Jacket by Stella McCartney.
- Jonathan Shia
- Photography by
- Toby Coulson
- Styling by
- Ruth Higginbotham
Grooming by Kaely Russell.
Anthony Boyle Lives for the Moment
Just after Anthony Boyle left the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, he had a vision that served as extra motivation as he prepared to face the biggest challenge of his life to date. “I remember just wanting to get it right. The lead critic in England is called Michael Billington,” he says about the Guardian’s chief drama critic, “and I used to have this image of me being wheeled on stage and the front line being, ‘Boyle Plucked Too Soon.’ I was this kid just out of drama school. I was like, ‘Fuck!’”
Boyle’s nerves were understandable given the fact that the play he left school for was not just any play, but the West End premiere of the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and his role not just any role, but that of Scorpius Malfoy, the nebbishy, platinum-haired son of Harry’s lifelong rival Draco. The latest installment of one of pop culture’s most iconic franchises, the two-part Cursed Child centers on the unlikely friendship between Scorpius and Harry’s own son Albus (played by fellow newcomer Sam Clemmett), two outcasts struggling to emerge from their fathers’ shadows as they enter Hogwarts. Without giving too much away, neither is quite what his parents—or fans—expected and Boyle’s incisive performance, which combined razor-sharp physicality with potent emotional heft, made him the show’s breakout star, earning him an Olivier in London and a Tony nomination after transferring to Broadway. Which should help put any remaining concerns to rest.
Now, mere weeks after wrapping up a yearlong run of eight grueling shows a week, the 24-year-old Belfast-born actor is back in New York again embarking on his next undertaking, the forthcoming HBO miniseries adapted from Philip Roth’s celebrated 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which posits a midcentury America in which the isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins the presidential election of 1940, signs an Understanding with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to stay out of World War II, and encourages the nation’s latent anti-Semitism and xenophobia out into the open. Boyle stars alongside Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Zoe Kazan, and Morgan Spector as Alvin, the cousin in a Jewish family in Newark based on Roth’s own with fervent political passions who travels to Canada to fight against the Axis, losing his leg in battle before returning home to become a racketeer. “I responded to Alvin in a way that I haven’t responded to a character that I’ve played yet,” he says. “I really relate to his moral compass. What he does might not be considered right in the eyes of the law or the people around him, but he finds it right, which I thought was something incredible about him and I thought I’d love to inhabit that.”
David Simon, the celebrated creator of The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce, is overseeing the show, and it was his name that first attracted Boyle’s attention when he was searching for his next project. “I had a lot of scripts to read and as soon as they said, ‘This one was written by David Simon,’ I was like, ‘Ok cool, I’m going home and reading this right now,’” he laughs. “We studied The Wire at drama school, that was like the pinnacle of television.” Then he picked up Roth’s novel for the first time and became even more engrossed. “I completely fell in love with the world that Roth had created and his writing,” he recalls. “It feels like some of those sentences come out and lacerate you. It really gets to the core of what it means to be human without being too flowery.”
Boyle is set to spend the next five months filming in New York and New Jersey, diving deep into an environment Roth knew intimately and intensely. He admits he’ll feel homesick in a way, but he’s sure Roth would understand. “When he grew up in Weequahic, New Jersey, all he wanted to do was get away and write about different things, but as soon as he got away, all he could write about was Weequahic, New Jersey—much like Joyce. He couldn’t get out of Dublin quick enough, and then when he did and went to Paris, all he could write about was Dublin,” he says. “I feel the same. I remember me and my mates staying up all night when we were sixteen or seventeen going, ‘God I can’t wait to get out of Belfast.’ Then as soon as I left, all I want to do is get back and create art that has something to do with Belfast. I think inherently we’re drawn back to the land from which we came. It’s a funny thing. We’re all trying to get back to that place.”
There are a number of terrifyingly prescient similarities between Roth’s Lindbergh and the current president—their race-baiting, their populist demagoguery, their success in pitting the nation against itself—but Boyle says he is careful not to let such interpretations distort his understanding of Alvin, preferring to leave the analysis up to the viewer. “I try not to get clouded by what’s going on in the zeitgeist at the moment,” he explains. “I just try and focus on what Alvin’s feeling scene to scene. I don’t think it would help me if I got cloudy and thought, ‘I’m making this as a political piece of art.’ I think my job is to just play whatever I have to play truthfully.”
This attitude is one Sontag would have appreciated and has something almost noble about it in its insistence on the purity of the emotional truth of the character. Boyle says he approached Scorpius in a similar way, eschewing considerations of his place in the Potter universe and focusing on his essential nature. “I just looked at him like a human being, just trying to get through the day,” he elaborates. “I didn’t look at him as a wizard or a Malfoy. I thought, ‘Here’s just a kid with bright blond hair who’s getting bullied every day. How does he navigate through life?’ It’s not for me to say what the story is or what the story’s about, it’s just to present it as best I can and then let the audience make up their minds.”
It’s how he understood his role as Geoffrey Bache Smith in Dome Karukoski’s new biopic Tolkien as well, making his film début as a poet and childhood friend of the Lord of the Rings author whose life was cut short by World War I. Tolkien, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, posthumously published a collection of Smith’s writings, which Boyle turned to as “the bible” while preparing. He was particularly drawn to one called “Let us tell Quiet Stories of Kind Eyes,” in which Smith recalls the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a salon of sorts dedicated to art and creativity he and Tolkien founded together with Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney), upon learning about Gilson’s death in the Battle of the Somme. “I would read the poems and think, ‘In what situation would he have to have been in to have written this?’ and try to draw parallels between our script and the poetry,” Boyle says, “not to take liberties, but to look at them and go, ‘Could this have been about Tom’s character or Paddy’s character or Nick’s character? What would his relationship have been like with his mother and his father due to these poems?’” Boyle even took to crafting poems of his own in Smith’s style, in an attempt to understand his predecessor through a shared creative process.
As a veteran of Harry Potter, Boyle is no stranger to rabid fans—he diplomatically refers to them as “passionate”—of which Tolkien has more than a few. Their “passion” was on vivid display several weeks ago at WonderCon, where the film’s cast presented exclusive clips to a captivated audience. “When I go to places like that, I just think, ‘Everyone has a church,’” Boyle laughs. “I just love seeing people really go for it. It was good to walk past people dressed as Scooby Doo and then other people dressed as Eragon. I was fist-bumping everyone. Everyone was just living their best life.”
The experience underscored the responsibility Boyle says he felt in portraying someone who actually lived and died, a weight he shared with his castmates. “I remember once—it was such a cool moment—we went to the Eagle and Child, which was the actual pub that Jeffery and Tolkien and all those boys would’ve drunk at in Oxford,” he recalls. “Nick and Paddy and Tom and I ordered a round of beer and we sat there in the little snug where those lads would’ve actually drunk a hundred years previous and we toasted them. It was a real moment of, ‘We’re really in these people’s shoes.’ We had to honor that and I hope we did.”
If Boyle approaches every role with an exceptional amount of consideration, it’s because he remembers well the journey it took him to get here. He grew up obsessed with films like The Godfather and In the Name of the Father—“I remember seeing Daniel Day-Lewis and thinking, ‘How do I not know that guy? He must live down the street!’” he recalls about the Belfast-set film, “and then someone was like, ‘No, he’s English, he’s acting,’ and I remember just being so shocked by that”—and dove into acting after being expelled from school at sixteen. “I was like, ‘Am I going to do this? This is real now, it has to be a career or a life,’” he says. He paid his dues in what he describes with a laugh as “awful, awful stuff,” including a high-concept staging of Romeo and Juliet set on a chessboard, in which his Romeo could only move in the knight’s L shape and which ended with a slideshow of teen suicide statistics set to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” He also played a ghost in what could charitably be described as an immersive outdoor theatrical experience. “I walked around Belfast as a hangman with a bag over my head in the pissing rain on Halloween,” he laughs, “with four or five people texting on their phones.”
He enrolled at the Royal Welsh on the encouragement of his future drama teacher and would end up starring on a London stage just a few years later, but he still carries those early experiences close to his heart. “I made it through, the dog days are over,” he says, “but all that stuff, you can’t wish that away because that is your education and you’re cutting your teeth even when you’re doing absolute shite. It’s all useful in the end. It all makes the tapestry when you turn it around. It’s all part of it.”
What is abundantly clear when talking to Boyle—whom Time named a Next Generation Leader in entertainment last year—is that he is not afraid of putting in the effort and taking the risk, no matter the cost. “On the West End, I wanted to get it right and I remember not enjoying it as much as I did when I was on Broadway because then the shackles of trying to get it right were off and I could just live and explore and get it wrong,” he says. “The freedom of allowing yourself to get it wrong creates something in the room that you and the audience can both taste. When you leave room for mistakes, when it’s all balancing on that knife edge, is when it’s real. When the audience is leaning forward and you can hear a pin drop and you don’t know what you’re going to do, that’s the most exciting I think. It’s scary to jump off the diving board, but you have to say, ‘Fuck it.’”
Tolkien is out today.
- Jonathan Shia
- Photography by
- Toby Coulson
- Styling by
- Ruth Higginbotham
Grooming by Kaely Russell.