Q&A: Meet the hot new star of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

2017-03-10 07:02
Joe Alwyn

Cape Town - Ang Lee’s work on Brokeback Mountain was a cinematic breakthrough. It was his fresh perspective on the masculine world of cowboys that had everyone talking. In Life of Pi the amazing CGI brought Yann Martel’s fantasy adventure to life in a mesmerising way.

With Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk the acclaimed director took on yet another challenge when he filmed the movie in a high frame rate of 120 frames per second. That’s five times more than the average rate of 24 fps.

The result is a hyper-real cinematic experience that exposes every detail of every character from a facial expression, to a tear, to a frown or a wrinkle.

Meet the 26-year-old star of the film, Joe Alwyn in the Q&A below:

This is your first ever press junket what is it like to talk about your character Billy Lynn over and over again?

(laughs) It’s a little strange, today it feels a little surreal. But it’s also interesting and I like talking about it.

Had you seen the film prior to last night’s world premiere and what was it like for you?

Not the final cut no, and I’d never seen it on a big screen in that [120 fps] format. It’s strange in one sense, because I’d never seen myself in a film. And especially in that kind of clarity -it’s an intense experience and it takes some getting used to. So much work went into it and I am so proud of it. Ang (Lee) is such an incredible director who’s always trying to push boundaries with his work – be it the structure or the themes or the technology. He’s always exploring. There are so many films made today that sit safely in a box, that aren’t trying to challenge or do something new. And so to be part of a project that steps so boldly into something unknown and untried – I think it’s important, brave, and exciting.

It’s amazing to hear someone like Ang even say that he’s not sure how audiences will react to his film because the format is so new to everyone and they have nothing to compare it to.

Yeah, there’s no guarantee how people will react. The fact that it’s taking risks and is so ambitious is what’s brilliant about him. Of course it’s going to divide people. That was always known. When people try and push things, some jump in and embrace it, and some will prefer what they already know.

We don’t know where it’s going to sit and we might not know for two, three or ten years. I think it’s like suddenly showing a photograph to an audience who’s only ever seen paintings.
In some ways I don’t think you can apply normal critique to it – when you watch it, it’s important to give yourself over to it as something completely new. Which is both terrifying and exciting.  And as bold and as jarring as that change may seem, it’s only by giving yourself up to the idea of its newness that you can find the beauty and clarity in it. If you sit and look at it from a safe area that doesn’t want to explore possibility and change, then you’re losing out.

As a Brit, when you got a script, did you relate to Billy?

In many ways I’m a long way from Billy. I am not from the States, I am not from Texas, and when I auditioned, I didn’t look like him. I was skinny, I had long blonde hair, I talk with a British accent. That all had to change. But at the same time there was an essence in him that I felt that I could hold onto,and that I knew. He’s a very American boy and it’s a very American story - but at its heart it’s about a boy coming of age,finding out who he is and which path he wants to take. I think that’s a very human, universal feeling.

After getting the part, there were then further echoes and parallels between my situation and his. I was suddenly thrown into a new experience, right at the deep end. I was in a new country, a new environment, and the pressure of it was largely on my shoulders. For Billy, he’s also thrown into a heightened experience and has to deal with it. There’s an echo there. So I could use and play with that feeling of pressure and deep water. I could personally draw on what I was going through, and then twist it and mold it, and put in new bits and pieces when thinking about how I might try and apply things to Billy.  
Do you think there was an advantage with casting relatively new actors as your platoon mates, because the shoot was so distinctly new and therefore they could be thrown into the deep end like you were?

We were a mix. I think beside myself everyone had done stuff before, and obviously some had done lots.
But yes - the fact that this was being made in a way that had never been done meant that everyone was finding their feet throughout. And that’s cast AND crew. All departments had to adjust and relearn for this medium. We couldn’t wear makeup because we realized that the camera was picking it up, so we had to scrap that. The lighting department had to change the way they lit things. The technology, the size of these cameras, meant that our sight lines were often obscured - and rather than being able to look at each other, we had to hold a memory of the scene and deliver the dialogue to a black matt box.

In some ways, the other guys who had done a lot more than me must have found it equally strange and overwhelming. I came into it with no reference of being on a film set. I knew this one was odd, but I had nothing to unlearn in terms of ‘technique’. I just had to discover how it all worked. They had to readjust to an environment that was foreign to them too.

How much of a bond did you and your fellow bravo team actors develop off screen, because on screen you guys looked so comfortable together.

I think it was important that we did try to get to that stage with each other. Early on we did two weeks of military boot camp. It was physically and mentally tough, and it really, really pushed us to our breaking points.  But one of the aims, maybe the primary aim, was to pull us together as a bunch of boys and as a unit.  We were there in isolation, and had to work together to get through it. There was no individual, only a group. So I guess it started for us then and lasted until the end of the shoot. When you are always together, especially in a place like that,it’s just naturally going to happen.


Do you think we all have to leave the place where we grew up in order to become the people we are meant to be?

Maybe, yes. I think I do. I guess that could mean a lot of different things to everyone, but I think it’s about stepping away from your comfort zone and stepping away from what you know, and jumping into the unknown. It’s only by jumping into deep water that you learn how to swim, and you find out who you are and what you want to be. You only grow and discover if you open yourself up to being vulnerable, and run into what’s unknown.

After the last day of shooting, did you return back to school to graduate?

I left in my first term of my final year and I missed the final two terms while shooting. By the time I came back they were finishing, but I graduated with my class in December.

Was it interesting to come back to the real world again?

It was very, very strange. I didn’t like it, at first. Going from such an intense environment, thousands of miles away,and building this new world over a few months, with these new people who have become your family, to then going back home and sitting in my room in London where it’s raining outside…What just happened? It was such a contrast. I missed it a lot. Finishing the final shot and them saying ‘cut and that’s a picture wrap’… it really got to us all.

There’s a really lovely moment between Vin Diesel’s character Shroom and the platoon before jumping into battle in which he tells his platoon that he loves them. It’s so rare to see that kind of appreciation among men and it was really profound for me. What do those words mean to you in the context of this film?

I think it’s just an expression of their brotherhood and complete trust in each other. They’re a family. It’s an expression of their willingness to do anything for each other,and they know that they will be there for each other. That’s one thing that the military advisors would continually say. You knew that somebody was going to be watching your back, and you in turn would be watching the person in front of you. It’s that implicit trust - because otherwise you’re on your own, and you’re not going to survive. It is what it is – its about love and trust and family, and finding where you belong.

Joe Alwyn

You have got a front row experience to work with some diverse actors like Steve Martin and Kristen Stewart, what did you kind of gauge from everybody?

It was interesting to see how they like to work differently.  Somebody like Steve, he wanted to rehearse more. There was a scene with him on the football field - I remember we would shoot it, and as they were resetting he wanted to run the lines and do it again, and we would do it over and over. He’s quite meticulous and goes over things, he liked to be prepared in that sense. And then with Kristen, maybe it’s more fitting to the nature of the scenes we had together, but we both said let’s just jump in and see what happens, rather than trace it out beforehand. So it was interesting to see how different people liked to work.

Billy meets Faison, (played by Makenzie Leigh) did you guys talk what it meant when the war hero met the cheerleader, like two trophies falling in love.  

We didn’t discuss it too much actually. But yeah, they both project onto each other an ideal, which at the end you realize can’t fit together.
How is Ang like as a director?  

He’s quiet on set, but he’s also very direct and blunt - always in an aura of being an incredibly good human being. If he’s not getting what he wants, he’ll tell you - ‘I can’t lie’ - and he doesn’t.  He is completely honest and nothing is sugar coated. If you are acting too much and he is seeing it, he will just say ‘too much acting’ or this is ‘too dull’ or you need ‘more thoughts behind the eyes’.  And you have to try and get there.  But he won’t let it go until you’ve it.  

I think you want that though. You don’t want to be pandered too. Often though, when you are in the place he wants you to be, he’ll just leave you to get on with it, and he won’t say anything. So at first I didn’t know if I was getting anything right at all… (laughs) I guess you get used to it.

He’s might be quiet but he’s incredibly strong. I have so much admiration for him.

For me so much of the story can be seen through Billy Lynn’s eyes. Was it tough to have the camera so in your face and not distract you from doing your performance?

I just had to try and honestly go through the thoughts that were there. If they weren’t complex enough, like I said, Ang would just tell me that I had to go deeper. I knew the camera was always going to be very close. It was centimeters away from me a lot of the time. You build a relationship to it. It’s a film set in moments of big spectacle, but its also very intimate and personal. We weren’t allowed to watch the dailies, and I had never seen it… I knew it was close but I never quite knew the level of scrutiny that my eyes were under.  (laughs)

So was that interesting for you to observe yourself the first time you saw the film?

It was. I liked it.  I really liked the technology, and thought it was amazing in those bigger sequences with the halftime show and the battle and the hand-to-hand combat. I felt like I was there.  And I know I was there! - But I felt like I was there when I watched it again. I also really loved the detail for those moments of intense close-ups. I thought it worked well in those moments, where you could really see the layers of someone’s skin and see into their eyes. Not just the bigger set pieces, but the quieter, more emotional scenes. It pulls you in; you’re there with them.

What also struck me when I watched this film was our appreciation for military can be quite superficial, what do you think this film is trying to say about the public’s relationship with the Military?

I think it works on two levels. In once sense, highlighted in that big battle / halftime sequence, its about the disconnect between the reality of what these boys have gone through and the superficial treatment of them back home. It’s about the public exploitation of these soldiers - the propaganda that surrounds them and the way that everybody wants a piece of them for themselves. People want to use them and squeeze them and fashion them into their own narrative. They all want a piece of Billy and ownership of his ‘story’.

But within that bigger framework, it’s a very intimate coming of age story. Though the story takes place during this one, big day, the heart of it is about a boy finding his place in the world…dealing with the confusion of what’s going on around him, and trying to figure out where he fits in, where he belongs, who he is…

And that’s what I tried to latch onto and think about as its essence.  

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk opens in SA cinemas on Friday, 10 March.

(Photos: Getty Images. Copy: SONY)

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