Johnny Flynn: ‘I fall asleep to Richard Burton reading me “Under Milk Wood”‘

Johnny Flynn is almost certainly the only buzzy ’00s indie folk musician to have successfully reinvented himself as an in-demand screen actor and heavyweight theatre leading man. He’s not done a play since he starred opposite Kit Harington in 2018’s West End hit ‘True West’, but now he returns with the biggest role of his career: as superstar Richard Burton in Jack Thorne’s Sam Mendes-directed National Theatre play ‘The Motive and the Cue’, which details the fraught rehearsals for Welsh acting titan Burton’s starring role in a 1964 Broadway direction of ‘Hamlet’. Mark Gatiss stars as Burton’s director and idol John Gielgud, with Tuppence Middleton as his even more famous wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

Tell us about the Richard Burton who you’re playing, Richard Burton in 1964.

‘He’s at a crossroads. He’s the working-class son of a miner and has become the most famous actor in the world through sheer talent and is married to the most famous woman in the world. When he met Liz Taylor on the set of “Cleopatra” the word “paparazzi” was created after the Italian press started following them around. They were excommunicated by the Vatican. They were front-page news every day. But he thinks of himself as a classical actor, he wants to be seen in the lineage of John Gielgud. He’s been in some really creaky films recently and he wants the public to see him how he sees himself, which is as a good classical actor. He wants to do “Hamlet” and he chooses Gielgud – who was the Hamlet of his generation – to direct.’ 

Their ‘Hamlet’ was a hit but also famously quite a weird version of the play.

‘They’re both fighting for their version of “Hamlet”, and they’re both too overwrought and pressured for a natural path to find itself. Gielgud won’t give up his version of the play and the character, and in an odd way he’s kind of oscillating between being Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, sometimes kindly and benevolent, sometimes micromanaging and precious and not what Burton needs. And so there’s this big clash… which is good drama.’

It’s a comedy, though?

‘Yeah I think it’s very funny and even in the moments that are tense or difficult there’s comedy – I laugh a lot while I’m watching it and Jack Thorne who has written the play is a genius. He has just chosen the most perfect moment for each of the characters. And it’s really moving somehow, I can’t quite put my finger on it but at the heart of the play there’s a big healing for everybody. And it’s about why we tell stories and why we revisit these old stories. 

Burton was very famous for his voice – you’re not Welsh, but does having lived there as a teenager give you a certain authority in terms of imitating his voice?

‘Yes, the South Walian accent is very familiar to me because I moved to South Wales when I was about 14. It was the only place we ever went on holiday and then we moved there and we didn’t have anywhere to go on holiday. It’s a wonderful place to be. So the accent is familiar and actually my accent was a bit Welsh as a teenager. It’s really easy for me to slip into that; the particular timbre of his voice is so amazing I’ve worked really hard trying to adopt it; I fall asleep listening to him reading me “Under Milk Wood” in the hope it’ll just be absorbed.’

When you’re groomed and kept by big institutions it’s dangerous for creativity

You do plays and films and make music – is there a logic to how you balance those things?

‘I just believe the right things will be presented to you at the right time. Maybe that’s a naive thing to say. But you don’t actually have much control of acting, you can’t get a film made on your own so you wait for things to come along. But I get a sort of nag or a pull if I haven’t been making music for a while.’ 

Your band Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit got loads of hype just as the music industry was collapsing due to the rise of streaming culture. Do you think your life and career would have turned out differently if you’d been born ten years earlier?

‘We’d been putting out little things on indie labels and then Mercury signed us and we made our first album for them and they made all these promises that they couldn’t keep because the industry was changing, but then there was also the financial collapse, and then at the same time the last Razorlight album bombed – they were the big band on our label. So it was like a triple whammy and then we got out of the deal which was actually one of the best things that could have happened. Not that we were paid much but when you’re groomed and kept by big institutions like a major label it’s dangerous for creativity. It was really hard at the time, though, we went into debt because we spent money on a tour of America which we couldn’t get back and then the label pulled the support for the tour and we just thought fuck it we’ll do it anyway. There were producers who we were lined up to work with calling us and saying “so sorry” and we were like “we’re still making the record aren’t we?” and they were like “no we’re not”. I was such an idealist, I really didn’t think about money at all, I thought it really was purely about making good things and doing what you believe in.’

I was quite confused when I saw you in ‘Jerusalem’ back in 2012, because I was like ‘is that the same Johnny Flynn I read about in NME?’ Was the move from ‘musician who acts’ to ‘actor who plays music’ a strange one?

‘There was a cognitive dissonance in terms of how I saw myself. I was touring two plays in rep around the world from mid-2007. But I wanted to make a clean break from acting to give music a chance. So I wrote a letter to my agent saying I’m sorry but I’m leaving, I’ve got to give this music thing a go and be all in, it deserves that, blah blah blah. And my agent wrote back saying: “which other agent are you going to?”; And I said: I’m not moving, I’m stopping. And he said, “don’t be ridiculous, go on the back burner and when you’re ready, come back”. And I didn’t have the strength to protest and that was really, really kind. Eventually I got a play at the Royal Court, they always had a lot of musicians there, and then “Jerusalem” was a Court production.”

‘Jerusalem’ came back last year with a lot of the old cast, but not you – was it ever on the cards?

‘No, I would have been too old for my character, Lee. But to be honest I was happy to let it be – it was such a perfect memory.’

‘The Motive and the Cue’ is at the National Theatre, until Jun 10.

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