Entertainment » Movies

Meet Billy Howle. Young Actor on the Prowl

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 15, 2018

Who is this handsome newcomer Billy Howle, you might be asking? And why is he in two new films opening this month opposite Saoirse Ronan?

"On Chesil Beach" is the compelling new film based on Ian McEwan's best selling novel (adapted by the author) and directed by the four-time Olivier Award-winning stage director Dominic Cooke. The bittersweet story, set in the summer of 1962, follows conservative, well-to-do Florence (Ronan) who meets and falls for lower-middle-class Edward (Howle), who cares for his brain-damaged mom (Anne-Marie Duff). Both are on the cusp of adulthood and decide to marry. On their wedding night it becomes apparent that neither know very much about sex. He's anxious and excited about it. She dreads it.

The film is a heartbreaking commentary on repression and miscommunication. It also comments on the societal morays and protocols that were still in place in Britain in the early '60s but were about to be shattered by the sexual revolution.

"Chesil" was filmed in 2016 but is finally being released here this week (it had a November 2017 release in the U.K.).

One year earlier, Howle and Ronan would meet filming Tony-winner Michael Mayer's version of Chekhov's classic, "The Seagull" (penned by playwright Stephen Karam) playing troubled lovers Konstantin and Nina. The film features a glorious Annette Bening as Irina, with Howle more than holding his own as her tormented son.

"The Seagull" was finally released last week, after a TriBeCa Film Festival run last month. So you can catch a double dose of this sexy leading man at your cineplex.

Howle is no stranger to U.K. audiences, having appeared in quite a number of BBC shows including the recent adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution," with Kim Cattrall.

His numerous stage credits include the Olivier Award-winning "Ghosts" as well as playing young Edmund Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey Into Night," opposite Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.

He previously appeared onscreen as the younger Jim Broadbent in "The Sense of an Ending" starring Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery and had a small role in Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk."

EDGE had a chat with Howle on the eve of the release of "The Seagull" and "On Chesil Beach."

Intimate matters

EDGE: Edward (in "Chesil") is such a richly complex character. What drew you to want to play him?

Billy Howle: I'm always drawn to complex characters. It's a real challenge. What I liked about Edward, having read the novella and then, the of course, the screenplay, was this idea of an internal struggle, this very dark facet to his personality. And then a much lighter and humorous side to him, which hopefully comes across in the story... I always like trying to find potentially comic moments in tragic circumstances.

EDGE: Did you have much rehearsal time?

Billy Howle: We did. It was quite an involved rehearsal period... We worked on the text quite a lot. And also had involved discussions about that particular period in British history, it being the early 1960s because it's not the 1960s as most people would understand it. It's a very particular period of history... it being post-war, almost as archaic as Victorian values being traditional still, particularly things like courtship, wooing, asking the father of the bride to be for her hand in marriage, etc.

Editor's note: Spoiler Alert on the following question and answer.

EDGE: That's the crux of the tragedy, because of the precise era it takes place, there was this inability to communicate about intimate matters. Do you think Florence and Edward would have had a better shot had they come of age in the late '60s instead of the early '60s?

Billy Howle: Yeah! Even maybe just a few more years. If they just waited a little while longer perhaps things would have been very different... But what's really interesting and what brings that tragic element out in the narrative is that we can see through Edward's love of blues, R&B and the American crossing the pond thing bourgeoning, he's sort of growing up just a little bit too early. And you're absolutely right, had it been even just 1965 the relationship may have survived. It's clear to see that they love each other. Definitely.

Stage to screen

EDGE: Having started your career onstage, what is your process like and how does it differ in each medium?

Billy Howle: Obviously there are transferrable skills. My background was in theatre from when I was quite young, but having left drama school, which is now about five years ago, I quite quickly started landing roles in TV and then eventually film. This ("On Chesil Beach") was Dominic Cooke's first foray into filmmaking as it was mine. I made one feature length film before this. So we were on this journey, this exploration of learning, together which is great because it meant we could find things out at the same time. And that became not only the discovery of the characters, but actually the technical aspects of filmmaking itself.

EDGE: You worked with Saoirse Ronan twice onscreen now. You filmed "The Seagull" first, followed by "On Chesil Beach." Did you develop a shorthand by the time you shot "Chesil?"

Billy Howle: When you've worked with an actor before yes, of course, you do create a short hand, or your own language or understanding of how one another likes to work. And their specific needs in any circumstance in a scene, for instance. But I tried to come at it with fresh eyes the second time we worked together because I think sometimes prior knowledge of the way in which one another works can get in the way and be a hindrance... Florence and Edward, the characters we play in "On Chesil Beach," are two completely different people to Nina and Constantine in "The Seagull." So I always think to come at something with a sort of wonderment, almost like I'm a newborn baby and I've just learned to walk.

EDGE: Regarding the intimate scenes in "Chesil," they were difficult to watch so I can only imagine they were difficult to film.

Billy Howle: Yeah. And of course there are awkward aspects to that and I think that's true for most love or sex scenes in film, but I think the necessary requirements were all there. Saoirse and I had a real bond and complete trust with one another and that's really important. And so the awkwardness comes hopefully from a place of truth.

Playing Chekhov

EDGE: You shot "Dunkirk" recently. That must have been an experience.

Billy Howle: It was quite interesting. To be honest, I was only there for a short period of time. It was very rainy. (Laughs) It was the first time I'd stepped on a set of that scale. It was quite a large-scale operation. A lot of logistics going into it and I was just really interested in all the technical aspects of the filmmaking process and I learned quite a lot just from being there a short time.

EDGE: Michael Mayer's version of "The Seagull" was shot in 2015. Was Constantine your first major film role?

Billy Howle: Yeah. It was my first feature... We shot it in upstate New York in the height of summer. So as you can imagine it was very, very hot. (Laughs) It was a really interesting experience. It was on location in this mansion that overlooks a lake, a beautiful setting and perfect, obviously, for the requirements of the story.

EDGE: What was prep like to play the alienated Constantine? I'm assuming you were familiar with the piece.

Billy Howle: Yes. I knew the play quite well because I studied it at drama school. It's one of those roles some people can be quite precious about... it's a sought after role for lots of male actors and a tricky role to play and to realize. And I was a little rabbit-in-the-headlights perhaps, it being my first film. So it did feel like the pressure was on. But again I had an amazing cast around me, Annette Bening and Corey Stoll and Saoirse Ronan obviously. So I was in safe hands. And approaching that role, I had to forget that it was a Chekhov play because our blueprint was the screenplay, which in itself is a separate entity.

Career path

EDGE: You're almost like Jessica Chastain in the sense that at the start of her film career she had these films completed that were waiting to be released and now, seemingly out of nowhere, we're getting all this Billy Howle. How has that been for you?

Billy Howle: Yes, you never know when those things are going to happen. It's a really exciting time for me and I'm looking forward to whatever's next really. I feel they're both solid pieces of work I'm really proud to have been involved in.

EDGE: Looking forward, what what would be the ideal career path for you?

Billy Howle: This is always such a tricky question because I don't set my sights too far in the future because I don't find that that's necessarily helpful to me. You can set yourself up to fail if you look too far in the future. And I was taught from a young age not to get my hopes up!

"The Seagull" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. It widens its run throughout the month of May. To find out when it is coming to a theater near you, visit the film's website.

"On Chesil Beach" opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 18, with additional cities added in subsequent weeks. To find out when it is coming to a theater near you, visit the film's website.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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