Callum Turner had some new year's resolutions this year, but he put them in a little bowl and burned them, "as an offering to the new year's resolution gods.” He also puts his left sock on before his right sock every single day, and then puts his left leg into his trousers before his right one. (We didn’t get to underwear, but I’m sure there’s a system there, too.) He’s done that for years, he says, since he was “out of nappies.” He’s never not done it. And what might happen if one day he didn’t? “I don’t know”, he whispers into the phone screen via which we’re talking, his face illuminated for a second like a child telling a ghost story around the campfire. “But I don’t want to find out.” Whatever the superstition, whatever the ritual, whatever the gods, the general advice to the actor ought to be: don’t stop what you’re doing. It appears to be working.
This is very much Callum Turner’s year. (There will probably be other ones, but this is the first.) We’re only in January, but it’s already his. Callum has just starred as the lead in the barnstorming The Boys in the Boat, a George Clooney-directed sporting epic, the pitch for which might well have been: “what if the Mighty Ducks learned how to row and took on Hitler?” (That’s not flippant by the way: the Mighty Ducks, Callum and I agree, is one of the very finest films ever.) He’s also now the lead in a new Spielberg-Hanks-Goetzman megaseries — Apple TV’s Masters of the Air, set among a bombing squadron in WW2 — alongside Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan and Anthony Boyle. He is being showered in praise for both. He seems very much to be enjoying it all. If Callum was a Gen-Zer, we might say he has “Main Character Energy” at the moment. (I’m not yet on TikTok, but I think that’s a thing.) But he’s not Gen-Z. He’s 33, the precise same age as me, and he’s at that very specific point in his career that you sometimes feel lucky/envious to be observing second-hand: on the absolute cusp of “making it”, whatever “it” is; just crossing that imagined line in the cosmic sand that anyone in a creative field hopes to cross on some sunlight upland soon; the place just on the other side of all your frustrations and setbacks and “if I can just…” excuses.
It’s all a lovely, useful delusion, of course — a mirage that recedes over the hill as soon as you get to the place you could have sworn it was sitting. In his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young — then an uppish young writer from London — recalls how the legendary Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter gave him some advice on his first day in New York. The city, he explains, is like some infinite mansion, organised into a series of connected rooms. And every time you think you’ve finally reached the best room, you soon notice the door to an even better one through the smoke and the small talk and the C-listers. And just when you’re settling into that room and got used to the complimentary Krug, you suddenly notice another door, towards the back‚ which leads to another room, and then another — and on and on, through a succession of smaller and smaller doors and glitzier and glitzier rooms and finer and finer grades of caviar, until finally you get to… well, what exactly? The nicest tomb in the sceniest graveyard in the best park in Manhattan? (It’s telling, I think, that there’s a recognised mental condition called Gold Medal Syndrome, where olympians feel at their most depressed after they’ve achieved their highest goal.)
The movie business, Callum seems wise enough to sense, is a similar mansion, a similar race. “You want this thing so much. And then when you get there it’s such a privilege to be welcomed in, and then once you’re welcomed in you’ve got to work harder, and every time you go up a level or through another door you’ve got to work even harder than that,” he says. He is not complaining, of course. Callum sees this all as a sort of zen motivator. “Because honestly, to me, the journey is the destination,” he says. “I hope there’ll never be a point when I feel like I’ve made it. I don’t want there to be a point where I feel like I'm jaded with it or bored of it. I just want to keep doing the thing I love, and I really love making movies and being characters and researching worlds and parts and people.”
“My job’s so fascinating,” he continues. “You’ve got to really want it, really believe in it, really care. I love that responsibility to myself. I think of myself at 20, and I think of myself now — those people between 20 and 33, they’re completely different.”
Back then, when he was just starting out, Callum joined the open-auditions website Casting Call Pro, and effectively acted as his own agent for a while. “I wrote letters to every casting director in England, lying about what I was doing just to try to get in there,” he says. “And I watched every film I could watch and I read books of scripts and I’d go to see all this theatre and read plays. I really engrossed myself in that world because I wanted it so much.” The trade, he’s come to realise along the way, is a bit like the very highest level of sport, he says. “I have nothing but respect for those guys, because they just surrender and dedicate themselves and they sacrifice so much. The fine detail is the thing that sets them apart. It’s about how much you want it, how much talent you have, and most of all how hard you work.”
Callum was a very good football player himself when he was younger. He played his last proper game in the FA Youth Cup Round 2 against MK Dons. He had the same childhood fantasies as all of us, I think — the World Cup winning penalties scored in six-year-old bedrooms; the roar of the Nou Camp in your local playground — except his were actually slightly more realistic. He was an athlete, a proper one, and you can tell it now. Does he ever have those daydreams still? “They’re leaving me,” he says after a pause. But some of them may now have been indulged by proxy. “I was 32 when we started filming The Boys in the Boat, and I was running out of time,” he says. “Because I always wanted to be in a sports movie as an athlete — and it just came at the right moment in my life”
This is a sports movie, alright. A proper one. It’s got it all — setbacks and breakthroughs; surrogate fathers and steely advice; heart-swelling montages and an almost impossible final comeback. Callum plays Joe Rantz, the remarkable University of Washington rower whose poverty-stricken background has given him near superhuman determination. He and the seven other actors in the film — which tracks the journey of the rag-tag varsity crew as it fights its way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, eventually triumphing against the odds in soaring victory — had to learn to row for real to make the many remarkable race sequences work. It was gruelling. Seven hours a day, every day of the week, for the entirety of the shoot. “I joke that I spent five months rowing, and I happened to make a movie on the side,” he says. The crew’s goal was to reach the remarkable 46 strokes-per-minute pace that the actual 1936 gold-medallists reached on that day, and they just about managed it, Callum says, before they had to film the climactic scene themselves. “We hit the 46, and none of us could quite believe it.” But it was tough. “Rowing’s really hard. And excruciating, really. In hindsight, what a wonderful experience. But at the time there were real ups and downs with it.”
“It’s funny, because when you’re learning something from scratch, it’s fine. But there’s eight other people learning it too. And it’s just excruciating, because the boat is all about balance and timing and pressure, and the amount of pressure you push off of. It was really difficult. The first six or seven weeks were impossible at times,” he says. “None of us wanted to be the worst person, and we all wanted to help each other — but we also didn’t want to be left behind. And Jack [Mulhern, who plays stroke Don Hulme] and I had huge arguments in the boat, because of what we thought was right, and the other boys pushed each other too, because we’re all competitive. But it was also the thing that bonded us, and we were united.”
“It was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to being in a professional sports team,” Callum says. There are other comparisons, perhaps. At one point in the film, at that essential moment when we feel that Joe Rantz may well have been cast out of the boat for good, Joel Edgerton, who plays the brooding team coach, reminds him sternly that “it’s not about you — it’s about the boat.” The crew is like a machine, and every cog needs to do its part in the right way and at the right time and in the right rhythm for things to work. Making movies is exactly the same, of course — a team sport on an unfathomable, colossal scale. “And if the gaffer isn’t lighting the scene right, it won’t look good; if the score’s not there, you won’t feel anything,” Callum says. “I really love being a part of a team, and I really get a buzz out of it — the more people I can work with, the more interesting it is.” You sense he’d be just as good in a changing room as on a film set.
What was it like working under Clooney, I ask — very much the head coach of this experience, who would literally shout at the team from the accompanying speedboat to “row better!” through a megaphone.
“He’s amazing,” Callum says. “He’s the master. He’s really beautiful. It’s funny, because he always talks about how difficult it was to shoot The Boys in the Boat. But to be honest, I didn’t feel that at all. He just sort of made it so fluid for us. And actually I do realise how difficult it is to do all this stuff. It took us ten days or so just for him to figure out how to do it. And I didn’t feel that once. He’s just classy. He just leads in this really beautiful, calm, charming way, and you can’t help but want to work with him.”
He also became something of an older brother figure. “He rinses me and takes the piss out of me — and I love that, you know,” says Callum. “He’s doing that because he knows me. Same with Grant [Heslov], his producing partner. I felt the love immediately and throughout and still. And they still give me shit about nothing, and I love that. They took the piss out of my jeans I wore, and I was like: fuck it, they were right. They were rotten! They were like: Where you going looking like that?”
“These jeans were awful. Sort of white jeans with paint on them. I was just trying something out. Thank god I had them there to put me back on the straight and narrow…”
Talking of which: one of the great themes in both The Boys in the Boat and Masters of the Air is male camaraderie and brotherhood; men (mostly) getting along together in pursuit of a higher goal. “That’s what's so beautiful about our show: you get to see these guys fighting for each other. We did a boot camp for two weeks, and the military guys just hammered in this idea of brotherhood. The idea that when you’re up in that sky, you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re fighting for the man next to you.” Were male friendships very formative for Callum growing up?
“I’ve never had really big groups of mates,” he says, “But what I did have was friendships with like three or four or five guys. What’s wonderful is we come together a lot, but we’re not connected in a group. And we sort of rotate around each other. It’s so wonderful. I had so many there at the premiere of Masters of the Air, and I must have stolen about 10 of Austin’s seats, because I had so many people that wanted to come. And I feel unbelievably blessed. My family and my friends, there to support me and celebrate me, and I’d do the same for them when it’s their night. We just all love each other. It’s beautiful.”
I read an interview with Callum before where the writer said he had “a face for the past”, because he always seemed to get cast in period roles and historic features. Now we might also say he has a face for other people’s faces, if that makes sense — like Joe Rantz at the 1936 Olympics, or John Egan, the heroic flying ace from the US Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, whose exploits almost single-handedly helped change the course of World War Two. What’s it like playing real characters as opposed to fictional ones?
“It’s an honour. Joe Rantz and John Egan each achieved extraordinary things. John Egan even more so, perhaps, because he saved the planet, he saved the world. And I genuinely think these guys are real life heroes. Superheroes. I’m so grateful to these guys that they did these things. Without those American bombers, I wouldn’t be sitting here and you wouldn’t be sitting there, that’s for sure. Our way of life would be completely different. So it’s just an honour to be able to represent them and to get to do that.”
The historical, as they say, is the personal. “History is so present in our country,” Callum says. “My granddad was 16 years old when he went to war. He came back from school with a piece of paper and got his mum to sign it, and she thought it was for a school trip. But actually it was a permission form for him to join the army. And he went. And then he came back. He ended up in a prisoner of war camp, but he came back.”
“He was one of thirteen kids, nine brothers,” Callum says. “All nine brothers went to war. And all nine brothers came back. It’s unbelievable that that happened. From my mum, that was her dad, and there were lots of stories. But she obviously didn’t know too much. He didn’t speak about it too much. None of them did.”
“That’s what’s so beautiful about our show. I’m someone who’s fascinated about World War Two, but even I didn’t know about the Eighth Air Force,” Callum concludes. “So I’m glad I can be one of the small parts in this big TV show that shines a light on their story; on stories like theirs. Really — I’m just so grateful to have been asked.”
With special thanks to:
Photographer: Charlie Cumming
Photo assistant: Marcus Lister
Stylist: Holly Macnaghten
Stylist assistant: Emma Seery
Grooming: Jody Taylor
Creative direction/production: Danielle O’Connell and Freya Anderson
Want more Gentleman’s Journal cover interviews? Here’s Paul Bettany on fame, playing the game, and staying sane…
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