When Joe Alwyn was starting out as an actor, he went to great lengths to psych himself up for scenes that required deep emotional excavation. 2016’s *Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—*Alwyn’s plucked-from-drama-school debut, in which he played the titular American soldier with undiagnosed PTSD—featured a scene that required him to conjure a full emotional breakdown, blubbering in the arms of Kristen Stewart, who was playing his sister. In the lead-up to the scene, he plodded around a car park set in Atlanta, Georgia, at 5am, like a bad-tempered teenager, getting himself in the headspace to force hot, salty tears out of his eye sockets. It wasn’t just him. “Kristen was storming around the car, hitting the car and working herself into whatever place she needed to get to,” Alwyn says. “I remember not wanting to go back and rest [while they were waiting to get started]. Hopefully I’ve chilled out on that a bit now.” At the time, they were two young actors carrying the weight of a $37 million movie on their shoulders, believing that if they didn’t sell this key moment, the whole project could be undermined. In the end, though the scene was well executed, the film didn’t quite wash its face at the box office. There’s only so much you can do.
Now, six years into a career that started in a whirlwind, Alwyn is realizing that it’s better to just relax and let things happen. “Sometimes the more I sit apart and turn it into this thing—that you have to generate an emotion—the harder it is once you get there,” Alwyn says. He’s sitting in a London hotel’s banal restaurant picking at a French omelette. His hair, no longer carrying the weighty, pandemic locks he’s been sporting for the past two years, looks like it’s been tousled minutes ago. In *Conversations With Friends—*the new Sally Rooney TV adaptation that threatens to turn Alwyn into an object of great thirst like Normal People’s Paul Mescal before him—filming the emotional crescendo was a comparative breeze. As Nick, a married actor in his 30s who’s been having an affair with 21-year-old wallflower Frances (Alison Oliver), Alwyn wears his sadness in his facial expressions. But in a scene that arrives late in the 12-part series, sitting in a vintage BMW, on the phone to someone he loved and lost, Alwyn tries to prevent his voice from shaking and halt the quiver in his lip, the tears streaking down his face betray him. “I wasn’t being weird that day,” he says. “I think [the waterworks] probably did [come easily].” He chalks it up to the quality of the writing, but accepts that it might have something to do with his own personal growth, too. “There’s something weirdly cathartic about it. Even though it’s not you.”
Alwyn doesn’t remember the last time he cried in real life. But the most pivotal moments in his career to date have revolved around heaving sobs. While he has developed a reputation among the press as one of the most guarded rising stars, predominantly for his unwillingness to spill details on his relationship with Taylor Swift, he is becoming known in the industry for his sensitivity and vulnerability. “He’s an exceptional actor,” Billy Lynn director Ang Lee told me in an email. “He had a talent which is rare in my experience, and I can spot it a mile away.” Alwyn was in his second year of drama school when he was picked for the role, which represented a gamble for Lee and the studios that backed the film. A middle-class, first-time actor from Tufnell Park being flown into Georgia to play a Texan? It was a rogue move – there were any number of fresh-faced young actors with bums-on-seats star power that could have gone in his stead. But Lee wanted to make it work. “Because he was fresh, he had a certain innocence and honesty that I could explore. That was important to the movie, because it was a story about innocence and disillusionment from war.” You can see it in the film, too – a face that could be anywhere between 12 and 21 years old, those big, wet eyes that can express joy, hope and pain from one second to the next.
Conversations With Friends represents Alwyn’s career coming of age. In the time since Lee’s film catapulted him onto the upper echelon of Hollywood’s good-looking, boyish Brits wish list, he’s been hopping between supporting roles in films by auteurs such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Joanna Hogg and Claire Denis, and acting opposite (and learning from) the likes of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Saoirse Ronan. At 31, he’s just about aged out of teen roles and into a far more interesting space. In Conversations, his eyes are weighed down by bags that tell us much more about Nick’s backstory of depression and exhaustion than he is initially willing to. Like Lee before him, the show’s director Lenny Abrahamson (who also helped Rooney adapt the wildly successful Normal People) saw what Alwyn can do. “Subtlety, vulnerability, charisma,” Abrahamson says. “Watching Nick, the audience needs to feel how deeply attractive and compelling he is to Frances, while at the same time accepting that, from [Frances’ best friend] Bobbi’s perspective, he might plausibly come across as muted, even flat. Joe managed to find a kind of glow to the character when really closely observed – like a force that only operates over small distances.”
Abrahamson recalls a moment where Alwyn elevated Rooney’s work. “Frances tells Nick she doesn’t want to wreck his marriage and Nick’s line is that his marriage has survived several affairs already… but that he’s never been a party to them. Joe chose to play this with a self-deprecating humour which made what could have been a bitter or diminishing moment into a vulnerable and somehow impressive one.”
If the wider public hasn’t yet fully understood why so many important people want a piece of him, they soon will.
To hear Joe Alwyn tell it, the last six years have been… pretty normal, actually. Sure, he made his big-screen debut as a leading man while most of his drama school peers were fighting over panto gigs, and yeah, he did start dating one of the most famous women on the planet, but other than that, nothing to write home about. “[Newfound fame] was not really something I thought about a huge amount. There was no awareness of some kind of shift, I still felt exactly the same,” he says.
Billy Lynn didn’t totally complete his takeover of the zeitgeist, but he’s been landing supporting roles in high-profile films ever since. Alwyn’s life remains largely the same. He still has the same close-knit group of friends from school, he still lives in North London. When he’s not away working, his day-to-day involves going to the pub or the cinema, reading scripts (he fell in love with a Paul Schrader film he was attached to, but it ultimately fell apart due to the pandemic), playing football – that kind of thing.
Not even the paparazzi or the tabloids, who would dedicate a double-page spread to him if he sneezed and it sounded vaguely like “Taylor”, have been able to dampen his spirits. “I think because the precedent was set – that our choice is to be private and not feed that side of things – the more you do that, hopefully, the more that intrusiveness or intrigue drops off.”
Throughout our conversation, Alwyn directs lots of questions back at me, but he’s not deflecting, he’s genuinely interested. He tells me he still doesn’t get recognized in the street, but that may change once Conversations lands.
Luckily for Alwyn, there was already a Sally Rooney Male Lead Starter Pack waiting for him when he landed the role (short shorts, gold chain, inability to communicate feelings, check, check, check). He had seen and loved Normal People in lockdown and admired how tonally different it felt to everything else on TV at the time. “[Rooney and Abrahamson] are so good at just spending time with people in a room talking or not talking. It’s not hugely narrative-driven. I like the messiness of it, and the complexity of it.” Soon after he was cast, a mutual friend created a WhatsApp group with him and Paul Mescal called The Tortured Man Club, “which is I guess a reflection on [Mescal’s character in Normal People] Connell and Nick.”
They exchanged texts and eventually met in Abrahamson’s house in Dublin while the show was filming. “He’s a lovely, lovely guy,” Alwyn says. He still hasn’t met Rooney, though she was involved in the casting (she stepped back after the early planning stage). He has exchanged a few emails with her, including one discussing a playlist she made for the character of Nick (she does this for all of her characters, Alwyn says), which features songs from The National, Pavement and Kanye West. “I remember Sally saying about The National, Nick has that kind of downbeat, tired, but still vaguely charismatic quality to him as they do in their music.”
Arguably the biggest challenge he faced along the way was nailing down Nick’s very specific south Dublin accent. Abrahamson gave him the option of keeping his own, but they eventually agreed to stick to the original text (Sasha Lane’s Bobbi was already retrofitted as American). “I listened to people like Andrew Scott and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and that kind of middle-class south Dublin accent. [Nick’s] is quite anglicized, there was the idea that he would have been to drama school in London, and he has a British wife and so maybe some of those sounds have been softened as well.” (Like fellow Brit Daisy Edgar-Jones before him, he ended up more or less spot-on).
He’s not currently worried about how the show, if it’s received even half as voraciously as Normal People, will impact his super-normal life. “I know it sounds slightly lame, but my only thought about it is that I hope people really like it.”
Alwyn’s pandemic wasn’t quite so normal. Somewhere in the stagnation of lockdown, he wrote a few songs with Swift on a whim, which went on to win some Grammys. Mucking about on the piano and trying his hand at composition for the first time since being in a band at school (they were called Anger Management and performed Marilyn Manson and Korn covers), he wound up creating the melody and first verse of “Exile”, arguably the standout track on Swift’s eighth studio album Folklore.
“It was really the most accidental thing to happen in lockdown. It wasn’t like, ‘It’s three o’clock, it’s time to write a song!’ It was just messing around on a piano and singing badly and being overheard and then thinking, you know, what if we tried to get to the end of it together?” It was surreal when his musings that quickly became sketches and then an actual track would go on to be produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner with vocals by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “Sending it to Justin with the idea of doing a duet and getting voice notes back of him singing over the top and stuff was surreal. It was a perk of lockdown.” On the album’s credits, he goes by the pseudonym William Bowery (a mash-up of his great-grandfather’s first name and an area he likes in New York), but Swift eventually gave the game away. They kept his participation in Folklore and its follow-up Evermore (two co-writing credits on the former, three on the latter) a secret because they knew it was all people would talk about. “The idea was that people would just listen to the music rather than focus on the fact that we wrote it together.” While he has no plans to write more music, he cherished the experience. “It was fun to do it together, and I was proud of it. It was nice getting such a positive reception.” Is there a version of “Exile” out there with him singing on it? “Jesus, there’s probably a voice note somewhere that should be burned.”
After our dimly lit breakfast, we head for a walk by the canal in King’s Cross. It’s a warm, grey day, and there’s a woman running backwards down the path, glancing over her shoulder every other second to avoid clattering into us. “Maybe she’s in Tenet,” Alwyn quips, and then later, when she runs past us again the correct way, “maybe we’re in Tenet”. He’s dragging along a suitcase, as he’s about to head to Paris to put down some additional dialogue for Claire Denis’sThe Stars At Noon, the other massive project he’s got dropping in May (it’s premiering in competition at Cannes). He shot the film straight after Conversations last year, swapping Belfast for Panama. “The premise is two strangers meet in Nicaragua amid climate and political turmoil. They fall for each other and have to escape to the border. It’s a romance/ thriller… Jesus, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Before he rushes off for his train, I ask a question that’s been looming over our conversation. Given the reputation he has developed among journalists for keeping quiet about his relationship (fair enough), how comfortable does he feel answering questions about his own life? “I honestly don’t mind. I’m probably not very good at talking about myself.” He hesitates. “I’m sure I’ve come across as guarded in the past. And it’s a mix of me being British and having a private life. But I don’t want to be going into these things guarded.”
There’s a difference between being guarded and being quite understandably private, we agree, before parting ways.
The day after our conversation, Alwyn goes viral for the most inconsequential thing – tell- ing an interviewer that he’s got no intention of confirming whether or not he and Swift are engaged. There’s only so much you can do.
Photographs by Fumi Homma
Styling by Angelo Mitakos
Tailoring by Faye Oakenfull
Grooming by Jody Taylor
Set design by Molly Marot
Movement director, Harry Clark