There’s something about SW3 on a bright, cold November day — all golden light and quiet, litter-free streets — which may cause passers-by to wonder whether they have stumbled across, or perhaps into, a film set.
Last Wednesday, if they had turned the corner by The Sydney Arms, the sight of Jack Lowden dressed in a calf-skimming chequered E. Tautz coat, and adjusting his pose for a photographer behind the pub wall, may have just confirmed their hunch.
Over the course of our afternoon’s shoot, shoppers and strollers glance back to catch a better look, attempting to place precisely where they had seen Lowden before. For cinemagoers, it may have been as the heroic RAF pilot in Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk, or as Morrissey-before-he-became-Morrissey in England Is Mine.
A passing theatre-goer might have identified him first for an Olivier-winning turn as Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and a TV fan as Nikolai Rostov in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace.
At just 28, Lowden’s CV has checked a fair few of the intimidating items off even the most ambitious actor’s bucket list, and he is gaining momentum fast.
But his early onset success has not curbed the Scottish actor’s natural ease. Lowden’s eye is caught by a woman pushing a pram down the road, and breaking from a steely gaze down the lens, his eyes follow her down the street.
“Fuck me, that’s the best dressed baby I have ever seen! Chelsea, man.”
A new breed of leading man...
If you don’t recognise Jack Lowden yet, we can pretty much guarantee that by this time next year he will have graced at least one of your screens, and most likely in your favourite production of the year. Something you won’t catch him at, however, is playing “one of those steely-eyed blokes that we’ve seen forever.”
“I like to see a character whose finger is always hovering over the self-destruct button..."
“The parts I have been able to play have not followed a typical trajectory — they have been quite self-destructive, which I love exploring.” Jack says. “I like to see a character whose finger is always hovering over the self-destruct button.
The exploration of what it is to be a man that’s going on at the moment makes it our responsibility to explore that within the roles we play. And the more I do, the more I am convinced that it does all come back to self-doubt.”
In the coming months, audiences will get their chance to watch the actor battle the demons of an eclectic host of self-destructive men, starting with his turn as Lord Darnley, Saoirse Ronan’s love interest in the hotly anticipated Mary Queen of Scots. Darnley, whilst a powerful nobleman and charismatic suitor, proves to be far from the perfect husband, suffering with an unbridled appetite for pleasure.
In Lowden’s words, “he’s never just in a room listening — he’s always seeking to be the centre of attention and is riddled with vices: women, men, drink, power.”
God loves a trier...
For a young, in-demand and seemingly well-contented man, Lowden frequently comes back to the darker side of life. “The two characters I have got coming out next each look in the mirror and don’t particularly like what they see”, he says of his turns as Darnley and Robert Goodwin in the BBC’s adaptation of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song.
“I love people that are triers. You know when someone sits opposite you and tries to be mysterious or cool, and you can just see through it. It’s almost more honest to me when you see someone who is trying to be somebody else. By default, they then actually show you who they are.
“I liken it to being a teenager when you buy a new jacket to make a good impression, and when you get to the party nobody fucking notices. Nobody notices your jacket. I love those characters, they’re incomplete.
"It’s almost more honest to me when you see someone who is trying to be somebody else..."
I mention his performance of Oswald in Richard Eyre’s 2014 revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the end of which (spoiler) his character suffers a syphilis-induced stroke and dies onstage. It must have been the dream role for an actor so fascinated by self-destruction.
“He had almost gone past self-doubt and was in that wonderful land of not giving a fuck — because he knew he was going to die. And that’s when you’re at your most dangerous and unafraid.”
Seeking the ‘magical moment’...
All the same, does the experience of playing dark, troubled and tortured roles ever take its toll? “I don’t find that I carry the character around with me — I’ve always gotten off on being one person one minute, and another person the next.
There’s that tiny magical moment, where you can be stood in the wings joking around and thinking about anything — and then suddenly you go out on the stage and, bang, you’re someone else. That joy that you find in duping the audience, is acting at its purest form and most fun.
“When I had to play Oswald’s gruesome death scene every night for the run of Ghosts, the question I got asked most after a show was ‘how do you get out of that mindset?’ and I would say, ‘I’ve never been in that mindset! I’ve never had a stroke!’ It must be bloody knackering for an actor to inhabit the character that way!”
Friends in high places...
Our conversation is peppered with the names of actors and directors Lowden most admires — from Cate Blanchett (“I think her performance in Elizabeth was pitch perfect”) to Lesley Manville (“easily the best actor of our generation — she’s terrifyingly good”), some of whom he now considers “close friends.”
Has he ever been starstruck? “It certainly happened on Dunkirk with Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. The two of them have an extraordinary body of work. Tom in particular has a lot of time for young actors, and there’s such a respect there — you’re put straight at ease.”
" I’ve always gotten off on being one person one minute, and another person the next..."
Any horror stories? “I’ve been very fortunate in that I am yet to work with an actor who is an arse. All those amazing fables that you hear about these awful performers — I haven’t met one yet. I kind of want to! I want to be in the room when someone’s an arsehole, I really do!”
What lies ahead...
An afternoon in Lowden’s company reassures you that he is a born performer, even just talking over a pint in a West London racing pub. It’s clearly been a lifelong love, and a family affair (Lowden’s brother Callum is the principal dancer at The Royal Swedish Ballet), although Jack laughs “I used to go along to classes with him, and slowly but surely I started getting pushed further towards being the Narrator”
"I want to be in the room when someone’s an arsehole, I really do!”
“I feel more comfortable on stage than I do in life, and I don’t know why. It’s something I’ve never been able to explain”.
So, with a lifetime left to work towards it — what’s the dream role? Lowden’s answer is characteristically, ahem, Scottish: “This is going to sound like a pile of wank, but I’d really like to play as close to myself as possible. I think you naturally play versions of yourself, you turn things up and down, but I’d really like to just play me, with all the things I try to hide in my real life.”
And then, just before things are allowed to feel deep and meaningful for too long, he gives a surprising second answer, “I’d like to play someone that’s shorter. Or maybe I just want to do more acting with taller people. I think it just makes you feel instantly protected.”
This, I point out, is a dream he has already realised in his upcoming film Fighting With My Family, a film directed by the 6”7 Stephen Merchant, in which Lowden plays a would-be WWE wrestler alongside The Rock himself.
Lowden laughs again, “yes you’re right, and I loved hanging around with those guys on set!”
Tuning out the noise...
Jack Lowden’s star is rising, with a string of critically-acclaimed performances in his portfolio. But does he ever read the reviews? “My mum sends me them. Especially if it’s been a project that I’ve told her I didn’t know what I was doing on. She sends me positive reviews for those shows basically to tell me to shut the fuck up!”
“Something I always find strange about reviews is that in sport, you have pundits offering their commentary, and they are all ex-sportspeople. Whereas with critics, I find it amazing that they aren’t ex-directors or actors.”
Our conversation ends as Lowden leaves for his next engagement of the day — performing opposite Hayley Atwell in Measure For Measure at the Donmar Warehouse in (another well-received) gender-switching production.
"I’ve realised that the people that I look to for approval has gotten less and less and less..."
He moves to leave with a smile and adds a clarification on his response to reviews, which offers me the only glimmer of the self-doubt he always looks for in a character:
“I am my own worst critic, and I know when I have done well. I’ve realised that the people that I look to for approval has gotten less and less and less — and I think that can only be a good thing.”
The Long Song airs on BBC One this December
Mary Queen of Scots comes to UK cinemas on January 18th 2019
Looking for more great interviews? Gentleman’s Journal sat down with Game of Thrones star Michiel Huisman…