Belfast Telegraph

Johnny Flynn: Acting was just my most viable option... none of the adults in my life knew how to do anything else

With a starring role in Martin McDonagh's smash off- Broadway show and his film career set to go stratospheric, it's no wonder he has had to put his music career on hold. Jane Mulkerrins meets Johnny Flynn

Rising star: Johnny Flynn and Jessie Buckley in Beast
Rising star: Johnny Flynn and Jessie Buckley in Beast
In demand: Johnny has multiple projects in the pipeline
Multiple talents: Johnny Flynn on stage at the Green Man Festival

It's a bitingly cold day in Brooklyn, New York, but Johnny Flynn is demonstrating true British stoicism. Our photographer has the actor and singer-songwriter perching, coatless, on a stone plinth. There's a frigid wind whistling off the East River, but Flynn, who later admits that he doesn't actually much enjoy having his picture taken, is a pliant model.

He has the look of a young Robert Redford, observes our hair stylist, who has been given strict instructions by Flynn's agent not to trim his wild and wavy, strawberry blond hair or his generous sideburns to protect the aesthetic of his current on-stage incarnation.

Rapidly becoming one of the UK's most in-demand actors, 35-year-old Flynn is, when we meet, temporarily on loan to the US, starring in an off-Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's Hangmen - the critically acclaimed play that first opened at the Royal Court in 2015 before transferring to the West End

It's not just on stage that he's making his mark. Soon cinema-goers will be able to see him showing his prowess on the big screen, starring opposite Jessie Buckley in Beast, in which he plays the enigmatic Pascal.

Written and directed by Michael Pearce, the film is an unusually languid whodunnit set on the island of Jersey, and heavy on the ambiguity.

"I think Pascal does feel emotions, but he's buried elements of his past," says the actor. "He sees himself as an outsider, a Robin Hood character."

Flynn can also do funny, as evidenced by Lovesick, the Netflix comedy series about chlamydia. His character, Dylan, is diagnosed with the STI and has to contact all the women he's ever slept with. Set in Glasgow, it's a very British sitcom, and Flynn and I both express surprise at its enormous popularity in the US. "People come up to me here all the time and say, 'I love your show,'" he admits.

Flynn was born in his mother's native South Africa, but the family left the country when he was just two years old. "They were campaigning for the end of apartheid,had secret police on their doorstep, and felt they needed to leave," he explains.

They lived in London for a few years, then Hampshire, where his younger sister, Lillie, was born, and then in rural Wales. Flynn now lives in Clapton.

His father, Eric - who died after becoming ill with cancer when Flynn was 18 - was also an actor, mainly in West End musicals, but employment was patchy. "We had no money, my dad was out of work a lot and we never owned a house," the star says. "It was very hand-to-mouth."

His mother, Caroline, is a ceramicist and painter, but almost everyone else in the family was an actor, including his two older brothers from his father's first marriage, Jerome - star of Soldier Soldier and Game of Thrones - and Daniel, who had a role on The Bill.

"I imagine that, for most people, acting isn't something they think is a viable option, whereas for me it was the most viable option," Flynn says. "No adults around me knew how to do anything else."

It was an English teacher at Bedales, the liberal Hampshire boarding school to which he won a music scholarship, who lit the thespian fire in him.

Alastair Langlands, he says, "taught us Shakespeare and Pinter and Yeats and Dickens in a way that I just wanted to be in those stories. He treated us with so much respect that you were empowered to start thinking for yourself in a really interesting way. He'd always give me terrible marks, but I became a more original thinker because of him."

Flynn struggles, however, with being a product of the boarding-school system. "I can't deny that it gave me an experience that is unique and rare and very privileged, but privileged in a way that I now rail against, that people have that as a birthright," he says. "I had this weird experience of being inside it but always feeling outside it."

He began dating his now wife, Beatrice Minns, a designer for the Punchdrunk theatre group, when she joined the sixth form.

"I was very shy as a teenager, but completely in love with her," he says. "There was just something about her that I felt a real connection to."

They broke up when they parted ways, her to Winchester School of Art, him to drama school Webber Douglas. "We came in and out of each other's lives for years, until the frequencies collided and we started spending more time together than apart," says Flynn. "There's always been a sense of destiny."

Minns joined him for three of his four months in New York with their two children, Gabriel (7) and Ida (2). Their third one is due in July.

Devoted father though he clearly is, Flynn had something of a crisis after Gabriel was born. "One day you're working in Starbucks and the next you're being asked to fly a 747 with no training," he says of fatherhood. "The moment you have children, it's like your heart gets out of your body, puts on clothes and walks away. I wasn't prepared for that.

"You're always running in to check that they're still breathing. Then, later on, it's like, 'I don't know if he's got any friends.'

"What do I say when he asks, 'Where's Grandpa?' I wouldn't call it a full-on breakdown, but I had to talk to the right people to help me through it."

I suggest that he was experiencing delayed-onset grief from the loss of his dad. "That was the biggest thing I learned - that there was a transferral in me becoming a dad and thinking that I had to be my dad," he admits.

Flynn also plays the guitar, banjo, trumpet and violin, has recorded several folksy, balladeering albums and has toured with his band, The Sussex Wit. But he's now so in demand as an actor he's had to put music on the back burner: "Music always gets bumped until I have some time to get around to it."

As well as Beast, we will soon be seeing him in a forthcoming ITV adaptation of Vanity Fair. He plays William Dobbin, the narrator of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 tale of social climbing and fluctuating fortunes in a starry cast that also includes Olivia Cooke and Michael Palin.

Not that he's complaining. The day after we meet is his birthday, and he will celebrate with a matinee and evening performance, then a drink with his castmates.

"I like getting older," he says, reflectively. "I always looked younger than I was, and I found that people wouldn't give me the room to speak. The older I get, it's like, 'Oh, I'm still talking and they're still listening'."

Beast is in cinemas from April 27

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