Douglas Booth has inhabited many iconic characters in his years on the screen, from Romeo to Boy George to Pip in Great Expectations—and worked with Darren Aronofsky, Lone Scherfig, and the Wachowskis’s along the way—but he is quick to demur when asked about the success of any of his projects. He is more apt to point to the director, the writer, the costume designer, his castmates, or the hairstylist than his own abilities, but it is clear from watching any of his films that he brings a special sensitivity and nuance to every role he plays.
His talents are obvious, in fact, even under layers of paint in Loving Vincent, his latest film and one that took an incredible seven years from conception to release, although the British actor notes that his contribution required only four weeks to film. Billed as the “world’s first fully painted feature film,” Loving Vincent takes animation to a visually brilliant extreme, with each frame hand-painted in the swirling, emotive style of Vincent van Gogh, whose mysterious death sparks the investigation that powers the movie. “It interested me instantly because this had never been done before,” Booth explains. “They sent me a couple of minutes of footage that they shot that was just so stunning and original and beautiful. All the credit goes to the directors, who really did the most amazing job. It really took blood, sweat, and tears to finish that film, and it’s a moving tribute to van Gogh.”
Booth, twenty-five, plays Armand Roulin, the son of a postman who attempts to deliver a posthumous letter to Vincent’s brother Theo, and the movie, which made the festival rounds over the summer, has been a surprising financial success for an independent labor of love. Van Gogh’s vibrant æsthetic makes a remarkably strong match with film, and Booth notes that, far from masking his performance, the brushstrokes actually helped enhance it. “When you see the artists doing it, it’s amazing how much detail they can get in there,” he explains. “Even more so with the style of his work, it gets all the emotion and the nuance and it kind of pulls it to the foreground in some way and really highlights it.”
2017 has been a busy year for Booth, who also had the thriller The Limehouse Golem with Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke out in September, the same month that saw the Toronto International Film Festival première of Mary Shelley, in which he plays Percy Shelley opposite Elle Fanning, Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, and Tom Sturridge. “I love Shelley’s poetry, and I have done for a while, so that was a great pleasure,” he says.
To prepare for the role, Booth studied an eight-hundred-page biography of Shelley and worked with a young Egyptian poet/rapper on his verse delivery, a process that helped him delve deeper into the Romantic language and illuminated new facets of the poems. “I wanted to do something different, because he was a complete radical in his time,” Booth explains. “We deconstructed the poems and I tried to understand exactly what they meant and what they were trying to say. I tried to speak them in a way that, at the time, would’ve been slightly more forward-thinking and modern.”
There is, in fact, something of the autodidact about Booth, who left school early as a teenager to focus on his budding acting career. For his latest role, playing opposite Kevin Spacey’s Gore Vidal and Michael Stuhlbarg in next year’s Netflix biopic Gore, he immersed himself not only in the source material, but also in the works of Plutarch and Robert Graves in order to understand his character, an Oxford-trained classicist. “He is supposed to be extremely bright and know everything there is to know about classics, so I had a quite daunting reading list,” Booth laughs. “My character is writing a book about Tiberius Gracchus”—a reformist Tribune of the Roman Republic—“so I had to do as much research on him as I could, which involved going into many different books, because he’s not a well-known historical figure.”
Booth seems to bring the same diligence to each of his projects, whether it’s a major studio film or one of the audiobooks he has taken to recording lately between other work. (“It’s interesting to explore solely using your voice,” he offers. “It’s a different way of working in the medium.”) As a child growing up in London, his grandparents introduced him to the music of Louis Armstrong, and he studied the jazz trumpet until he was no longer able to take lessons at school. “I am severely dyslexic, so I knew I was never going to have an academic path,” he explains. “I never wanted to sit behind a desk. I suppose that pushed me to display a more creative part of my brain.” Searching for a new outlet, he auditioned for a school production of Agamemnon and got the role, which “set off a love for acting.” He joined the National Youth Theatre and started studying at the Guildhall School of Drama at thirteen, was signed by an agent at fifteen, and landed his first film at sixteen.
At seventeen, he played Boy George in the BBC Two film Worried About the Boy, which earned him universal praise for his performance, including from Boy George himself. “Within the first twenty minutes of getting the role, he found me on my personal Facebook and he went, ‘I hear you’re playing me. I can’t say I’m complaining, but don’t be camp. I’m not camp,’” Booth recalls. “That was the entirety of the message.”
The next few years brought roles in Aronofsky’s Noah with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, in Jupiter Ascending opposite Eddie Redmayne and Mila Kunis, as Miley Cyrus’s love interest in the teen romantic comedy LOL, and as Romeo to Hailee Steinfeld’s Juliet. He joined a passel of other young mostly British actors—including Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Ben Schnetzer, Matthew Beard, Olly Alexander, and Josh O’Connor—for Scherfig’s The Riot Club, a scathing dissection of England’s class divisions inspired by Oxford’s exclusive Bullingdon Club, which counts David Cameron and Boris Johnson as former members. “Often you get to work with one or two people your age in a movie, but to work with these ten other guys whom you’d been auditioning up against since you started was amazing,” Booth says. “Half of them I knew and were good friends of mine already and the other half became great friends, so that was really special. We formed a very strong bond.”
Booth’s commitment reaches off set as well, to his work with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with which he has traveled to Lesbos and Syria to help raise awareness of the refugee crisis. “I think I’ve always been fairly socially conscious from a young age,” he explains. “There are many people around the world who don’t have a voice and I think that, as I am very lucky to have a voice, I should try and use it for good rather than just Instagramming what I’m eating for lunch.”
What is clear through all of Booth’s pursuits is that he is always looking for something more. He says he tries to pick projects that expand his range and offer new opportunities, including making his stage début earlier this year opposite Tony Revolori in the Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam’s early play Speech & Debate. “A challenge, I suppose,” he offers when asked what he is looking for in his next role. “You want to try and do things that you think are going to push you or you think are interesting. You just have to try and look for good work or be patient and wait for the good work to come.”
Loving Vincent is out now.
Styling by Ruth Higginbotham. Grooming by Dayaruci at One Represents. Photographer’s assistant: Tim Jobling. Digital technician: Jim Tobias Johnston.