Johnny Flynn interview: ‘Play James Bond? I can barely get myself out of the house to go for a run’

·10-min read
Johnny Flynn  (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Johnny Flynn (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

For the record, Johnny Flynn is not being lined up as the next James Bond. In preparation for his latest role as the author Ian Fleming in new spy thriller Operation Mincemeat, the actor tells me that he spent a lot of time watching old Bond movies. Now that Daniel Craig has hung up his tuxedo, could he see himself stepping into 007’s shoes one day?

“I can barely get myself out of the house to go for a run once a month,” he laughs. He’s not sure he’d be up for the “very intense” physical demands of the role. “Never say never”, he laughs some more, but whoever the next Bond is, “at this point in history... it’s perhaps problematic to have another white man playing the part. There has to be a chance to look at how we create more diverse casting in some of these iconic franchises.”

Operation Mincemeat sees South African born, London-raised Flynn star opposite Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen in a story about a daring real-life WW2 spy mission. Masterminded in part by Fleming, it involved planting fake battle plans and invented personal effects on a (relatively) fresh corpse to deceive the Germans of Churchill’s real invasion target. Fleming worked in the Intelligence Division of the Navy, helping to plan this and several other top-secret operations, many of which later inspired his 007 stories.

“It was a lot of imagining who this person [Fleming] was,” Flynn says. He read a lengthy book about the author by Ben Macintyre, the writer who wrote the book on which Operation Mincemeat is based. “[Fleming] wrote Bond as a sort of idealised version of himself,” he explains. “When you see what his experience was in the war, you realise [Bond] was kind of that, you see where his relationship to M [came from]. It was also really fun doing the scenes with the real-life Q in the film, James Fleet.” Flynn concedes that he would still like to appear in Bond one day, just maybe not as the titular hero. “Maybe as the baddie”, he smiles.

Matthew McFadyen, Colin Firth and Flynn in Operation Mincemeat (film handout)
Matthew McFadyen, Colin Firth and Flynn in Operation Mincemeat (film handout)

By the looks of his other newest role as psychotic Chicago mobster Francis in 1950s mafia film The Outfit, Flynn certainly has the credentials to play a villain. The role is yet another transformational one for Flynn in a career already marked by versatility.

He’s played Mr Knightley in the lauded recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stepped into the shoes of a serial killer in Beast and had a turn in arthouse favourite Clouds of Sils Maria. TV wise he’s been in classic Netflix romcom Lovesick, Detectorists, Vanity Fair and Les Misérables – to name a mere few – and on stage, he received an Olivier nomination for his performance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, played Lady Anne in Richard III and Viola/Cesario in the Globe’s production of Twelfth Night – all of which featured his Outfit co-star, Mark Rylance.

Flynn prepped for The Outfit closely with Rylance. The pair watched old fifties gangster movies together and Rylance brought an ex-con friend of his to speak to Flynn. “He used to basically run around with some rough people,” Flynn says. “But now, he’s just like the gentlest, sweetest person and a reformed violent ex-con. He spoke to us about patterns of behaviour and how you can use your physicality, how you threaten people and how you extract information. It was fascinating to question him on what was going through his mind, going off to do these robberies.”

Flynn describes Rylance as a “huge figure in my life” and “a teacher, mentor and wonderful collaborator.” He’s helped make Flynn a better actor, he says. “I’ve learned so much from him.” Rylance has been candid about his preference over theatre over film – something the pair bonded over.

With his “mentor” Mark Rylance in The Outfit (Alamy Stock Photo)
With his “mentor” Mark Rylance in The Outfit (Alamy Stock Photo)

“I can definitely relate to that,” Flynn says. “The reason I enjoy theatre so much is because it’s where I came from. I feel more comfortable in that environment. I’ve reached a point where I can operate more fluidly but coming from a stage perspective, I still have to wrestle my creative brain through a different lens to work in film. I’m learning more and more how to operate in that realm, but I still feel like I’ve got a long way to go.”

The characters he plays across stage and screen are so different on paper, but can he see a common denominator that links them? He says if anything, it’s their shortcomings. “As human beings we are so flawed, we have hang-ups and fears and it’s [interesting] how we overcome the shadows that we walk around with and how they haunt us. That’s something I enjoy portraying in a character... I try to find that thing that’s maybe holding them back and see how that resistance can be portrayed. For me, it’s an exercise in compassion, you get to dive into these different shoes and think about how somebody else faces life. But I also relish doing things that are wildly different from another,” he smiles, “often all at once.”

That’s true of his career too. It’s music, not acting, for instance, that is Flynn’s first love much, like his half-brother, Game of Thrones actor and musician Jerome Flynn. Johnny released an acclaimed debut, A Larum in 2008 and earthy nu-folk follow up Been Listening in 2010, which included two soaring collaborations with Laura Marling and Anna Calvi. Country Mile and Sillion came next, before a project with nature writer Robert Macfarlane, Lost in the Cedar Wood in 2021.

He talks at length about the joy he finds in making music and how, during the pandemic at his home in Hackney Marshes, he loved being able to focus on it. “I actually really relished the fact I didn’t have other distractions for once,” he smiles. “I’d done the last two studio albums around filming and theatre. I remember going to the studio in the day and then having to go to the theatre at night. I was knackered, but really appreciating the fact I was getting to do both things. But I wasn’t able to completely abandon myself in the role of musician and songwriter, which is what I really wanted to do.”

Shot for the Evening Standard (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)
Shot for the Evening Standard (PHOTOGRAPHY NATASHA PSZENICKI)

Macfarlane wrote to Flynn pre-lockdown saying how much he loved his music and by chance, Flynn was reading MacFarlane’s writing at the time, at home with his stage designer wife, Beatrice Minns. A collaboration and close friendship blossomed, the pair bonding over their nature, music, and fatherhood (they have three children each).

Macfarlane suggested to Flynn that they use the ancient epic poem Gilgamesh as a touchstone for their project, which combines Flynn’s emotive songs with spoken word segments and writings from Macfarlane. “It was one of the first stories ever written”, Flynn says of Gilgamesh. “And it felt like the most important for the times we were living through. It had these themes of bad governance, bad leadership, ecocide, death, disease, mourning, grieving and separation – all these things that were emotional epochs of their moment [were] our moment too.”

Struggling with home schooling at the height of lockdown, the pair sent each other what Flynn describes as “slightly deranged WhatsApp messages” as they recorded voice notes and song snippets at a distance, in between lessons.

“It became an ark [to help] with this completely unusual and unknown territory we were in,” he says. When not making music, he would escape to the marshes with his children for their lockdown daily walk, a place that “became his version of the Cedar Wood,” he says, “a place of escape.”

As soon as it was possible, he and Macfarlane were in the studio. Now, they can’t wait to tour the record properly having done a one-off performance at The Globe in February. “I found it really emotional,” he says of his first live music performance in over two years. “It’s just that thing of everybody’s hearts beating in time, everybody’s gripped by the same thing. That feeling and realising it’s happening is just one of the most beautiful things. It can change the world in a way.”

Flynn has sometimes found a way to combine his love of music with acting. Take his appearance in Stardust, a film about a pre-fame David Bowie during a little-known period of the musician’s life. Flynn even recorded an original song for the project. Was it daunting, playing someone so iconic? “I definitely felt the pressure at times,” he says. “But I know I’m at my best when I’m allowing myself to be as bold as fearless as possible.”

Flynn wasn’t prepared for the backlash against the Bowie biopic Stardust (IFC Films)
Flynn wasn’t prepared for the backlash against the Bowie biopic Stardust (IFC Films)

The film was a far cry from recent big-budget music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, focussing instead on just one period in Bowie’s life. “We all know the genius and celebrated musician he became, but I thought it was more interesting to tell his story starting out when he was a young, scared, fragile musician,” he explains. He studied interviews where Bowie looked “terrified” pre-fame. “He was really shy. He hadn’t found his sound or place in the world, and I thought that was a really beautiful time to look at because it’s inspiring: everybody has to start somewhere.”

Critics, though, didn’t agree and nor did Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, who slighted the movie on Twitter. Fan fury soon followed. Flynn wasn’t really prepared for the backlash. “I didn’t realise quite how differently people might feel to the way I felt about it... We got a lot of flack. I think we suffered coming off the back of Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody – it’s just not the type of story we were doing.”

He says he wasn’t ever interested in doing an impression of Bowie. “It’s just bizarre to criticise something because it’s not a perfect replica of the person. If you want David Bowie, listen to David Bowie... only Elvis looks like Elvis. It was to think about him in a way that you haven’t thought about them before.”

He’s tried to avoid what’s gone before too with his appearance as Dickie Greenleaf in a new, high-profile television adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. He didn’t watch the film version (Jude Law earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Greenleaf). “I wanted to free to think about it in a new way.”

Flynn plays Bond creator Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat - but he’s a rustic folkie at heart (film handout)
Flynn plays Bond creator Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat - but he’s a rustic folkie at heart (film handout)

When we talk, he has just one more day of filming on the series left. What can he tell us about it?

“I think [it’s] darker, more sort of noir-y, like a Fellini film,” he says. “It’s perhaps truer to the book too... with ours, over [several] episodes you can go into much more detail so it’s a much more of character study of [Tom Ripley] who is played by Andrew Scott. The biggest joy about doing this is working with him and watching him work. He’s one of my favourite actors; it’s been a thrill.”

True to form, Flynn isn’t planning on taking a rest anytime soon once filming on Ripley is done. He’s got another film on the way, The Score – which he’s also written the music for – a secret new project he can’t yet talk about and, there’s another new album waiting to be recorded.

“I’ve been constantly running away from anything that feels at all commercial or trendy,” he says, “I’m interested in human beings and emotions more than anything else.” Perhaps he’s right about Bond - he’s really a rustic folkie at heart.

The Outfit is out now, Operation Mincemeat is released on Friday April 15. Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane are on tour April 26-30, johnny-flynn.com

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