Actor and Musician Johnny Flynn's Varied Storytelling Gifts are Perfect for Now
As I dial the mobile number to speak to folksinger and actor Johnny Flynn, I’m struck by the fact that almost a decade has passed since his debut album, A Larum which established Flynn as a part of the new folk movement alongside Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. Yet times change, and in the intervening decade, Flynn has returned to his first love: acting.
Before becoming a well-known musician, Flynn attended drama school with intentions of becoming an actor. “I went to acting school after I was recording and making music and I was doing it alongside music. So, I was doing theatre and plays at the Royal Court,” he says, “I made quite an effort to keep the two things separate. It was important to me to make sure that I was taken kind of seriously in both fields, so I didn’t go onstage as a musician and talk about acting projects or vice versa. They’re two quite different universes, even though they’re both performative.”
Having worked on various lo-fi indie films, plays and smaller acting projects, Flynn is now taking on his most challenging role to date, starring as the young Albert Einstein in the ten-part National Geographic series Genius, produced by Ron Howard. The show focuses on Einstein’s progression from an idealistic and rebellious young man just developing his most famous theories through to his later years – played by Geoffrey Rush – as the world-renowned, hyper-famous scientist.
Best known for his mop of shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes, how did Flynn end up in the role of the celebrated physicist with whom he shares no obvious physical similarities? “I just thought it was kind of ridiculous that I would be seen as Einstein and I actually kind of passed up on it,” Flynn admits to me over the phone.
“But I was telling my friend and she was saying, ‘You’re a complete idiot. That sounds amazing.’ She sat down and helped me send off the tape, even though I’d missed the deadline. The next thing I knew, I was speaking with Ron Howard on Skype. He was talking about Einstein in a way that made me feel really excited about being in the project, even though I didn’t think I had the right to portray him. It kind of went from there.”
The physical transformation amounted to an hour in the make-up chair every day: contact lenses, prosthetics, and having his hair dyed black. The show features an all-star cast including Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein, facing the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Flynn had the freedom to construct his own version of Einstein – which he describes as quite liberating – since details on the young scientist’s character are sparse, aside from a few anecdotes.
Although they didn’t share the screen, Flynn says that creating the character was a collaborative effort with Rush to allow the two versions of the physicist to blend seamlessly. “We’d send each other references, clips, and people on YouTube and say, ‘this person is quite Einstein,’” he explains. “A broad range of people – like Harpo Marx, Bob Dylan in a press conference in 1964, or some funny clips of owls walking across branches. Or we’d collect adjectives that would sort of pertain to a collective idea of Einstein. It could be quite abstract.”
The program seeks to debunk myths about Einstein. Far from being a poor student, he was a solid scholar as a young man. He also had many complex affairs with various women, explored in the show as it traverses significant personal and historical events during his lifetime.
Aside from Genius, Flynn is filming the third season of the sleeper-hit show Lovesick. The series follows his hapless, romantic character Dylan who must inform his ex-girlfriends that he has an STD, while trying to navigate a quarter-life crisis as he explores his feelings for his best friend Evie, played by actress Antonia Thomas. Flynn has become incredibly close to the other cast members on the intimate shoot. “I’m in my bedroom at the moment and Antonia and Josh who plays Angus are in the living room watching The Night Of,” he says casually, “We’re all living together for these couple of months while we’re filming.”
Although it’s easy to imagine a student experience complete with bad takeaways and wild nights out, Flynn is a family man, married with two small children and he takes fatherhood very seriously. “I’m trying to be a whole person in front of my kids and not just this infallible deity, which was what my dad was to me, and I think that’s what makes for a big let-down when you get to 13 or 14,” he says. “My son is six and he’s super smart. He’s constantly wrenching my heart out of my chest with his observations and how he’s able to see the world. I don’t even want to be any kind of overseer or overlord to his existence. I just want him to flourish and be himself because he’s got such a unique perspective.”
Parenthood aside, Flynn has recently released his fourth studio album, Sillion (via Transgressive Records), a reflective record that explores his relationship with his father, who died when he was 18. It also touches on the current global political situation. “With everything that’s been going on in the world and the complex ideologies that have built up around the human mind and certain individuals and groups of people who are in conflict with one another, it just seems quite resonant to go back to something very simple,” he says, seemingly conscious of not sounding too earnest. “Rather than getting suspicious or insecure, for us all to look to the Earth and – this sounds incredibly hippy or something – but actually it’s just an image. It was for me, kind of a resonant poetic image.”
While he maintains a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to mainstream politics, he intends to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the upcoming UK election. “I’m behind that train but I do think the whole system’s a bit fucked,” he begins, “the answer doesn’t lie in politics and I think it will take a few generations for all this stuff to work its way out.”
When asked where the answer does lie, he suggests reading an article by Robert MacFarlane on the Anthropocene – the term given to the current geological era, which scientists think will be determined primarily by human impact.
“He was saying that there’s a call to arms for writers and artists to come forward with the language to process and understand the new epoch that we’re in. I think that’s why I’m happy to be a storyteller at this point. It reaches into people’s hearts and minds in a way that politics can’t.” Considering his current trajectory – music for the heart, stories for the mind – Flynn seems ready to help us find new dialogues for conversation, and maybe to divine some answers therein.
Written by Chantelle Johnson
Photographer: David Needleman at Jones Management
Stylist: Joshua Liebman at Honey Artists
Groomer: Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan using Dior Homme