David Jonsson has many talents, but self-promotion is not one of them: the man is apparently incapable of taking credit for anything. In Rye Lane, an extremely charming romantic comedy, Jonsson plays a heartbroken young man learning to approach life with a bit more enthusiasm, following a chance meeting with an eternally optimistic woman (Vivian Oparah). When NME compliments him on the film, Jonsson quietly says thank you and then insists its success has little to do with him.
“Vivian is responsible for how good it is, really,” he says. “You don’t have to do anything when you’re in a scene with her.” Just to hammer his point home, he adds that he’s surprised that director Raine Allen Miller even gave him the role. “I’m not a romantic lead,” he shrugs. “That’s just strange.”
Neither of these things are true — he makes a perfectly convincing romantic lead, and it’s the chemistry between him and Oparah that makes the film — but perhaps Jonsson’s extreme self-deprecation can be explained by the fact that all of this is happening quite fast, and he hasn’t really had much time to get used to the idea of being in a movie, let alone leading one. Rye Lane is Jonsson’s first film, and while he only has a handful of TV projects behind him, he’s already lined up a role playing an icon of British sport and the lead in the latest chapter of one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in history. If Jonsson is struggling with the idea of himself as a film star now, he’s going to have to adjust very fast.
If you recognise Jonsson at all (“I don’t think most people do,” he counters) it’s probably from Industry, the BBC/HBO series about a group of young city traders in London grasping for success and losing hold of their humanity. He plays Gus, an entitled Etonian who assumes he’ll one day be prime minister but is disabused of this notion as his arrogance frequently gets him fired (not necessarily a bar to becoming PM, history has shown). Aside from obviously having the same face, it’s almost alarming how little Jonsson resembles Gus. Where Gus is languid, assertive and almost permanently adorned with a snide grin, Jonsson is smiley, shy and a little giggly. He’s not much like Dom, his Rye Lane character who is initially a bit of a drip, either.
Set in Peckham, Rye Lane is one of those one-magical-date romcoms where two attractive, charismatic people are thrust together and, over the course of one day, go from being awkward strangers to something close to love. Think Before Sunrise, but on the streets of south London. We first meet Dom crying in a toilet, heartbroken over the recent end of a relationship. He’s discovered by force-of-nature Yas (Oparah), who has just gone through her own break-up and is determined to show Dom that moping is the worst way to get over it. Dom, always terrified of rocking the boat, ultimately learns how to live life for himself.
“As an actor, you just want to play things that are different and far away from you,” says Jonsson. “Like Gus in Industry is so far away from me… After the first season of Industry I looked at a lot of scripts that were just like Industry, and I [thought]: ‘I don’t want to do that’. Then this was a romantic comedy set in Peckham and I don’t think I’m romantic or comedic in any sense, so it must be a good thing to try. It’s about always trying something different. While I’ve got time to do that, I just want to turn that dial.”
Viewed together, the two roles already show the breadth of Jonsson’s talent. He’s equally convincing as someone who thinks the world is made for him and someone who thinks he has no place in the world. This combination says this is an actor who could be capable of a great deal. Of course, Jonsson views it a little differently: “I think I’m just a bit weird and strange.”
Jonsson was steeped in a big mix of cinema from a young age. Growing up in Newham, his dad would take him to the cinema most weekends. “We’d watch a load of animation stuff like Finding Nemo, but then the second I looked like I could possibly be over 15, he’d chuck me in the deep end with weirder stuff,” he says. “And I had my older brother and sister at home who’d show me these DVDs they’d pirated, so I’m watching Gaspar Noé and all these strange French films. It was an eclectic learning about film.”
As much as he loved watching movies, becoming an actor was something he hadn’t really thought about until, after getting in trouble too many times, he was expelled from school, and his mum sat him down to ask what he planned to do next. In what he calls “a real cringe moment — so dramatic” he blurted out that he wanted to act, although at that point it was just something he wanted to try, not something he thought would be his life’s work. “I was an introvert as a child, so I don’t think I was like, ‘I want to be an actor!’,” he says. “In that one moment, I don’t know why I said it, but luckily my mum said, ‘OK, all right’.”
Once that decision was made, Jonsson buckled down for years of studying acting. He started at a new school where he could do more drama, then almost as soon as he’d finished his GCSEs he went to New York to study for two years. He returned to London to take up a scholarship at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts (RADA), the acting school that has propagated an endless roster of British stars from Anthony Hopkins to Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Cynthia Erivo. But even after graduating in 2016, he didn’t entirely think acting could become his job: he just really liked doing it.
“It was somewhere around there I thought it could be my profession, but it’s been craft first, profession second,” he says, sounding just a smidge luvvy-ish for a moment. He says he’s never taken a job because it seemed like a good career movie: instead, he’s always gone for things he thought would challenge him. “I think that’s why I’ve [done OK] so far, because I’ve been choosing things rather than falling into them. But we’ll see how long that lasts.”
“I’m not a romantic lead… that’s just strange”
He’s chosen very well so far, with a short, efficient CV. He started with small roles in Deep State, a glossy US network spy thriller, and Endeavour, a long-running Inspector Morse prequel, which gave him some visibility on both sides of the Atlantic. Then came Industry, a life-changing moment for him and the rest of the main cast (which includes Marisa Abela, set to play Amy Winehouse in a new biopic).
He’s grateful he and his cast mates, then equally unknown, were all going through the same thing together. “We really had no idea what to expect,” he says. “We looked at these scripts and were like, ‘This is kind of out there… Are you going to go for it? I’m going for it. Let’s just all really go for it’. And we all just jumped in.” The series was a critical smash, building a small but faithful fanbase. There will be a third season, though Jonsson has no idea when it will happen. It’s going to be tough for him to find a spare minute to do it: 2023 is going to be busy.
The success of Industry has already seen Jonsson go and ‘do the rounds’ in Hollywood, being introduced to lots of important people who might put him in lots of important things. It’s an experience he calls “overwhelming”. He says he has no interest in being famous — “hand on heart, there’s not a second I’ve been in love with the celebrity of it” — and working in Hollywood always means a certain level of playing the fame game. “I don’t know whether it’s something for me,” he says. He loves and wants to work with American filmmakers: “But just the culture behind it, sometimes that bothers me. But it also bothers me here [in the UK] sometimes as well.”
Anyway, all this talk of possibly doing a Hollywood project at some point is moot, because he’s already doing one. Shortly after our interview, Jonsson is off to Budapest to spend months as the male lead in the next chapter of a massive blockbuster franchise. The man isn’t just off to Hollywood. He’s going to space.
In fairness to Jonsson, he has found himself in a blockbuster almost by accident. He’s going to be playing a lead role in the next Alien movie, the seventh in the series — ninth if you count the two Alien Vs. Predator offshoots — which, when you consider the profile of the other actors who’ve led these movies, is kind of ridiculous. Apparently unconnected to the original and prequel arcs, this story follows a group of young people who come face-to-face with the Xenomorph while exploring a planet. When Jonsson read the script, he had no idea what he was potentially signing up for.
“Whenever I read a script, I take off the first two pages,” he explains. He doesn’t like to know who it’s by, so he comes to it with no preconceptions. “I just want to read a good script, and then if I respond to it we go from there. I read the [Alien] script… and it’s really brilliant. It read to me like a sci-fi indie. I was like, ‘What is this?’ My agent smiled smugly and said, ‘It’s the new Alien’. I was like, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake’. Because to be honest, had I known [before I read the script] I would have probably said, ‘I’m not sure I fit in that’.”
Jonsson will star opposite fellow rising star Cailee Spaeny (who’ll be seen later this year in Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla Presley biopic). If it sounds weird that he couldn’t tell it was an Alien movie, remember the alien creatures are rarely, if ever, named in the films. “Looking back, it’s glaringly obvious,” he says. “There’s an alien!… And [reading again], I’m like, ‘Oh that’s a facehugger’. But at the time I had no idea… It’s an interesting role. I think it’s not going to be what people expect.”
“Hand on heart, there’s not a second I’ve been in love with the celebrity of acting”
It’s not the only big project in his schedule. He’s also in line to play Chris Eubank, the British boxer, opposite Joshua Maynard as Nigel Benn in Benn/Eubank, an account of one of the great boxing rivalries of the 1990s. It’s the directing debut of actor David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl), who Jonsson calls “a huge inspiration to me, because he went to RADA as well. I look at what he did and he always made unexpected choices. I’m kind of able to do what I do now because of people like him carving a way.”
Eubank was one of the most successful British fighters of his day, reigning as World Champion for five years, although since hanging up his gloves he’s become something of a comedy figure, thanks to his eccentric style and love of a bizarre soundbite. “Getting cast was great,” says Jonsson of landing the role in Benn/Eubank. “Then all my mates instantly sent me memes of [Eubank] on Gogglebox. It just made me roll my eyes because that’s not what we’re doing.”
This film, he says, is telling the story of a man who deserves to be remembered as a trailblazer. “He was this incredibly driven person who got expelled from school, funnily enough, and had to find a way of life. He’s a complete athlete who changed the way being a young, Black – in fact, any colour – boxer was seen and the way they were paid. Anthony Joshua would never be making what he makes now if it weren’t for Chris Eubank walking into [boxing promoter] Barry Hearn’s office at the time and saying, ‘I know my worth. Pay me what I’m worth’.”
With those two films, plus the third season of Industry at some point, that should be Jonsson’s 2023 entirely booked up. Given what he’s achieved in the last couple of years, it’s hard to predict where he goes from here. If he has a plan then he’s not letting on. “I would love to make plans, but if I do then I’m sure none of them will come to pass,” he says. “What’s the saying? ‘If you make plans, God laughs’.”
If within another couple of years we’re talking Oscar nominations and world domination, nobody will be laughing. David Jonsson is about to become a very serious contender.
‘Rye Lane’ is out in UK cinemas now