Johnny Flynn on Playing Emma.’s ‘Mansplainy’ Romantic Lead and His David Bowie Movie

Johnny Flynn, photographed by Emma. director Autumn de Wilde. Photo: Autumn De Wilde

A stylish hotel screens my call when I first try to reach Johnny Flynn. “Sorry, I was in the bathroom,” the British actor and musician says with amusement over the line when I call back. “Good to know they’re protecting people.” Though he’s done plenty of stagework, in America, Flynn is best known for the shaggy characters he’s played on British television like Lovesick, or for the Anne Hathaway movie Song One. In Autumn de Wilde’s sparkling adaptation of Emma, he’s cast both to and against type as the fittingly uncomfortable romantic lead, and he’s also found himself at the start of a potentially very big run of Hollywood work. In addition to playing Mr. Knightley, he’s just finishing a new David Bowie movie, Stardust, and he’s about to start work on a new adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. He talked us through de Wilde’s unconventional approach to Jane Austen, writing music based off his characters, and why Stardust is “not really a biopic.”

How did Autumn de Wilde first approach you with the idea for Emma.? What was the pitch?
When I met her on my own for the first time, she had this box of wrapped-up treasure things, which was all the characters laid out, photographs, props. She started talking about screwball comedy, old ’30s Hollywood movies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, and then things like the Marx Brothers — which is all stuff I love and get, but it’s not something you’d naturally apply to Jane Austen. It works really well, because I guess the novel is reams of these incredibly witty sentences. I’ve always loved Jane Austen movies, but I think that some of them are a bit earnest. To a fault, perhaps. And that’s an easy thing to fall into when adapting Austen, when the humor is so important.

It also felt like a departure from the typical Austen adaptation to have your character, Mr. Knightley, introduced with a sequence where he’s fully nude and shot from behind. How did Autumn pitch that?
That’s the kind of decision that wasn’t, I guess, in Eleanor Catton’s screenplay. It just said, “Knightley dives in, gets dressed, and leaves.” It’s something about seeing these characters behind their bedroom doors. As an American, Autumn would go round these big houses and look at the bedrooms and think, “How did people actually do it? What did they really do here?” She was fascinated to hear that the men didn’t wear underwear, for instance. So she was just like, “I really want us to see that.”

Then there was a thing she mentioned to me about wanting, in quite a playful way, to objectify a male body. But also it’s not sexual. It’s not a sex scene. Autumn’s going, “All right, boys. This is how you do it.” Because often, men’s ideas of women’s bodies in sex scenes, and what women would do in those situations, is so off. Given that Emma is a novel written by a woman, and Knightley is a man drawn by a woman, it’s nice to do all that.

Knightley’s an interesting acting challenge because he has to seem so completely not an option for the first half of the movie and then totally the right match by the end of it, while still remaining a consistent character.
It requires a little bit of courage to hold off on showing too much heart early on. I felt like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, when the English are charging toward the Scottish line, and he’s like, “Hold. Hold. Hold.” I just wanted to be as unlikable as I could dare to make him for as much of the first couple acts. Then you start to see him having these almost panic attacks, because there’s a schism within him, and what I realized would be successful in telling the story would be for the audience to go, “Oh, something else is going on there. He’s really wrestling with himself beneath that veneer of prudishness and kind of mansplainy bachelor thing.”

You should have a sense that they’re quite a bad match to begin with. Or that it’s a silly idea. But basically, when he starts in the proposal scene, he apologizes to her. He says, “Look, I know I did this and this and this,” but he says, “You’ve borne it as no other woman in England could have borne it.” I don’t know — I like it when people say sorry. My wife told me, “I liked it in the beginning when you were all stern. And then you got all soft.” I was like, “That’s not what you’re meant to say!”

In your screenwork that’s made it to America, like Emma. or Lovesick or Song One, you’ve played a fair number of romantic leads. What do you think it takes to make that archetype work?
When I was at college, and maybe onstage, I played many more character roles. I try and bring as many charactery quirks to those straight romantic leads as I can. I’m certainly not drawn to the very straight romantic leads, but I think most people don’t realize quite how hard they are to do. Everything you do feels like you’re maybe isolating some of the audience, who you’re supposed to be inviting in through you to the story. There’s an openness that’s required.

Actors don’t often get a choice in what comes their way, and if I get a call from my agent saying, “Do you want to go up for Knightley?,” I’m not in the position to go, “Nah, I wouldn’t do Knightley, but I’ll go for Elton because I’d have more fun.” You’re supposed to be grateful. And I am grateful. But I do relish the chance to do comedy. Onstage more recently, I’ve played a few characters, certainly not romantic-lead types — in Martin McDonagh’s play Hangmen — so I do get to scratch that itch. At drama school, I was into a lot of clowning.

Hangmen’s coming to Broadway this spring, sadly without you. What happened there?
I’m absolutely gutted that I couldn’t come. Mainly, my 8-year-old son is at school. When I heard about the transfer, I went to the headmaster of the school and said, “Can I take him out and put him in school for a time in New York?” He’s at the local state school, and they’re very strict about that. It’s fair enough. But I haven’t quite got my head around it, because obviously it’s a bit of a disadvantage with certain work opportunities. It’s happened to me a couple of times with Broadway runs for a similar reason. I just wasn’t prepared to be away from my family for six months.

Speaking of exercising your range, you play David Bowie in the biopic Stardust, which from what I understand is about him arriving in New York and figuring out the Ziggy Stardust persona?
Yeah, we finished it, and it’s hopefully out this year. It’s going to be at a festival. They haven’t announced it yet. But it’s going to be out on the back of that, if it goes well. It’s very much a tiny moment in his life. It’s not really a biopic. He’s in New York without a visa, so he’s playing house parties and shitty corporate gigs in hotel lobbies, vacuum sales kind of things, but he has this guy from the American label driving him around in his parents’ car, which really happened. They struck up this odd-couple relationship. The label guy’s played by Marc Maron. So we spent a few weeks doing scenes in a car together last summer, which was fun.

When Stardust was announced, Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, came out and said that Bowie’s estate hadn’t licensed any music for it. How does the movie work around that?
Well, to begin with, they never wanted the music. They never asked for it. If you see the film, you realize that to have the music, or to be playing a lot of the music, would have been almost detrimental to the telling of the story. Because at this point in time, he was promoting The Man Who Sold the World. It’s a really interesting record, but it was a full-band sound, quite heavy rock sound at times. But Bowie’s out there just with a 12-string guitar. He wasn’t actually playing a lot of his own music. So that’s what we do when he plays gigs. We show him singing the real songs that he was singing at the time. But he had shame about his own writing and music at the time. Once we get to the end of the story, you can see that the fire has been lit, and it’s the beginning of the Ziggy period.

But the press around it was interesting, because Duncan Jones was asked by journalists, “They’re making a movie about your dad. How’d you feel about that?” And you can understand that he just said, “Well, they don’t have the music.” Which is true. But he did know about the film. He just said, “That’s fine. I’m not going to be involved or whatever.” That’s absolutely fair enough. Being a great filmmaker himself, Duncan, I’m sure that perhaps he’ll make a film when he feels ready, and this doesn’t tread on the toes of that possibility. It’s really just a tiny moment.

David Bowie’s life certainly seems too big for one movie to cover alone.
Yeah, I wouldn’t really want to do that film. I’m not a huge fan of the big biopics. When I first heard about Stardust, I didn’t even want to be considered. I just said, “You can’t do it.” And then I met Gabriel Range, the director, and he told me, “No, it’s more like Control, the Joy Division film, or Nowhere Boy.”

I saw you had written a song for Stardust, and you also wrote a song for Emma. You have a separate music career, but how often does acting end up providing material for it?
They’ve always been intertwined. In the case of Emma., it was lovely that Autumn asked me to write the song, because I wrote it from Knightley’s perspective. We’ve been very much in Emma’s perspective and inside her head for the duration, and he gets to kind of sing this slightly tongue-in-cheek but very heartfelt dedication to her. Writing the song felt like a further point of research, or like one of these acting exercises that you do where you write an essay from the perspective of your character.

And then the Bowie situation, similarly, I’m playing a songwriter at a point where he’s trying very hard to find his flow. So I was doing it anyway, trying to write as David for my research. I told Gabriel, and he loved it. He said, “Bro, why don’t we have you singing this song in one of the gigs?” As if it’s like a lost demo from the time. It’s not going to be a perfect song. The song I wrote gets sung at this very depressing gig when he’s playing to vacuum salesmen who aren’t listening. It should sound like a crap demo from that period that gets discarded.

Funnily enough, you’re in a streak of making new versions of things that once starred Gwyneth Paltrow — you’re also doing a Talented Mr. Ripley series with Andrew Scott. Where are things with that?
I literally just came back from having breakfast with Steven Zaillian and Garrett Basch, the producer. That’s the first meeting. It’s a little way off when we start filming. It’ll be fun. They were telling me all the amazing locations. Apart from anything else, that’s going to be pretty nice to be on the Amalfi coast for a time.

Very nice to get a paid trip to Italy.
I’m not any good at the beach-holiday type of thing either. So actually, the best way for me to be anywhere is to have a job to do. Or to just keep moving.

Johnny Flynn on Playing Emma.’s ‘Mainsplainy’ Romantic Lead