Interview: Jack Lowden on Dunkirk and England is Mine

Jack Lowden promoting England is Mine at the Edinburgh Film Festival
Jack Lowden promoting England is Mine at the Edinburgh Film Festival
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Fresh from getting to grips with Morrissey, Scots actor Jack Lowden tells Alistair Harkness he relished the contrast of an old-school war drama

‘Sorry, there’s a fire alarm going off,” says Jack Lowden over an ear-piercing siren. A minute into my interview with the 27-year-old Scottish actor and Edinburgh’s Caledonian hotel is already providing an apt – if annoying – indicator of the heat he’s currently generating. On the phone the morning after the world premiere of Morrissey biopic England is Mine, Lowden is certainly having something of a moment. Not only does he play The Smiths frontman in the new film about Morrissey’s early struggle to find his voice, he’s about to go global with a starring role as a spitfire pilot in Christopher Nolan’s Second World War drama Dunkirk.

“That was immense,” says Lowden of working with Nolan. “He doesn’t like to use a lot of CGI, so you would be confronted with this spectacle every day. I think we had 1,200 extras on the beach one day; it was an incredible sight. And the flying scenes were pretty cool. We were up in the air, over the channel, flying Spitfires, so that was great.”

This kind of old-school epic filmmaking is a world away England is Mine, which Lowden wrapped just two weeks before shooting commenced on Dunkirk. “I think the hardest thing was getting my hair from black back to blond,” he jokes of the swift transition from playing a moody pop-star-in-the-making to a pilot involved in the evacuation of 300,000 British troops from France. “There was no time for boot camp [on Dunkirk], so I just dove right in, which happens sometimes.”

Playing Morrissey, of course, comes with its own weight of expectation. For hordes of fans, critics and pop culture historians, he’s one of the most significant lyricists, singers and rock stars of the modern era, his creative partnership with Johnny Marr in The Smiths frequently mentioned in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards.

Lowden is too young to have grown up with The Smiths and wasn’t really a fan before co-writer/director Mark Gill sent him the script. But after putting himself on tape and meeting Gill, he immersed himself in the iconoclastic singer’s life. “As much as Mark would let me,” he adds. “The whole point is that it’s not about the Morrissey that is known, it’s about the making of him.”

Set in Manchester between 1976 and 1982 (when Morrissey and Marr jammed for the first time), the unauthorised film expands what would normally be the first act of a biopic into an entire movie. Which means no music by The Smiths and none of Morrissey’s solo material. “Everybody knows the story of The Smiths,” says Lowden, anticipating the backlash the film might receive for not telling the whole story. “You can still go and see Morrissey. There’s no need to make a film about him from that point onwards.”

For Lowden, who’s the first to admit he doesn’t really look like him, the film is all about hesitation.

“It’s about a young man’s hesitation and how hesitation can kill you, can stop you doing things, can stop you becoming the optimum version of yourself that you have in your head.” It certainly avoids the cliché of the savant-like artist whose talent emerges fully formed. “He struggles letting out,” says Lowden of the portrait of Morrissey the film paints. “And the couple of times he does let it out, he falls flat on his face. So it was way more about that than about Morrissey himself.”

Lowden developed his own love of performing when he was kid. He grew up in the village of Oxton in the Scottish Borders, a region more famous for producing rugby players than actors.

I tell him I’m from nearby Hawick. “F*** off! You’re from Hawick? How old are you?” Too old for our paths to have crossed, I say. He just laughs. “My younger brother [Calum Lowden] is a ballet dancer; he dances with the Royal Swedish Ballet and was doing ballet from a very young age, so I tried it out and was gradually pushed towards the speaking parts.”

There’s no real romantic story, he says. His dad works for Bank of Scotland; his mum was a veterinary nurse at one point. He enrolled in the Scottish Youth Theatre early on and had a great music teacher at Earlston High School who’d put on big summer shows in which he’d star. He’d go to Galashiels to do shows with the town’s Amateur Operatic Society. “That’s what I grew up doing. It was just kind of fun and something I could do, so I went and did it. And nobody told me I couldn’t do it.”

Although his increased movie profile might seem sudden, it comes hot on the heels of last year’s BBC adaptation of War and Peace and an award-winning theatre career that’s seen him in constant demand since graduating in 2011 from what’s now the Conservatoire of Scotland. “There’s never been a plan,” he says. “The parts I’ve got to create are a little bit different to a lot of guys my age. I’m not running about playing romantic leads. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s the way it’s sort of working out. I do constantly get to change the way I look, which is sort of an old-school idea of acting.”

That’ll continue with his next few roles. He’s just wrapped Stephen Merchant’s directorial debut Fighting With My Family in which he plays a wrestler from Norwich. Later this summer he’ll be back in Scotland to play Lord Darnley in a big budget film about Mary Queen of Scots, opposite Saoirse Ronan. “I’m doing a bit of research on that now – and growing a beard as well.”

Time’s almost up. I ask about the allure of Hollywood. It must quite exciting to be an actor in his position at the moment. “I guess from the outside, yeah. I’ve been doing this for about six or seven years now and I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant people from quite early on. From my perspective I’ve just been trying to enjoy it. But it’s always been exciting.”■

*Dunkirk is in cinemas from Friday. England is Mine is released on 4 August.