Lewis MacDougall’s nuanced performance as a boy trying to cope with his mother’s terminal illness in fantasy drama A Monster Calls is likely to draw even more attention to the talents of the Edinburgh schoolboy, who seems to take working with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones in his stride
As bonding exercises go, a trip to Blackpool Pleasure Beach with Rogue One star Felicity Jones sounds like a pretty good ice-breaker when it comes to making a movie, especially if you’re 12. That’s how old Edinburgh-born Lewis MacDougall was when he and Jones worked together on A Monster Calls, the heartbreaking new British fantasy film based on the best-selling Patrick Ness young adult novel of the same name. Sitting in a plush hotel room ahead of the movie’s London Film Festival premiere, the now 14-year-old Lewis, who plays Jones’s son in the movie, is recalling how she took him on the “Big One” – the aptly named tallest roller-coaster in Britain. “I went on it seven times in a row. I could barely walk afterwards,” he says, gleefully.
Though the Blackpool trip was part of the production (it features in a scene in the film), the experience seems appropriate given the crazy ride this otherwise unassuming Edinburgh teenager has been on of late. In the last couple of years the Currie Community High School pupil has gone from doing Saturday morning kids drama workshops to rubbing shoulders with Hugh Jackman and working opposite the likes of Jones and Sigourney Weaver, walking the red carpet with the latter just a few hours after we meet. He’s got another two movies coming up as well and, if his nuanced work on A Monster Calls is anything to go by, he could follow in the footsteps of new Spider-Man star Tom Holland should he decide to pursue acting once he’s finished school.
That’s the plan now, even though he didn’t start acting with any thoughts about a career. Beginning when he was “nine-ish” at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, it was, he says, just a fun thing to do with his friends. Nevertheless, after Drama Studio director Julie McDonald convinced him to overcome his nerves and attend an open casting call for last year’s Hugh Jackman-starring fantasy adventure film Pan, he ended up winning the role of Peter Pan’s best friend Nibs, securing a movie agent into the bargain.
Which is how he landed the lead role of Conor in A Monster Calls – or part of the reason. He actually had two people championing him for the lead: his agent and his chaperone on Pan, who was also part of the casting team for the new film and had worked with its Spanish director, JA Bayona, on his previous movie The Impossible – the film that launched the aforementioned Tom Holland’s career.
“He has a lot of experience working with actors my age so he was my acting coach on set and really helped me reach those levels of emotion I needed to reach,” says Lewis.
That emotion is what makes A Monster Calls different in tone from the knockabout adventure of his debut: it’s less Pan, more Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s hardly surprising. Before moving into English language films, Bayona broke through with the Guillermo Del Toro-produced The Orphanage and, like that film (and much of Del Toro’s Spanish-language output), A Monster Calls uses fantasy to explore childhood trauma: in this case the complex feelings of guilt and grief that Lewis’s character experiences as his dying mother contends with having terminal cancer. These feelings manifest themselves in the form of the titular monster, a terrifying ewe tree that grows outside his window, but comes to life in his dreams as a fire-breathing beast, voiced and played by a motion-captured Liam Neeson.
Lewis got to spend two weeks working with Neeson on a motion capture stage in Los Angeles before the live-action portion of the shoot began – an experience he relished, having watched him in some of the Taken films. When I ask if he’s watched Weaver in the similarly age-inappropriate Alien movies yet (she plays his grandmother in A Monster Calls). He smiles and says no – not because he’s not allowed; he just hasn’t got round to it. “I’ve watched her in Ghostbusters,” he confirms. “And I watched Felicity in The Theory of Everything and really liked that.”
He seems to have taken working with big names in his stride, which is just as well given the acting demands made of him in the movie. Did his more seasoned co-stars offer him lots of advice?
“Not so much in terms of telling me stuff,” he says, “but I learned a lot from being able to watch them. Doing scenes with Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones was a great experience. I was honoured to have that opportunity.” He looks up to his peers too, Tom Holland in particular, who visited the Barcelona set of A Monster Calls to see Bayona and ended up doing some of the monster’s lines opposite Lewis. “He actually has a credit for that if you look closely at the end,” he reveals. “At that point he hadn’t been cast in Spider-Man; that happened while we were shooting.
“I admire people like Tom,” he adds. “It’s not always easy to make a transition from being a child to adult in acting, but hopefully it’ll work out for me.”
It’s not hard to imagine executives at Marvel or Lucasfilm keeping an eye on him; or indeed Bayona, who’s directing the sequel to Jurassic World. For the moment, though, he’s just looking forward to seeing A Monster Calls with his friends. “They know I’ve been away filming, but I’m not sure they know what this film is all about. I hope they enjoy it.” ■
*A Monster Calls is in cinemas now