New star in the game

talks to Alex Lawther, star of the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing’s legacy and playing a younger Benedict Cumberbatch

Image credit: The Weinstein Company

Image credit: The Weinstein Company

 

The winner of this year’s London Critic’s Circle award for the Best Young Performer, Alex Lawther, has been heralded by many as one of the brightest prospects in the British film industry at the moment; and anybody who witnessed his performance as the young Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum’s smash hit The Imitation Game will attest to this.

With his career still in its early stages, Alex certainly seems on course to fulfil his potential. This is evident from the calibre of actors and filmmakers he worked with in creating the Alan Turing biopic – in the last month Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly (a previous winner of the same Critic’s Circle award, back when it was named ‘Best Newcomer’) and Morten Tyldum have all been nominated for Academy Awards, with The Imitation Game itself up for the big prize on Oscar night. Contributing to a film of such quality is something that Alex is very proud of: “To be able to have a small part in the story and then to find out such talented people are going to be leading it feels wonderful. On top of all of that, to know people outside of the film think this story is worth talking about, and worth nominating, is a joy.”

However, the accolades that this film has received may be of secondary concern to those involved; arguably more important than box office revenues and shiny awards is the fact that Alan Turing’s story has finally been brought to light. From a personal point of view, I certainly felt guilty for my ignorance in regard to the tragedies that befell this great man who did so much for our nation, and the fact that his heroic deeds during the Second World War were not revealed until the 1990s seems terribly unjust, a sentiment that Alex shares. “In the first place, I wanted to be part of the film having read Graham Moore’s script and becoming fascinated by Alan Turing and the work of those at Bletchley Park. I am so lucky to be even lightly associated with Alan Turing’s name. And it’s wonderful more people are talking about him and wanting to know more about him, perhaps as a consequence of seeing The Imitation Game. But on a wider sense there is so much more to do. The Royal Pardon in 2013 is a step, I think I’m quoting Cumberbatch, but Alan Turing really should be on banknotes.”

Alan Turing really should be on banknotes

One scene that will stuck firmly in the mind of all those who watched this film is that where the young Alan learns of the death of his closest friend, Christopher Morcom. Alex’s performance in this scene is spellbinding; the contortion of his face as he tries with all his might to withhold his distress is heart-wrenching. In many ways Turing’s relationship with Morcom is the foundation for the film, shaping his future and everything we go on to witness in this narrative. “We were all very aware of the impact Christopher had on Alan growing up, one example is that Turing continued to write to Christopher’s mother until the end of his life, and I think the intention was to have this ‘ghost’ of Christopher running quite clearly through the film.”

The film has made a significant contribution not only to the legacy of Alan Turing, but also the portrayal of homosexual characters in box office hits, who are few and far between even in a more liberal generation. There has been some progress in recent times, with films such as Pride and Milk being met with critical acclaim and widespread viewing, but these instances are still not as common as they should be. Despite a lack of example to follow, Alex’s tentative portrayal of a young Turing just coming to terms with his feelings is exceptional. “Morten Tyldum, the director, put it really well when he told me to look at Young Alan’s story as a love story rather than a tragedy (although of course it ends in so much sorrow). It was strangely joyful to play, as it was of a teenager falling in love for the first time.”

He told me to look at Young Alan’s story as a love story

There must be an unenviable pressure that comes with portraying such an iconic figure, and this is surely made no easier by having to play the junior to Benedict Cumberbatch, arguably one of the most talented and recognisable actors in Britain. Not that Alex lets on, however; Tyldum provided him the chance to formulate his own vision of Turing. “I was quite free to play ‘Young Alan’ as I saw him, and it was agreed quite early on that I shouldn’t be watching Benedict’s rushes and copying what he was doing. We did share the same vocal coach – Sarah Shepherd – who I owe a lot to for any vocal consistency with Benedict’s older Alan.” Indeed, that continuity of character, most clearly manifested in Turing’s mannerisms and vocal inflections, is spectacular, and credit for this feat must go to Tyldum, as well as Alex and Cumberbatch, for drawing the best out of his actors and giving them creative freedom.

Alex is an old school friend of mine, and it feels quite surreal to see him in such company, but more than that, to see him deliver a performance that matches or even exceeds those of his fellow cast members. While bizarre, it is not necessarily a surprise. Throughout his time at his secondary school, Churcher’s College in Hampshire, he was always an incredibly talented and creative guy. I remember going to see a production put on by the drama club, written and directed by the then 14 year old Alex, called Rejected Fairy Tales; a play based purely on the lyrics of a song by Sara Bareilles. Clearly, from a very early age he possessed a dramatic vision and unbridled talent, and this became all the more evident during his work on The South Downs, a play that after great critical acclaim and popularity was moved to the West End, where it proved to be a huge success. This was Alex’s ‘big-break’ so to speak, and led to various prominent roles, including the lead role in Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict, a drama-documentary about the composer’s life.

Alex Lawther in Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict

Alex Lawther in Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict

 

Alex’s painful modesty will greatly resent my gushing praise, but its praise that is thoroughly deserved. From the little eleven-year-old playing Ratty in a school production of ‘Wind in the Willows’, he has quite obviously come a monumentally long way to where he is now, but did he ever foresee this? “I can’t really believe I get to do this for work. I’m not sure if my eleven-year-old self ever got so far as believing people would let me!”

And if you’re exited to see Alex on screen again, don’t worry, you won’t have long to wait: “I am part of a film, X + Y, which is on release in March. I have just come back from France, having shot a film, Departure, which is in edit at the moment but will hopefully be out late this year or early next, and in spring I’m off to Budapest to shoot a pilot for HBO, called Virtuoso, directed by Alan Ball.” A lot to look forward to then, and we wish him all the best.

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