Lucy Boynton on playing Marianne Faithfull: “She is an extraordinary woman”

Don't stop her now! The 'Bohemian Rhapsody' star teases her biggest role yet

Lucy Boynton is no stranger to musicians. She played Freddie Mercury’s former fiancée and best friend Mary Austin in Bohemian Rhapsody, getting to know Queen rock stars Brian May and Roger Taylor in the process. She holds raucous karaoke sessions with actor-singer Ben Platt, her co-star on Netflix‘s The Politician. And when she was cast as Marianne Faithfull in an upcoming biopic, the ‘60s icon gave Boynton her personal seal of approval.

Despite these signifiers of cool, the New York-born, London-raised actress is keen we don’t paint her as such. “The posters on my teenage bedroom wall were shameful!” she says, cringing over Zoom. “It would have been Busted, bless them. They were classic!”

Her latest project, which we’re duty-bound to talk about (even though we really want to hear more about Faithfull and Busted) at first glance supports Boynton’s anti-cool agenda. It’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – a lively three-part Agatha Christie adaptation for BritBox. The title refers to the cryptic question posed in the dying words of a man discovered at the bottom of a cliff, with firecracker socialite Lady Frances Derwent investigating the mysterious fall. Boynton, who plays the amateur sleuth, is by far the best thing in it. Her modern energy helps bring fresh thrills to a traditional Sunday evening Cluedo caper.

Lucy Boynton
CREDIT: Getty

Anyway, back to the interesting stuff. Born in the Big Apple to British parents, Boynton moved to London aged four and was working by 12. Speaking to NME from her home in London, she’s friendly, charming and meticulously selects her words as if using tweezers. She politely brushes off any mention of her private life, specifically her relationship with Bohemian Rhapsody co-star Rami Malek. So we take a trip down memory lane instead.

It takes us to Sing Street, the ‘80s-set, synth-packed ode to indie bands, which was arguably Boynton’s first calling card. Stealing scenes as aspiring model Raphina, she looked like she’d just staggered out of the Blitz nightclub with Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon. Cue a series of stylish and smart characters that you can’t take your eyes off.

“If someone comes up to me with a big grin on their face, I know it’s because they’ve seen Sing Street,” she says. “That’s the project they’re going to talk about. When you’re reading a lot of scripts all the time, it’s hard to keep a barometer of what you value and what your taste is. And I’ll often go back to it as a reminder of what really beautiful, quality writing is.”

Bohemian Rhapsody
Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and fiance Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). CREDIT: Alamy

If Sing Street was a cult hit then Bohemian Rhapsody, which followed two years later, took Boynton to another level. She says she’s still wrapping her head around its “amazing” success, which included becoming the highest-grossing musical biopic of all-time and winning four Oscars. Four years on from the film’s release, Boynton still regularly gets LGBTQ teens approaching her to thank her for making it.

In one moving scene, Freddie Mercury comes out to Mary, who’s still wearing her engagement ring. He says he’s bisexual, but she believes he’s gay. Boynton recalls being moved by a 14-year-old’s account of how watching Mary and Freddie’s relationship unfold in that moment helped him come to terms with his own sexuality.

“So often our society tries to shut out someone who falls under the ‘labels’ I guess that Freddie Mercury might,” she says. “People watched it with their families, and it was an opportunity for a lot of people to be seen. It inspired conversations and opened up so much empathy and understanding.”

“We loved ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ too much to let the bad things colour it”

It’s easy to forget now, but BoRap’s production was chaotic from the beginning. Director Bryan Singer (who reportedly clashed with the cast) was fired for “unprofessional conduct” and it was left to his replacement Dexter Fletcher to complete the job after a six-week break in filming.

Boynton has, in past interviews, admitted to tearful calls to her mum during shooting. Did she ever think it might end in disaster? “I always knew it was going to work, because too many people were 110 per cent dedicated to making it happen,” she says. “There was a feeling on-set of loving it too much to let the bad things colour it completely. Seeing everyone pull together and bring their best to it every day triumphed over all the hurdles and things that were difficult – to put it… politely.”

For her next big role, Boynton joined the ever-expanding Ryan Murphyverse in The Politician. With increased attention as it was the first original from the American Horror Story/Glee maverick’s reported $300m deal with Netflix, it saw Boynton stand out among a cast of A-listers including Gwyneth Paltrow.

In the hit 2019 series, which initially follows high schooler Payton Hobart’s (Platt) campaign for student body president as part of his larger ambition to be President of the United States, she plays his Mean Girl nemesis Astrid Sloan. It was like ”signing up to the circus”, she says, “totally magical as long as you’re willing to be swept away.”

The Politician
As Astrid Sloan in Netflix’s ‘The Politician’. CREDIT: Netflix

The younger cast of The Politician were close-knit. Most, including Boynton, had decamped to LA for the first time – and Platt organised bonding activities for them. There was a school-trip outing to Disneyland, as well as endless karaoke sessions with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s ‘Shallow’ on the playlist. Alas, there was no Busted – which might have drawn blank faces from her American audience.

Boynton regularly impresses fans and makes red carpet headlines for her Pintrest-worthy fashion. Today, in a chic, blue-fringed jacket, with her peroxide bob framing her porcelain face, she looks like a ‘60s scion. Which is handy because her next project – and the one we’ve been clamouring to talk to her about – sees her take centre stage in Faithfull, playing the titular rock god Marianne (Boynton also executive produces the project). It’s fair to say she bears more than a passing resemblance to the musician in her younger days.

Delayed by the pandemic, Faithfull starts shooting soon – and is based on Marianne’s astonishing 1994 autobiography, which charted her rise to rock aristocrat, then the drug addiction tailspin that bottomed out in homelessness, and her subsequent recovery.

“Marianne Faithfull looked me up and down and said: ‘Yeah, OK'”

One of the reasons Boynton accepted the role, she says, is because it offered her the chance to redress Faithfull’s image. She sees a true creative whose achievements have often been minimised by sexism, whether it was being dismissed by her own manager as “an angel with big tits” or being seen as the girlfriend, or at best muse, of Mick Jagger, rather than for her own artistic works.

“Marianne Faithfull is someone who’s constantly had her identity prescribed to her or narrated on her behalf,” says Boynton. “I think she’s an extraordinary woman because she’s never been diluted by that. She’s so palpably herself and has always been yelling to us about who she is.

“The media cast her in a way that was convenient to them as the ‘girlfriend of’. They played up the slightly more salacious sides of those stories or cast her as a young, angelic virginal thing. [This film] is an interesting look at how women were seen at the time and how women are used by the media.”

Lucy Boynton
Boynton met Marianne Faithfull at Paris Fashion Week in 2020. CREDIT: Getty

While Marianne isn’t hands-on with the film – the singer has been unwell recently and nearly died of COVID in 2020 – she approves of Boynton’s casting. They met at a fashion show two years ago before the pandemic. Despite not receiving any tips on how to portray her, Boynton was thrilled with the experience.

“She was everything you would want her to be and more – smart, with that wry sense of humour,” she says. “[Marianne] looked me up and down while analysing: ‘Can she do this?’ And then concluded: ‘Yeah, OK’.’ Just to share that time and space with her was the coolest.”

Boynton is, of course, also partly known as one half of a high-profile relationship, and is often asked about it. Does she worry about being reduced in a similar way to Faithfull? “Yeah,” Boynton responds, slowly, considering her answer. “I think in our society we’re much more comfortable when we can slap a label on someone or categorise people. And I think it happens more so to women. So often the woman loses her identity and becomes an accessory to the man. The combination rarely happens the other way around.

“Women’s rights aren’t political”

“To me, it doesn’t make sense to have a lot of my personal stuff out there in the world because my job is hopefully for you to know as little about me as possible so you can just believe the characters I play. It’s complete instinct to want to withhold as much of Lucy as I can.”

When she does reveal more about herself on social media, it’s to speak up about issues such as supporting Black Lives Matter, racial equality and transgender rights. Both her parents are journalists, and she was raised to question the status quo.

“I was brought up in an environment of challenging society as it stands and getting outside the comfort of your own experience,” she says. “I talk a lot about feminism and women’s rights – and especially abortion rights as they become increasingly under threat. To me, those things aren’t political; they’re human rights and it feels organic to want to talk about them.”

Looking beyond Faithfull, Boynton’s next job is Chevalier (where she plays Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution) and a role opposite Gillian Anderson and Christian Bale in Netflix horror The Pale Blue Eyes (nothing to do with the Velvet Underground song). Oh, and she’s listening to Marianne’s tracks on repeat as it hasn’t been decided yet whether she’ll sing in Faithfull. “I keep practising them just in case. It’s definitely a challenge that I’m excited to take on.” Has she asked Malek or Platt for singing tips?

“I mean, Ben’s voice is on another stratosphere so I wouldn’t even approach him,” she laughs. “He’s heard me do karaoke!”

‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’ is available to stream on BritBox UK now