Culture

‘I want to be seen as human’ – Joe Alwyn gets personal

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On screen, Joe Alwyn is cleaning up. In real life, he’s balancing a high-profile love interest and tabloid scrutiny with playing football and going to the pub

Joe Alwyn is smiling. But it’s not the megawatt Hollywood smile you might expect from someone who’s been gracing red carpets and appearing in breathless gossip columns lately. Walking into the hip North London coffee shop where we meet, he wears something more like a nervous grin, along with dark jeans and a charcoal grey hoodie. Despite his movie-star bone-structure, he manages to blend into the everyday bustle of the café.

If Alwyn’s name doesn’t ring a bell yet, it will soon. The 27-year-old London-born actor is in the middle of an impressive run of form. He’s Sir Ben Kingsley’s son in Operation Finale, a Netflix dramatisation of the capture of Nazi war-criminal Adolf Eichmann. In January, he’ll be in a brace of punchy period dramas; first as Emma Stone’s husband in The Favourite, a darkly funny tale of rivalry in Queen Anne’s 18th-century court, with Olivia Colman as the neurotic monarch. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous offbeat successes include The Lobster (with Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell), it’s already being tipped for award-season success. That’s followed up by a role that sees Alwyn sandwiched between Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan as nobleman Robert Dudley, in Mary Queen of Scots.

‘A personal life is by definition personal’

To fans of Taylor Swift, however, he is already a familiar figure. Just a couple of days before we meet, headlines about Alwyn’s two-year relationship with the singer were splashed across the internet after he spoke publicly about it for the first time. In reality, all he did was explain that they’ve been a private couple and are staying private for the foreseeable. ‘I think it’s more interesting to talk about work,’ he says, quite reasonably, when I raise the subject. It’s a line I recognise from other interviews he’s given in the past. But he does elaborate, sipping his coffee with the air of a man who has gone over the same ground at least as often as he’d care to. ‘A personal life is by definition personal. It’s not for anyone else, and when it gets handed over to other people, like tabloid journalists who have no idea who you are or what your life is like, things get distorted.’

Grey flannel suit jacket, £675, ice blue ‘Chelsea’ poplin shirt, £85, both by Hackett; Navy silk print tie, £145, by Drake’s

What’s been distorted? He doesn’t say exactly, but it is true that one tabloid newspaper claimed earlier this year that Swift was house-hunting in North London to find a pied-à-terre in Alwyn’s neighbourhood. A few days later, an ‘insider’ from Swift’s camp debunked the story, which prompted yet another round of reaction, gossip and speculation.

‘We had no problem looking like idiots in front of each other’

Throughout our interview, Alwyn is warm and friendly, but if he also comes across as a little guarded, perhaps this is the reason why. One of the things he finds strange about interviews, he says, ‘is the idea that you’re going to be cemented in a narrative having only just met someone for the first time. Not often, but occasionally, I’ve sat down with journalists who seem to already know what they want to write, and who come with a series of questions like options on the menu they want to tick off.’ He adds that he finds those interviews ‘reductive’, but is quick to say that it’s not the case this time: present company excepted.

Talking about work is more fertile ground. The Favourite is ‘a completely unconventional period film,’ he says. ‘It’s twisted and dark and bawdy. We all turned up to rehearsals with our history books, expecting to have discussions about our characters and the period, but it was like going back to drama school. Yorgos [Lanthimos, the director] had us playing games, changing parts and rolling around on the floor. By the end of two weeks, we had no problem looking like idiots in front of each other – and when we got on set we were fine jumping into each scene and going for it. He was ingenious.’

As above

In the past, Alwyn has referred to himself as ‘introverted’, but today he explains that he believes most people’s personalities defy such simple descriptions. ‘Yes, perhaps I’m more introverted than extroverted. But I think everyone changes around different people.’ Work is an important part of his life, though ‘it’s not all-consuming. There’s no sky-diving or anything, but in my free time I do what I’ve always done – spend time with mates, play football, and go to the pub. I do what most people do.’

Like most people, he’s also on social media, but tries not to think too much about his growing public profile. ‘It’s a tool to talk about projects I’m proud of – it’s not about showing people what my favourite coffee is. I’m focused on what I’ve always wanted to do. I just want to work with good filmmakers on interesting stories. I don’t want to get caught up in something that might not feel “real”.’

‘I want to be known for my work, and I want to be seen as human’

For actors, the question of how much of that real self should be revealed to the movie-going public is tricky. Not enough and you might struggle to build the kind of profile that lands the juiciest roles; too much and you run the risk of obscuring the characters you play on screen. In the past, actors in Alwyn’s position have come unstuck.

As our allotted 45 minutes draw to a close, Alwyn says he has to go. True to form, he doesn’t say where but, as we stand and shake hands, he leans in a little. Earnest and direct, he offers some parting words: ‘I want to be known for my work, and I want to be seen as human.’ And, really, who could argue with that?

Operation Finale is on Netflix now. The Favourite is in cinemas from 1 January and Mary Queen of Scots from 18 January

Lead image: Grey flannel Offshore Bespoke suit, £3,000, by Edward Sexton; Chambray button-down shirt, £420, by Brunello Cucinelli; Abstract print silk tie, £135, by Drake’s