Douglas Booth, The Artist
A strange fact: it’s entirely likely – almost certain, in fact – that no one in history has had their likeness painted more times than Douglas Booth. The actor’s current film Loving Vincent, a haunting and remarkable look into the troubled life and work of Vincent Van Gogh, features around 65,000 frames, each of which, incredibly, was hand-painted on canvas in the style of the great artist, precisely transposing scenes that were filmed live into vibrant, living versions of Van Gogh’s work. As the young protagonist searching for clues to Van Gogh’s suicide, Booth features in almost every scene.
‘It’s quite bizarre when you think about it, there’s thousands,’ he says of the stacks of paintings of him that make up much of the film. ‘It’s pretty strange to think how much you’ve been scrutinised. Although when I went and visited the painters [45 of them, holed up in a studio in Gdansk] as they were working on it, they didn’t actually recognise me, which was sort of reassuring. They’d only ever known me on the screen, and had spent hundreds of hours looking at me, but of course it wasn’t me they were seeing.’
“It was pretty strange to think how much you’ve been scrutinised. Of course, it wasn’t me they were seeing”
The man they were seeing was Booth’s character Armand Roulin, famous for the bright yellow jacket Van Gogh painted him wearing, which Booth sports throughout. The son of another familiar portrait figure, the bushy-bearded Postmaster Roulin, Armand attempts to deliver Van Gogh’s final letter to his brother following the artist’s demise, and embarks on a journey that sees him digging into Van Gogh’s life (seen in flashback) and the tragedy of his death.
Every scene is lifted straight from the painter’s compositions – a swirling starry night, a wheat field with crows lifting into the sky, the Night Café. ‘It was a massive feat. They built places like the café in the studio, and each chair and table was aligned exactly to match his composition,’ explains Booth. And that’s not to mention the characters, each of whom first appears as they do in their portraits.
‘Often when you tell an artist’s story in a film, you hear about them as a human being but you lose their art, how they really created,’ says Booth, whose mother and sister are both artists, though he admits that as far as Van Gogh is concerned, he had little personal interest before the project. ‘I always kind of dismissed him because he was so popular, and I tend to prefer more contemporary art. But I went on the same journey as my character, and learnt what an incredible man he was – he left this unbelievable body of work, and didn’t even pick up a paintbrush until he was 28.’
For an actor whose cheekbones are almost as famous as he is, there’s some irony in the fact that the film in which Booth is turned into a living oil painting is also one in which his extraordinary, rather classical beauty, becomes almost incidental, submerged beneath Van Gogh’s impasto and the shimmering potency of the scenery.
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For Booth this may be something of a relief, though his looks have stood him in good stead: as doe-eyed Pip in the BBC’s Great Expectations; Romeo to Hailee Steinfeld’s Juliet in Julian Fellowes’ Shakespeare adaptation; and in the role that announced him to the world in 2010, as a youthful Boy George in Worried About the Boy, a BBC dramatisation of the pop star’s rise to fame amid the hedonism of London’s Blitz-era club scene. He arguably wore George’s make-up better than the singer himself, but it was the mixture of vulnerability and cocky attitude Booth exhibited that marked him out as a star.
He was just 17 then. Now 25, he’s a relaxed, good-natured presence, given to rubbing his eyes a lot as he thinks deeply about the world.
He’s incensed by Brexit and by the plight of refugees (he describes as ‘life changing’ the awareness-raising trips he’s made to Iraq with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency); he is vegetarian on principle; and seems all too aware of all the good fortune he’s had. And though he’s happy to cut a dash for The Jackal’s style shoot, he says he’s increasingly jaded by fashion, despite being a one-time GQ Most Stylish Man award-winner, and having found early success modelling for Burberry.
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‘I hate shopping. I don’t even know where I shop. I just seem to pick things up as I go,’ he says. ‘I’m fortunate that I get to wear nice suits and outfits in my job, but I think as I get older it’s all becoming slightly less interesting.’
It can be easy to forget that Booth is only 25 years old – at one point in our interview he even announces he’s developing nesting instincts, though for now he’s happy renting in Southwark, ‘pootling around on my bike, experiencing the wonderful restaurants and seeing my friends. I absolutely love this city, and try to discover new parts of it all the time.’
Nevertheless, in the acting game Booth is a relatively old hand for his age. Severely dyslexic and miserable at school, he was a National Youth Theatre regular and was snapped up by an agent aged 15. Roles began flooding in immediately, and he left formal education. He’s supported himself ever since.
‘I was with Eddie Redmayne getting drunk in Budapest when I was only 16 and on my second job [TV drama The Pillars of the Earth],’ he recalls. ‘People do ask me how they’ve known of me so long when I’m only 25, but I’ve been around quite a lot.’
“Dyslexia made me use my brain in a different way, to follow a more creative path”
His primary concern at the moment is to keep developing a CV of diverse, challenging roles, on which note he’s hitting something of a purple patch. He steals the show as an outrageous music hall singer and drag artist in The Limehouse Golem, the enjoyably gruesome Victorian murder caper released at the start of September. ‘I’m very fond of it; I don’t think I’ve had such a transformative part since Boy George,’ he says. Meanwhile Mary Shelley, the tale of the love affair between the titular Frankenstein author and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the doomed Romantic poet played by Booth, just had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, after a summer he spent in Italy, acting opposite Kevin Spacey in a biopic of the life of the writer Gore Vidal.
‘I have a very short attention span and get bored very easily, so I have to keep finding things that excite my interest,’ Booth says, insisting his natural affinity is for smaller projects that stimulate his artistic curiosity, like Loving Vincent. He puts this down partly to his dyslexia. ‘I feel very strongly that it made me use my brain in a different way, to follow a more creative path. I really struggled at school, but in some ways the limitations are outweighed by other kinds of benefits.’
Even his brushes with Hollywood mega-budgets, playing Russell Crowe’s son in the biblical epic Noah, and a villainous intergalactic playboy in 2015’s sci-fi silliness Jupiter Ascending, may not have been great films, but drew him in due to the chance of working with creatively uncompromising directors, like Darren Aronofsky and the Wachowski brothers.
‘I’d actually love to do an action movie if the right one came along, but only if it wasn’t brainless and had a great director. The dream is to work with Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino.’
So can he see himself upping sticks and moving to Hollywood full-time? Booth scoffs at the very thought.
‘I’m too in love with London, I couldn’t. It’s the best city in the world.’
Douglas Booth plays Armand Roulin in Loving Vincent, in cinemas from October 13