Jack Lowden is the kind of actor who can make golfing look like the most thrilling sport on Earth. And no offense to golfers, there must be a reason why the sport has remained so popular for more than a century, but because of its solitary nature and the deep level of concentration it requires it has remained quite impenetrable to capture onscreen. But as the legendary Tommy Morris, Lowden infuses Tommy’s Honour with the kind of fire usually reserved for martial arts or racing films, he turns in a riveting performance that works both as the announcement of a star arriving, and as proof of the brilliance that comes from consistency. For years now Lowden has been setting British stages ablaze with his performances in plays like Black Watch, Electra and Ghosts for which he won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Tommy’s Honour is Lowden’s first onscreen leading role and his compassionate, vibrant performance makes the film seem almost too thrilling for its genre. It’s no surprise that Lowden has already captured the attention of renowned filmmakers, just in 2017 he will appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and will play Morrissey in the biopic England Is Mine, but Lowden is a stage creature and that’s one of the first things he made clear as we sat down to discuss his work in Tommy’s Honour in New York City.
You’re no stranger to playing athletes, what draws you to characters like Tommy Morris and Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire?
I don’t know, I’d love to be able to say it’s what I’ve picked to do. Both were early on in my career, I shot this film two years ago, I guess it’s the roles that have come up. But basically I’m also a frustrated sportsman, if someone today offered me the chance to be a sportsman I think I’d still grab it. I love that in sports you never know what’s going to happen, you can win or lose, people must be euphoric which is something you don’t really get on film. You get closer to it onstage, but on film you don’t because you get to do things like 18 times, or everybody knows what’s supposed to happen in the scene, you can go around how you do the scene, but ultimately that guy has to die, or that guy has to say that.
Did you get into acting to live out dream careers you couldn’t fulfill otherwise?
I don’t really have a romantic story about getting into acting, I started at a very early age, my younger brother is a ballet dancer which he also started doing from an early age, I went along with him, I wasn’t very good so I fell into acting. When I was in school I realized “this is what I can do”, it’s great when you realize that what you can do is also what you love to do. I started onstage, I miss that life and buzz, I think I got into acting for the thrill of the first night, knowing your audience will change from night to night. When I moved into film and TV it was exciting in a different way.
What would you say are the pros of each medium?
On stage you have a lot more control, once rehearsals are done the director leaves and it’s up to the actors every night. Onscreen that’s not the same case, but what I love about working onscreen is that you put your faith on other people, there’s a team with incredible expertise in different fields, you do your bit and when you see the film you don’t just watch yourself, but you watch the work of 15 people in one shot. When they all come together and hit a sweet spot, whether because of the music, the frame, or anything else, it’s quite amazing. I love them both in different ways but my first love will always be the stage, I know actors say that all the time, but mine genuinely is and I wanna do more.
The production of Ghosts you were in was filmed. Did you watch it?
Yes, we went to a premiere because back then it was still super new to do that.
It’s still very new in America too, but that’s another story. Was it a different experience to watch yourself perform for the camera in a play, as opposed to watching yourself in Tommy’s Honour?
Of course, my toes curled when I first watched Ghosts because onstage you have to heighten certain things to make it work, so it was a little bit weird. It was shot in a very small theater so it felt closer to the camera. But still it was bizarre, I don’t think it’s for everyone.
Your brother is a ballet dancer, you’re an actor, so I’m gonna be presumptuous and assume your parents just wanted their kids to be happy. So when you play someone like Tommy who fights his father because they can’t see eye to eye on their life choices, or someone like Oswald in Ghosts who doesn’t really get along with his mom, how do you access them? How do you go into the mind of someone who has so little in common with you?
That’s it what you just said, I find it easier to play someone who’s not me. I find it’s harder for me to play myself or something close to myself. If you play someone totally different to you, who speaks in a different accent and has a different outlook, you feel safer as an actor, you’re hidden behind this veil and there are no wrong answers. It’s a little bit scary because you experience things you haven’t been through in real life, you show up to shoot the scene and realize you need to try something you’ve never done before. There’s a little bit of a guesswork involved, but that’s what’s fun. Everybody has a version of themselves they dream of being if someone bumps into them in the street, there’s people who would shout after that person and there’s people who would just let it go. I would let it go, but sometimes you fantasize about shouting at the guy and I’ve been able to do that in some of the parts I’ve done like Oswald and Tommy, who are people who don’t take anything lying down. You get to live a different version of yourself in a safe environment, it’s great, it’s cathartic.
Did you know much about golf before making the film?
No, my brother is much more of a golfer than I am. I’m a massive sports fan but I never got into golf. Learning it was enormously frustrating, but right after you hit the sweet spot for the first time I can see why people get addicted to it. I have a massive respect for people who can control something like that, they’re not just hitting it, their head, shoulders, hips, everything at once, it’s so difficult. I respect people who can control bodies like that, whether it’s golfers or dancers, I think it’s the same ballpark.
What would you say was the mind blowing thing you learned about golf or Tommy while making the film?
The thing that never ceases to amaze me whenever I play someone from history or that far back, is the age at which they do these things. Tommy was 17 or 18 when he was winning all these tournaments, reinventing gold and challenging the class system. I always find that amazing, thinking back to when you were 17 or I was 17 and you think what you were doing…
I was probably drinking.
(Laughs) Yeah, that always amazes me. I did War and Peace which was all about the Napoleonic wars in Russia and when you research these guys who led armies or were sent around the world as diplomats, you realize they were so young. They were in their teens.
Like the people who died in Dunkirk.
Exactly. I play a pilot in Dunkirk and I was amazed that the average age for an
RAF pilot was 21, what was I doing at 21? That’s the main thing for me probably.
Tommy died a very long time ago so you won’t get any feedback from him, but going from Tom Morris to Morrissey…
Is playing Morrissey more intimidating because he might see the movie?
With England is Mine I didn’t listen to a lot of The Smiths or Morrissey, I was aware of them but when the film came along I sank myself into it and became obsessed with their music. It was daunting to go into that world, we shot on location in Manchester, the director grew up three streets from him, the crew had all been to the original The Smiths’ gigs, so it was scary to go into that world, but it was lovely to be accepted into it. That film is different because it’s about a guy before he became known, so I have the safety blanket that nobody knows what Morrissey was like before he formed The Smiths, which is where the film finishes. I was basically playing this guy on the page, a teenager growing up in Manchester in the 70s.
Your co-star in Tommy’s Honour Ophelia Lovibond starred in Nowhere Boy which took a similar approach with John Lennon, would you say that in any way you’re interested in discovering the essence of what makes people like Morrissey or Tommy great?
Yeah, it’s exactly that, it’s a good point. It’s trying to find where it came from, it’s amazing when you play those parts and realize you have gone through some of the same things they’ve gone through, it’s nothing mere humans would never go through. They go through the same stuff, it’s just a series of events that lead somewhere different, there’s also the desire to be different which is something a lot of the guys I’ve played have in common. Actors are told they don’t have real jobs, we’re freelancers who constantly have to look for jobs, so you do feel a little on the fringe of society, so it’s easy to relate to that.
Do you know how to sing?
Yes I do.
Are there any musicals in your future since you haven’t done any so far?
I did a lot in high school, I’ve done all the big classic musicals and I was obsessed with them all. I love the MGM musicals.
Any Sondheim on your bucket list?
When I trained I sang “Giants in the Sky” which is a beautiful song. The first phrase when he sings “there are giants in the sky” I just love imagining what that’s a metaphor for, it says to me there’s possibility, which I find beautiful.
You didn’t come to New York when Ghosts came.
I couldn’t come, I was so gutted about it. I was off doing War and Peace in Russia.
How was it to share scenes with Lesley Manville and Peter Mullan who make everything seem so effortless?
Peter is enormously relaxed on set, I’ve worked with some phenomenal actors and I’ve never seen someone as relaxed as him. Good acting in my opinion can only come from that place, Ryan Gosling is always so relaxed which is why he’s so good. Peter’s also seen a thousand things, he is the main reason I did the film. He’s a hero of mine and as soon as I hear he was attached I knew I had to make this. I love the stuff he directs as well, he’s beautifully subtle and confident.
You’ve been doing films that focus on heroism and loyalty, does that give you any comfort knowing the world is going to crap right now?
Of course it does! I just wrapped a film that’s very much like that, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had onscreen, it’s about a family of wrestlers from England and it’s all about them trying to make it as professional wrestlers, it’s written and directed by Stephen Merchant, we learned how to wrestle. It’s the right time for films like that.
Tommy’s Honour opens in theaters today.