Interview: Douglas Booth, actor

Picture credit: Debra Hurford Brown
Picture credit: Debra Hurford Brown
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As GK Chesterton noted, “No man knows he is young while he is young.” There’s nought so serious as a determined youth, and actor Douglas Booth, aged 19, is that. He tells me he’ll only take a job “if it is going to be a blessing”, and seems so afraid of causing offence that if he expresses a liking for coffee, he hurriedly makes the case for tea, to even things out.

As GK Chesterton noted, “No man knows he is young while he is young.” There’s nought so serious as a determined youth, and actor Douglas Booth, aged 19, is that. He tells me he’ll only take a job “if it is going to be a blessing”, and seems so afraid of causing offence that if he expresses a liking for coffee, he hurriedly makes the case for tea, to even things out.

It’s all incredibly sweet, a first impression borne out by some of his colleagues – such as Mark Gatiss and Frances Barber – who tell me that Booth is a lovely, lovely young man.

That second lovely is a tribute to his preternatural beauty. Adjectives aren’t quite up to the challenge of describing this doe-eyed, lush-lipped star of the future, who made his mark on our collective consciousness with the BBC’s drama, Worried About The Boy.

You may have also seen Booth pouting soulfully alongside Emma Watson, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in glossy Burberry campaigns shot by Mario Testino, as Prince Eustace in the Pillars of the Earth, or playing Matt Smith’s boyfriend in Christopher and His Kind.

This year the BBC’s Christmas gift to the nation is an all new, all-star Great Expectations, with Booth starring as Pip, the boy who becomes a gentleman thanks to a mysterious benefactor, but loses his heart to an unfeeling young beauty. The cast includes Ray Winstone as Magwitch, Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, David Suchet as Mr Jaggers, Mark Caddy as Pumblechook, Frances Barber as Mrs Brandley and Vanessa Kirby as Estella.

Booth made time to talk to me by telephone from London, where he’s knee-deep in new projects – more of which later. London’s also his home town. He was born in Greenwich and grew up there, in Blackheath and then Sevenoaks, in Kent.

Booth’s mum, who is half Spanish and half Dutch, and his older sister, are both artists, and his dad works for Citigroup. He was just a boy when he decided the actor’s life was for him. “I struggled with dyslexia at school, and knew it wasn’t going to be an academic path for me. By working bloody hard, I ended up doing very well in my exams, but it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my time. I took up drama and did so much extracurricular work, like the National Youth Theatre, and Guildhall’s Saturday school. Acting is where I felt most comfortable and how I wanted to express myself. I was lucky enough to get a very good agent at the age of 15, and got my first film when I was 16, so it’s been rolling on since then.”

All careers demand sacrifices, regardless of your age. For instance, I read that he was advised to give up rugby because it might mar his good looks. That makes him laugh. “I’ve spent a lot of my teenage years working on sets. I’ve missed out on more than just playing rugby, but I think I’ve managed to keep my feet on the ground and keep my friends around me.

“One of the biggest things I used to struggle with was about things like going on holiday. Whereas all your friends can talk about something and plan something all year long, I know that I’m probably going to be away and I’m going to miss all of it. If a job comes up, you just can’t be there. The negative about acting is that you have to spend a great deal of time away from your friends and loved ones, but it’s not like working a 9-5 job and only having two or three weeks off a year. I may not have seen my girlfriend for two or three months, but then we can spend two or three months together solidly. It’s swings and roundabouts.”

Given his dyslexia, had he ever read Great Expectations? “I read it at school and revisited it for the project. Dickens writes such brilliant characters and stories, and his themes and social commentary are still so relevant. I think that’s why he’s still so loved today.

“I didn’t deliberately visit other adaptations. It’s the same with the new take on Romeo and Juliet that I’m doing. I’ve obviously seen Zeffirelli’s version and Baz Luhrmann’s, but I’m not revisiting them. All I can do is turn up on set and be completely present and honest, with the situation, the character, and the scenario that’s put in front of me.

“It’s not what some other film-maker’s done, or a decision some actor made 20 years ago. It has to be in the moment. I just listen to all the other actors giving, and respond, and try to make something new.”

Cinema-goers will have to wait until next year to see Booth below the balcony, wooing Hailee Steinfeld’s Juliet, in a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Julian Fellowes has written the screenplay and Carlo Carlei directs.

Booth says, “To cut a full Shakespeare play and turn it into an engaging piece of cinema is a very tough thing and that’s something Julian has done very well. For me, if Shakespeare was around today, he’d be writing screenplays – a big Hollywood movie. I think the changes that are having to be made, to make it fit the medium and make it a fast paced, brilliant piece of cinema, [that’s] something that I think Shakespeare would do anyway. The way Julian has adapted it to a screenplay is very clever, but he’s retained Shakespeare’s language.”

Is there any role that he’s found especially educational, or one that resonates the most with his off-screen personality? “In terms of my ability, and about relaxing in front of a camera, I learned the most from Worried About the Boy, which was my first lead. I was in front of the camera non-stop the whole time we were filming. It really enabled me to become the actor I wanted to be and have the confidence I needed. But I’ve loved all my roles.”

And disappeared into them. His German accent for Christopher and His Kind – which depicted Matt Smith’s Christopher Isherwood meeting the real Sally Bowles – was so convincing that a man who heard him chatting to his friends after the first screening blurted, “Oh, I thought you were German!”

“That made me very happy and put a big smile on my face. That was a great film, and Matt Smith and Imogen Poots and Toby Jones are just fabulous actors to work with. So again, an amazing job. Then I went to America and filmed LOL (Laughing out Loud), which is a remake of a very successful French film of the same name. It’s not as fluffy as the name makes it sound. We filmed in Detroit, Chicago and Paris and had a wonderful time.” The cast for this Hollywood version also includes Demi Moore, Marlo Thomas, Ashley Green, and Thomas Jane.

But the real star of the film was none other than teen sensation Miley Cyrus. Naturally there were rumours, swiftly quashed, that the couple hooked up off screen, as well as on. At the time he told reporters, “She’s very hard-working. She’s like a 30-year-old in her mind.” The same could be said of Booth, though I’d probably round that figure up to 40. For all his talk of relaxation before the cameras, he rarely uncoils during our call, which I chalk up to the lack of face to face contact, and his relative newness to the fame game. He seems so afraid of putting a foot wrong that his conversation skates along the surface, despite my attempts to loosen him up.

For instance, given the amazing stars he’s worked alongside, he must have a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, I suggest, inviting him to dish.

“I probably shouldn’t repeat many of them, but I do remember when I was at the read-through of my first ever job, From Time to Time. We were all sitting around the table, and I’ve got Maggie Smith sitting opposite me; I have Dominic West to my left, and Timmy Spall, and Hugh Bonneville. We were about 15 minutes into the read through and Tim Spall’s phone went off. He went, ‘Oh shit, sorry, shit, f***, OK’. Maggie, in a very dry way across the table, goes, ‘Another voice over?’ And whipped him to the ground straight away.”

Booth recognises that he’s had amazing opportunities to learn from the best, and doesn’t take that for granted. “I am learning all the time and don’t think I’ll stop until I die. The set is one of the places where I feel most comfortable. It’s my domain. I know how it works; I know the politics; I know the hierarchy; I know what everyone does. It sounds wanky, but it’s where I perform my art, as it were. Any artist loves it when he or she is in their studio. What you learn from other actors is composure. You learn to relax. You learn manners on set and how to carry yourself.”

It’s always said that film sets become closed communities, like substitute families. Is he saying there’s a special etiquette?

It’s about allowing others to help you do your job, he explains. “Because if you don’t function well, nothing is going to happen. Obviously you have props and sets, but if the actors are not there doing their job properly then nothing is going to get done. Advice I would give to people starting out, other than just turning up on set, is ‘Allow yourself to be looked after’. You also have to stand your ground. If you’re doing a three-month long film shoot, people will try and take the piss sometimes with your time and your energy. As soon as you get ill, or too tired, that’s when your performance starts to suffer. At the beginning of the job you just need to make sure everyone understands where you stand. While being polite. You have to be lovely and polite on set and I always try to make sure to learn everyone’s name and to appreciate everyone for what they do.

“There is not much of a private life when you’re filming. It’s a tough life, but an amazing one. That’s also what I love about it. ”

Though he’s a fan of fashion, citing Christopher Bailey and Alexander McQueen as two stand-out talents, he would never model professionally. “The life of a model is very different from the life of an actor endorsing a brand. It’s very tough and nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds. Like when Burberry fly me to Milan to watch their fashion shows, the models are staying at some grotty hotel around the corner and we’re staying at the bloody Dorchester Collection! My idea of hell would be walking down a catwalk. I much prefer hiding behind a character.”

Perhaps because he began acting in his teens, Booth’s never had to make that awkward – for many, impossible – leap from child actor to adult roles. Does this serious, focused young man have a long-term plan for his career? He tells me he wants to work across all mediums, but doesn’t fancy getting locked into a long running television series. “I would never look at a TV series where I tied myself into anything for longer than six months. I’d get completely bored and go insane.

“The long-range plan is that acting is something I love and want to do for a very long time. The only way I can guarantee that will happen, as much as you can guarantee anything in life, is just go job to job and follow the path I want to follow and have fun. I must have fun with everything I do. And to look after myself, and look after my family and friends – because it’s a dangerous world out there, success and fame. Who knows where my life is going to take me? I’ve just got to focus on the work.”

He’s not flying completely solo. His mum is the director of his company, and handles all the gritty details – such as liaising with his accountant – that Booth, at 19, lacks the interest and the nous to tackle himself.

And if, by some freak change of circumstance, he couldn’t act anymore? “I would be devastated, but I would pick myself up and I would direct and produce. That’s something I would like to do anyway, but directing is a very, very hard thing and I’m still learning how to act, let alone direct.”

I hope I get a chance to interview Booth in ten years’ time. I’m curious to see what kind of an actor, and man, he becomes as he grows older, and even wiser.

Great Expectations is on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 27-29 December on BBC1 at 9pm. Romeo and Juliet, and LOL are due to be released in 2012.