane Austen's novel. And it features a shot of Flynn in the nude, a very deliberate moment of objectification from the film's director.
"When she told me that she wanted to have a nude scene, I thought, here's a female director making a film with a female scriptwriter and a female producer, based on a book by a female novelist. I'd better do what I'm told and indulge the female gaze."
Then there is The Dig, the Australian director Simon Stone's forthcoming drama about the Sutton Hoo dig in Suffolk where in 1939 a self-taught archaeologist, played by Ralph Fiennes, discovers an early medieval burial site on the land of Carey Mulligan's wealthy widow. Released on the same date as Stardust and on Netflix on January 29, Flynn plays a jaunty chap who catches the eye of Lily James's archaeology student, which wouldn't be a problem were she not married. It is classic British costume drama fare, stately and reassuring, and its landscape is all russet sunsets and muddy fields, much like Detectorists. That world does seem to be Johnny Flynn's spiritual home.
"Well, I do love history," says Flynn when I put this to him. "It was really strange. I was at the British Museum, looking at the finds from Sutton Hoo, when I got the call about The Dig. And I've known Carey Mulligan for years [she's married to Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, an old friend], so for me it was a no-brainer."
You sense that Flynn, much like the Bowie of Stardust, is standing on the cusp of major stardom. Unlike Bowie, however, whose relationship with his tempestuous wife, Angie, was fragmenting and whose early years of fame were high in more ways than one, Flynn leads a low-key existence. He says he has no plans to relocate to Los Angeles. He and Beatrice are embedded in the local school community, and having his own studio has allowed him to keep on making music throughout 2020. Soon, however, it might be time to return home.
"We're on the verge of moving out of London. When you have grown up where I did, nature matters," says Flynn, before he has to leave to pick up his kids from school.
Then he's gone, a quiet, polite, capaciously talented singer and actor who, you cannot help but feel, would rather be tramping through bramble-lined bridleways than defending his portrayal of David Bowie.
Written by: Will Hodgkinson
© The Times of London