‘Rhythm is a thing that defines us’: Johnny Flynn on his career as actor and musician

Now the talented multi-tasker is co-starring in a musical heist featuring his own songs. So what drives him on?

Like most of us, the current turmoil in British politics has seen Johnny Flynn – actor, folk musician, the kind of multi-hyphenate who plays the hurdy-gurdy – spend the past few weeks doom-scrolling and current-affairs-obsessing. Flynn is a multitasker. He is obsessed with news anchors and reporters and follows many of them on Twitter, noting, with alarm, how they think social media is the most important thing in the world. He now wakes up each morning with such genuinely worrying thoughts as: I wonder what Jacob Rees-Mogg said about Liz Truss last night. He likens the fearful voices drowned out by the media circus to a character in a Greek tragedy. Cassandra, he reckons, was destined to tell the truth but be ignored (Flynn is not against a classical reference). He finds it all horrible and depressing and dispiriting. He loves it.

For while it’s purgatory for the rest of us, for Flynn, it’s also research. He’s currently in Belfast, midway through shooting a new series called The Lovers, where he’s playing a self-obsessed political journalist – a “slightly younger Robert Peston or Andrew Marr”, he says, “one who is in with the millennials, or at least thinks he is”.

Flynn is a rare creature: not a musician-turned-actor, which is common; not an actor-turned-musician, rarer but hardly a unicorn; but someone who has had two fully formed careers from the get-go. He has, therefore, been able to choose how they intertwine. There’s his work on screen: Lovesick, Emma, Stardust, The Dig, Genius; he’s released five studio albums and counting – the latest, Lost in the Cedar Wood, made in collaboration with a nature writer in lockdown. There’s theatre – Jerusalem, Twelfth Night – and he has composed everything from The Detectorists’ theme tune to the Globe’s production of As You Like It, for which he used only period instruments. (He is quite possibly the only person alive to have written music for the nyckelharpa, the hurdy-gurdy and the hardingfele, a kind of Norwegian fiddle.) Flynn is pretty sure he has ADD.

Double trouble: Johnny Flynn (right) in The Score, a musical heist featuring his songs and co-starring Will Poulter (left).
Double trouble: Johnny Flynn (right) in The Score, a musical heist featuring his songs and co-starring Will Poulter (left). Photograph: LMK

On Zoom, his shy, distracted manner – hair wrestled this way and that, eye contact only ever fleeting – suggests someone forever worrying about what else he could be doing. Which is perhaps why, for his latest project, he’s decided to do several things at once. The Score, set to be released this September, is both a crime thriller and a musical that uses Flynn’s own songs to punctuate it. Starring Flynn and Will Poulter as a mismatched criminal duo, this modern musical seems a natural fit for Flynn.

Yet he hasn’t watched one on stage for years. “These days,” he says, “I feel constantly failed by them. I stopped paying to see musicals in the days of the band biopic musical, because I found them really awful.”

Flynn himself has form in this area. For a time, he was cast as the drummer Roger Taylor in the much-mocked 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, pulling out after multiple cast and script changes. “There was a sense that nobody could agree on which story to tell,” he says, “and nothing against the surviving members of Queen, but they were very protective of Freddie’s legacy.”

It’s something Flynn came up against again when cast as a young David Bowie in the 2020 biopic Stardust. Unlike the stage-to-screen jukebox vehicles, Stardust aimed to do something more ambitious: tell the tale of a pre-superstardom Bowie on his first trip to the US. Yet Bowie’s gatekeepers refused to license any of his music.

The Score, therefore, puts Flynn in a unique position. For once, he wasn’t an actor at the mercy of a musical gatekeeper. He was the musical gatekeeper.

The film’s writer-director, Malachi Smyth, didn’t set out to write a gangster-musical, but was listening to Flynn’s music while writing it, then thought “something was missing, and realised he wanted to put in the songs”.

‘I started playing morally dubious characters a few years ago, and it was such a relief’: Johnny Flynn.
‘I started playing morally dubious characters a few years ago, and it was such a relief’: Johnny Flynn. Photograph: Johnny Savage/The Observer

Flynn, though, read the script without any idea of his music’s proposed involvement.

“I took it home and, page one, it’s like, ‘Oh, the characters are singing a Johnny Flynn song.’ I suppose my reaction was, wow, that’s weird. And also a small sense of… I’ve been writing musicals recently. You know? It’s something I wanted to do…”

Like those gatekeepers of Queen and Bowie, he briefly pondered his legacy (“Some of the songs I wrote when I was 20 years old…”), but in the end said yes on one condition: under no circumstances, he told them, would he play the lead role. They agreed. It went to Poulter instead.

As Flynn puts it: “There’d be something gross and vainglorious about playing the romantic lead in a film that’s using all my own songs…”

Until the age of four, Flynn lived in South Africa. His father found success there after moving to marry his second wife – Flynn’s mother. Aged three, Flynn was attacked by a Staffordshire bull terrier. The scars are barely perceptible now, but I tell him that a line referring to them in The Score (“You never forget a face like that. Trust me you try,” a character says at one point) made me wince. Wasn’t he bothered?

No, he says. If anything, it’s helped his career. “I started playing morally dubious characters a few years ago, and it was such a relief, as I’d [previously] gone down the route of always being chosen to be the youthful, sunny type… The fact that my scars now help me to get more ambiguous casting? I’m really grateful.”

It did affect him when he was younger. “For quite a while I wouldn’t take off my Spider-Man mask,” he says, “so I was obviously self-conscious. It was quite serious. I’m pretty lucky. The pictures from the time were awful. There’s just a massive hole in my cheek. I had to have reconstructive surgery.” Yet at school, he says, there was an upside. “I think it gave me a bit of kudos. My nickname at school was Scarface for a while. Which was better than the previous one, Rubber Johnny.”

Flynn’s father, Eric, was an actor in musical theatre, introducing his son to both music and acting at a young age. Yet his father’s greatest desire, Flynn says, was that none of his children follow in his footsteps. In this he did not succeed: both of Flynn’s older brothers and his sister are actors.

Flynn reckons the hope they’d choose a different path came from a place of care. When the family moved back to the UK, his father was regularly out of work. They moved home often, and there was little by way of stability. Flynn senior didn’t want the same for his kids, and made it clear. “My dad really tried to stop me,” Flynn has put it previously. “He wasn’t happy at all. I think because it had been pretty touch-and-go with paying our rent when I was a kid.”

Despite the limited finances, Flynn attended two prestigious boarding schools on musical scholarships – first The Pilgrims’ School, in Winchester, where he learned the violin and the trumpet, then Bedales School, near Petersfield, by which time he’d taught himself the guitar.

Flynn remembers his first school leading role – a one-act Harold Pinter play called The Lover consisting of just him and a co-star. He remembers the thrill of it; the intensity of acting. His father had come to watch, and Flynn ran towards him after the show, eager for approval. “And I remember for 10 minutes him talking about how amazing [his co-star] Tasha was. And then he turned to me and said: ‘You need to keep your hands still.’”

“He sensed it was what I wanted to do, and so he needed me to get it right,” Flynn says now. Eric died from cancer when Flynn was 18. He still keeps his dad’s old Casio watch in a box that he and his wife, Beatrice Minns – with whom he has three children – keep on their mantelpiece, where they keep their most treasured possessions. It still, he says, smells of him. For a few years, Flynn also held on to hundreds of his father’s old polyester shirts, but eventually realised it was healthier to let them go.

It was only when Flynn applied to drama school that he and his father really clashed regarding his artistic pursuits. His father wanted him to take an English degree and train as a teacher – something sensible, safe; something with options.

Flynn got into Webber Douglas – a prestigious but unglamorous London drama school – just before his father died. Flynn thinks, he says, that his father would have ultimately been OK with that, even if he would have preferred his son had won a place at the more well-known Rada, from which he’d graduated.

Yet it’s not hard to detect his father’s influence in Flynn’s insistence at keeping up his dual career paths. What better way to be practical? Before lockdown, Flynn had recorded his last two studio albums around performing. Often, he’ll record all day, before heading to the theatre at night.

When he was younger, Flynn tells me, his father would often take him to play pool, but would never let his son win. He was only eight when they started to compete.

“I’m making him sound incredibly cruel,” Flynn says, “he was very loving… there was an honesty to him. He was nothing but honest. He expected you to understand you had a handicap and the best you could do was do better than last time. It involved doing a lot of maths as a kid.”

For Flynn, countless losses later, he identified a way to win in pool by exploiting his father’s longsightedness. “I just had to take seven years to work it out.” It was, he supposes, “a big, long, overarching life lesson”, though he isn’t entirely sure for what. Keep trying, perhaps? Success is hard, possibly? Or maybe just keep your options open, you never know when your big break will come.

Next up, Flynn will be starring in a TV remake of The Talented Mr Ripley, playing the privileged Dickie Greenleaf opposite Andrew Scott’s Tom Ripley. No doubt there’ll be more theatre, more music, more compositions, too. For Flynn, however, the distinctions between the different worlds he straddles have started to fade.

As with all his roles now, Flynn didn’t so much think of his latest part’s character, but about his rhythm: the tempo and pace with which he moves. It might be an unconventional approach to performance, but to hear Flynn talk about it, it’s obvious – at least to him. “I love breaking down characters in terms of rhythm because rhythm is a thing that defines us,” he says. “The way we move is how we meet the world.”

The Score will be released in UK cinemas on 9 September

Stuart McGurk

The GuardianTramp

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