joe alwyn was destined to be a star

Plucked from obscurity to play the lead in Ang Lee’s new blockbuster 'Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,' meet the London lad about to hit the big time.

by Paul Flynn
04 November 2016, 12:50pm

Joe wears shirt Margaret Howell.

Tank top Polo Ralph Lauren.

Sweater Margaret Howell. 

Joe Alwyn cannot recall if he made any New Year's Resolutions on January 1, 2015. "Not that one anyway," he says. He couldn't possibly have countenanced for the life-changing Cinderella story that was about to find the actor. Joe is a nice middle-class young man, faultlessly polite and agreeable company, the son of a north London documentary filmmaker father and psychotherapist mother. He grew up in Tufnell Park. On January 1, 2015, as he was about to enter the second term of his final year at Central School of Speech and Drama, perhaps the only truly distinguishing feature about Joe was his movie star looks. "Oh, thank you," he says, a little bashfully. Little did he know, in four months time, he would become one.

Joe's story is touched with the arbitrary hand of magic and stardust. The magician in his case is two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, the painstaking Taiwanese director and awards magnet whose canonical offerings include work from Winston Chao in The Wedding Banquet, Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm and, most famously, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. "I knew exactly who Ang Lee was," Joe says. "In second year, I played a cowboy and I remember watching Brokeback Mountain just for the physicality and the landscape of America. I'd seen a lot of Ang's films and never imagined what then happened to happen." If Ang Lee was due another find, Joe Alwyn had no idea it may be him.

Joe picked up agency representation at a Central showcase and was immediately sent a tape for the title role in Lee's forthcoming Iraq war epic, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The central role of Billy was proving a tough casting call. Joe's tape landed on the casting director's lap and Joe's life began to upend. "That night I got a call saying the casting director loved the tapes and he wanted me to take a whole load more." Joe recorded excerpts as Billy with his dad and a drama school friend. "We then got another call saying Ang had seen the tapes, can I come to New York in two days? I'd never been to America before..." An intense creative adventure was beginning.

Joe flew to New York and read extensively with Ang and his casting director, Avy Kaufman, who had previously found another unknown, Suraj Sharma, for the title lead for Lee's last smash, The Life of Pi. "The whole thing was a whirlwind," Joe recalls. "I remember sitting in my hotel room with a beer and a slice of pizza the night before the audition. I must have been nervous but because it happened so fast I didn't have time to get nervous. I didn't compute what was going on."

Joe and Ang connected. "I read with Ang and Avy for a couple of hours and I thought it had gone really well, but I didn't really know," he says. "I felt really at ease with him. I knew that they liked me, so I gave it a go. I was meant to go back home the next day but I got a call saying 'We want you to stay on and meet the producer.' Great. I did that. And essentially they kept keeping me on and on." Joe repeatedly made plans to return home, only to have them thwarted. He celebrated his 24th birthday in America, by himself. "It got to the point where I knew that he wanted me for the part and she wanted me for the part but of course, I was still an unknown from London, with long hair, a lot skinnier and not a soldier. For someone who is not a name to take a lead in a film like that is obviously a risk for a director and a risk for a studio. Sony, along with Ang and everyone said 'OK, well, can you do more tests?'" They flew Joe to Atlanta, where new technology was being tested to Ang's exacting specifications. He intended to shoot Billy Lynn using the highest frame rate of any film to date, to make it feel 'more real.'

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk concerns a 19-year-old serving member of the US military whose squadron goes viral when footage of Lynn attempting to save his sergeant emerges online. The men are deemed national heroes and shipped back to America to appear at the halftime spectacle of the 2003 Superbowl. Destiny's Child performs before the heroes are garlanded for their duty, bravery and service. Ang Lee had the original Superbowl set builders recreate the stadia in exact detail. The choreography for the dancers and cheerleaders is exactly the same. All the action takes place on the day of the Superbowl, with flashbacks to the fire fight in Iraq. The gripping tale has been rendered with new 3D technologies. As the auditions continued, runners were dispensed in Atlanta to buy Joe new boxer shorts and T-shirts. Of course, he got the job. "I had to leave drama school, go back to London to get a Visa, in two weeks I was in boot camp training and then the week after I was on set, having never made a film before." Perhaps the most gratifying detail of Joe's casting is that it will not be the strangest inclusion as the credits roll. Kristen Stewart and Garret Hedlund are comfortably ready for the Ricci/Maguire treatment, but did you ever think you'd see the day when royal Hollywood beefcake Vin Diesel got name-checked in an Ang Lee movie?

This November, the world will get to see selected highlights of Joe Alwyn's amazing, cataclysmic 2015. "The film is an anti-war, pro-soldier film," he says. "But as much as it is a political commentary or allows the audience to decide, as much as it is in this huge framework, this huge day of fireworks and explosions and Destiny's Child, it's a very intimate coming-of-age story for Billy. So I just concentrated on the story of a boy deciding who he is and what he wants and where he wants to be."

Ang Lee, Joe says, was a dream first directing date. "He can be incredibly blunt and direct with what he wants," he explains. "And if you are not getting it then he will tell you, not in any unkind way, he will just say 'too much acting' or 'you're not getting it' or 'go through this thought process.' He'll be very direct with what he wants but because he is such a sweet, good, talented person you never think, 'oh fuck, he's being horrible.' He won't move on until he's happy, so you're going to bear with him. You want him to be blunt. You want him to be direct. You don't want it to be sugar-coated, you want to know if you're getting what he wants you to get. He's a really interesting, special guy and I went wherever he wanted to get me to go." 


Text Paul Flynn
Photography Alasdair McLellan

Hair David Harborow at Streeters using Moroccanoil. Photography assistance Lex Kembery, Matthew Healy, Simon Mackinlay. 

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