I meet Douglas Booth, who is dressed in a crisp blue cotton shirt, as he sits in a cool, shaded cover of a small café near London. It’s bloody hot here, downright gross. The humid city is upbeat but oppressed. Despite his attempts to be discreet, Booth’s good looks are instantly recognizable. The actor, and sometimes model, later remarks that as his profile rises he’s become more recognizable. “If you’re walking down Oxford Street [London’s busiest shopping street], you’re bound to have about five or six people do a double-take,” he says.
It would be unfair to focus purely on Booth’s appearance; the 21-year-old has landed some impressive roles in his short career, pulling off a dramatization of Boy George’s early career for the BBC with remarkable sensitivity and passion, and scoring the lead role in Carlo Carlei’s upcoming interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet.” Naturally, comparisons will be drawn with the previous generation’s incarnation by Baz Luhrmann, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio. With the romantic lead role, Booth’s categorization as ‘heartthrob’ is cemented, but his aspirations are set beyond that trajectory. He cites DiCaprio as someone whose career he admires, not least because Leo is an actor who has successfully eschewed the pin-up status that defined his early work to build a respectable and creatively fulfilling career.
“He is someone who has made interesting choices,” explains Booth. “He doesn’t make a million movies; he makes movies he wants to make with filmmakers he wants to work with. I respect him, and I respect the way he conducts himself. He’s very low-key. There was a time when all people would talk about were his looks and that he was a heartthrob and this and that, but actually, by making clever choices and delivering great performances, working hard, being in amazing films, and keeping himself out of that world, he doesn’t need it. I think that’s the way to do it.”
Booth notes that the actor is also involved in producing films. “Is producing something you’d like to get into?” I ask. “Eventually yeah, I think so,” he says hesitantly, conscious of not getting too far ahead of himself. Although Booth has enjoyed success that looks set to flourish further, a mixture of prudence and wide-eyed newness to a world occupied by megastars like DiCaprio sees Booth’s character punctuated with a very British modesty. “Not right now. I’m still learning how to act, so that’s something that is all very much in the future—to become involved in the industry in an interesting way and branch out and produce things that I’m not starring in.” Asked if he’d like the freedom to produce his own films, his answer is equally humble: “It’s good not to have too much freedom, in the sense that if you start trying to create all your own work then you’re missing out on everyone else’s genius.”
Booth is prepared for the DiCaprio comparisons—however they’re skewed—when Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet hits screens. “I didn’t take the part deliberately to follow in his footsteps,” he insists, adding, “I think it’s just a coincidence, but just to be mentioned in the same sentence as him is a compliment, I suppose.” The film itself is also very different from Luhrmann’s version. Carlei’s has been written by Julian Fellowes, and has an entirely different feel to Luhrmann’s ethereal 1996 incarnation. “I saw that film a long time ago and it’s amazing and DiCaprio is amazing in it, but they’re totally different films made by totally different filmmakers,” he says. “We all know what Baz Lurmann is as a filmmaker. He’s very visually arresting. That film is like a big long MTV music video. It’s amazing and it’s fantasy and it’s glossy, but I think our film has a different feel. Julian Fellowes decided to set in the real place, so we filmed in Verona, Rome, and Mantua. I think the Italian landscape was a large character in the movie. It had such a personality.”
From a film interpretation of one of the world’s most famous plays to a piece of a contemporary theatre, Booth’s careful selection of roles is beginning to pay off. He’s lined up work on the film adaptation of Laura Wade’s critically acclaimed play Posh, which he is taking a rare one-day break from filming when we meet. Posh, which was first staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010 and has been adapted by Wade for the screen, taps into the cultural fascination—in Britain and beyond—with the notorious and secretive world of the upper echelons of British university life.
The story centers around the members of the fictional Riot Club at Oxford University, directly based on the infamous real-life Bullingdon Club, of which British Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson were once members. Particularly raucous and extravagant behaviors of the Bullingdon Club include press reports of members trashing historic university buildings and a claim in the British tabloids that an initiation ceremony included the task of burning £50 notes in front of a beggar.
“I play Harry Villiers,” says Booth, explaining the character he is currently immersed in. “It’s an ensemble piece, each character is so individual. My character is sporty, he’s very good with women, but he’s stuck in this place where he’s going to inherit this big house because his dad’s a duke. So he lives in this weird place where, whatever he does he knows where he’s going to end up: at this country pile, fixing the roof for the rest of his life, maintaining things. These years at Oxford are his years to just breathe.”
For research, Booth picked the brain of a former member of the Bullingdon Club and attempted to learn some of the secrets about the notoriously guarded society. “It was fascinating. When we read the script I was like, ‘Oh shit, does this really happen? Is this real? I don’t know if I can connect to it in any way.’ And then I sat down with him. He was really lovely, this guy who was in the Bullingdon Club, and of course he regrets it now, and you actually hear the stuff and you realize ‘Shit, this is real!’”
The subject matter is fascinating, particularly for the home audience, curious and suspicious of a clique of rich young men whose power and alliances are rooted there, men who have gone on to govern the country. “I suppose it is scary,” admits Booth, adding, “A lot of them are very intelligent and they work so hard to be at university and it becomes a weird rite of passage and they blame it on the history because it’s been around for however many years.
“If you go back to anyone’s past, you go back to different universities. I mean look at rugby clubs’ initiation ceremonies; they do equally bad things. I think what people find really distasteful about the Bullingdon Club is the way they feel that they can do anything and just buy their way out of it, because they’ve got money, and they’ve got power, and they’ve got connections. Other people, they get up to shit at university, and in America they have frat houses and people get into all kinds of stuff, but here (The Riot Club, fictional version of the Bullingdon club in Posh), they don’t give a shit because they think they’re untouchable.”
Douglas himself eschewed university, shelving plans to attend theatre school when his acting career took off at the age of 16. Does he regret not going? “Yes,” he says, “in the sense that you build up a really nice group of friends. It can help form you as a young person. You go away from home for the first time, you find yourself and you discover other things. But I’ve been busy working and while my other friends have met great friends at university, I’ve met great friends through work.”
Booth’s star is undeniably rising and he finds a funny way of rationalizing the sudden moments that jolt him into realization, bringing his growing fame home to him. “It’s like watching your cat grow,” he says, puzzlingly. “It’s really hard to tell it’s gotten bigger. If you go away for months, then when you come back you notice your kitten has grown. But if you’re there watching it, you don’t notice that it’s getting bigger every day.
“I’ve been to Glastonbury [Festival] for the last four years, but this year was the first time that, every couple of minutes I was stopped and asked for a photo. On the last night my friends and I were leaving a club area and we realized we hadn’t taken a picture of us together all weekend, so my friend stopped a random guy and said, ‘Do you mind taking a photo of the two of us?’ and he said, ‘Are you Douglas Booth?’ And I was like ‘I’m drunk but erm, yeah’ and he said, ‘Can I have a photo of you?’ I said ‘Sure’ and so he just gave his camera to my friend and [my friend] took a picture of the two of us and then he just walked off. He didn’t even take the picture of me with my friend!”
With his burgeoning fame comes an unprecedented and often unwelcome level of attention, but already, he’s learning how to cope with what can be a minefield online: “I looked on IMDb, at the message boards there, and someone had posted something about a sheep having more talent than me. So that’s the last time I looked. It’s not healthy. Sometimes articles come up online in the Daily Mail and it’s like, ‘fuck’s sake, man, don’t read it.’ It’s not healthy to do that but I think people do do it.”
Indeed, Booth might be wise to give such websites a swerve. There was much furore last year when social media lit up with complaints that Booth was just too attractive to play Pip—the poor orphan boy enamoured with the beautiful and unobtainable Estella—in the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” when it was screened on terrestrial television. Yes, Romeo is a lead role synonymous with heartthrob status, but it’s still Shakespeare, and this film, combined with the challenging and weighty Posh, set for release in 2014, should help Booth’s bid to be understood as more than a pretty face.
Stylist: Rebecca Corbin-Murray
Groomer: Mark Bailey
Grooming Notes: blu mediterraneo arancia di capri body lotion by acqua di parma and immediate moisture facial hydrosol and fabulous face oil by AĒSOP. sumowax by Bumble and Bumble.
This article originally appeared in Flaunt Issue 129 – The Dye Issue.