When he grew out his hair, donned the floral dress and set about mimicking the nervous tics and trills on screen, little did Johnny Flynn know that he was about to get the full, demonised David Bowie 1971 experience.
“When the trailer came out [in October] there were a couple of weeks of getting really heavy stuff online,” he says, recalling the public’s initial reaction to his portrayal of Bowie in pre-fame biopic Stardust. “I’m not big into social media, but I was getting a lot of violent hate mail and stuff from people saying: ‘You played him like he’s insecure’. And then homophobic abuse: ‘You’re playing him all fey. Why is he wearing a dress?’”
No road to stardom is without its potholes and Johnny Flynn, as one of the UK’s breakthrough actors in one of the most challenging years to be a breakthrough actor, has had his fair share. On the one hand, a decade of increasingly notable appearances in TV period dramas like Vanity Fair and Les Miserables has led to lead movie roles in Emma and Stardust. On the other, his big screen break-out was stymied by all the big screens being shuttered for much of the year. And then Johnny found his Bowie stirring up the same bigoted outrage in ‘enlightened’ 2020 that the cross-dressing cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and Ziggy’s pansexual alien aesthetic did way back in the early ‘70s.
“It’s weird,” Johnny sighs down Zoom. “It’s like the world hasn’t changed. People get upset about Harry Styles wearing a dress. So I’m happy that the film might be an education for people that breaks down some made-up version of David that they have in their mind. That in itself felt like justification for doing it, to shine a light on a David that you didn’t see. People think he arrived in 1972, ‘73 as Ziggy, this alien, and there was so much going on before that and so much that went into that. David needed to make Ziggy to save himself from himself.”
“‘Stardust’ shines a light on a David that you didn’t see”
Stardust pinpoints the 1971 American tour – on which a downbeat Bowie, following a string of flop records that made 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ look like a one-off hit, concocted his career-saving Ziggy Stardust alter ego. It was made without the involvement of Bowie’s estate and therefore doesn’t include any of the great man’s music. Some reviewers (including this writer) looked beyond the lack of Bowie tracks to the engrossing road movie beyond, but with Bowie’s son Duncan Jones tweeting about the film’s “unauthorised” status, the film received a pre-release backlash from both public and critics.
“In this country, people haven’t seen it yet, so they were reacting to the idea of the film,” Johnny says. “People who see the film seem to really like it and I think it does speak for itself. I always knew it was going to be a contentious film. We made it without the rights to the songs and without working with his estate kind of on purpose, because we wanted journalistic integrity and authorial objectivity. [Director Gabriel Range had] seen estates and bands get involved in other projects before and kind of homogenise things. So I knew it was going to upset people, and it wasn’t an easy choice to do the film – it was really like: ‘I’m gonna play David Bowie, do I have the right to do this?’ I questioned it every step of the way.
“It’s this dark little film about this very dark moment in his life while he’s still putting things together,” he continues. “That was the film I wanted to make, show him covering [emotive Belgian singer] Jacques Brel, he’s into The Velvet Underground and copying [Cockney actor and teen pop icon] Anthony Newley’s vocal style… to see all those elements that he slams together to be this new innovation in Ziggy. It was much more interesting than doing a greatest hits jukebox musical. I think people think this is a cynical biopic in the vein of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, then they’re offended by the idea that it’s not…”
He adds: “I was a bit disappointed in humanity for a moment because people were judging it before seeing it – and there was a weird cancel culture thing around the idea of the film. Now I don’t mind people being upset about it because I think people are just upset generally [at the moment]. I realise people are projecting their trauma through anything, having a road rage type mentality from the safety of their bedrooms.”
Johnny’s Bowie, ironically, is one that late-stage pandemic audiences should be able to relate to: introverted, insecure and worried he’s cracking up. “This is a moment when David is actually quite unsuccessful,” Johnny says. “Promoting ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, he was kind of embarrassed with the material and riding on the back of a lot of failure. He’s full of doubt, very fragile and worried about his mental health. He makes this record that is ostensibly about madness, and his brother Terry’s been in an institution recently. You see the genesis of these ideas come together and he rebirths himself as this new artistic being.”
“This isn’t a cynical biopic in the vein of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Rocketman'”
That artistic being would go on to record one of music’s greatest bodies of work – but as previously mentioned, none of those classic hits are licensed to appear in the film. Still, there are some enjoyable music moments, with Flynn showcasing the chops he’s honed over a 12-year career as a folk musician. In particular, the closing sequence sees him rock out on stage in full Ziggy attire.
“When he was performing he had this sense of release,” Johnny previously told NME about his experience of becoming Bowie for the climactic scenes. “I watched the Ziggy performances a lot, but mostly I tried just to channel this young artist that I perceived to have not found their voice yet.” Johnny also wrote a new song for the film, ‘Good Old Jane’, intended to sound like “an early, lost [Bowie] song that people haven’t heard yet.” The response has been mixed.
If Stardust looks set to divide audiences, Johnny has an ace in the – very deep – hole. The same day that his Bowie flick hits the internet also sees the release of The Dig, a thoughtful, 1930s-set drama based around the excavation of an Anglo Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. In this tear-jerking Time Team, Johnny holds his own opposite Hollywood megastars like Lily James, Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. It’s yet more proof that he’s made the leap from acclaimed indie actor to big-shot movie star, even if he still says he has to “pinch myself everyday.”
There’s something fateful in Johnny’s rise to screen-throb status. Most of his close family are actors (his father was a prolific television actor, his sister Lillie also mingles music with theatre work and his half-brother is Jerome from Robson & Jerome), and the pressures of getting a music scholarship to Winchester, and all the compulsory orchestra practice that entailed, made him want to rebel, start punk bands and chase his acting ambitions to drama school and beyond.
Ever since his first film role in 2006 Dutch movie Crusade In Jeans and his debut album ‘A Larum’ two years later, he’s artfully interwoven music and acting, releasing albums with his band The Sussex Wit between stints as the protagonists of STD sitcom Lovesick and Comedy Central’s Brotherhood, as well as acclaimed roles in films like 2017’s BAFTA-winning Beast.
By developing music and acting in unison, has he escaped the stigma of the musician having a crack at films? “I would hope so,” he says. “It was a conscious effort on my part to keep them separate. I really didn’t want to be seen as somebody riding on the coattails of one to do the other. I used to be happy when somebody from the acting world said, ‘I didn’t know you were a musician’ or vice versa, because it meant that I could be taken seriously doing either thing.”
“The industry has been completely annihilated by COVID”
As both muso and thespian, though, Johnny has been uniquely placed to see the full perfect-storm effect of the pandemic on the arts. “For me, it’s just been seeing things fall away,” he says. “One thing after another: gigs, concerts, films and projects. I’m lucky that I had a good year last year so I haven’t had to worry too much about money. I feel like I need to use that privilege to help people who have just been completely annihilated by this [Johnny has been performing livestreams to raise funds for struggling musicians]. There’s a lot of freelance people working in that industry – from the wardrobe department to the lighting engineers, and ditto for music and the people who work in venues. Those are the people I’ve been most worried about.
“It’s such an extraordinary thing to live through, a moment in time to have been around for. It’s amazing to me how naive we are as a race. The level of uncertainty, not knowing what’s going on, the lack of information people can give you and that confusion. That’s been happening and the Brexit stuff, there’s no steady ground to stand on and we’ve had to completely surrender to this great unknown. In a way I feel like that’s probably quite good for our souls.”
Between looking after his three children and “reflecting on what’s really important”, however, Johnny has written and started recording an album in lockdown and managed to get a small-cast, one-location film called The Score in the can between shutdowns. How was it being on-set mid-COVID?
“Really weird,” he grins. “Not as hindered as you might think. Sets are usually such sociable environments, two or three hundred people coughing and breathing on each other, all trying to do their job at the same time. Turns out that’s not the best way to get it done. The COVID restrictions of filming, which is the lighting guys come in then clear out, the art department comes in and then clears out, that’s actually slightly more calm and efficient than everybody shouting. The bit I missed was when you have the chance of getting to know and have a spark with the director or the other cast. Usually everybody’s this big family, but that wasn’t the case because you were in bubbles. That was sad for me, being kept away from everybody.”
Seeing online posters for his friends’ 2021 gigs and hearing vaccine hopes inject the theatre world with fresh positivity, though, Johnny is confident – pre-lockdown three, at least – that 2021 will be everybody’s breakout year. “I’m sure there’ll be some bumps along the way but it seems like people’s confidence is back,” he says. “Theatres have started booking plays. They’ve just gone: ‘That’s it, we’re coming back. Nothing’ll stop us’.”
And the same, Bowie trolls, goes for Johnny Flynn. He’s a starman, waiting in the wings.
‘Stardust’ is on digital platforms from January 15