Johnny Flynn, interview: ‘I’m just a glutton for experience’

Published in Evening Standard on November 26, 2015

Johnny Flynn has what you might call a restless creativity. He’s an actor of British theatre, American movies and international sitcoms but a musician too, singing as the frontman of his band The Sussex Wit, scoring BBC4’s Detectorists and composing Renaissance music for Shakespeare’s Globe. He’s even in talks to write his own musical.

But the 32-year-old also seems to be truly restless. We meet in a break from rehearsals for Hangmen — Martin McDonagh’s much-lauded new play, his first in more than 10 years — which is being quickly scrubbed up for a transfer from the Royal Court to the West End following the show’s success at Sunday’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Best Design. He had a month off in between — time to kick your heels, you might think? Nope: Flynn only went and recorded his fourth album.

“I’m not a fan of taking too long in the studio,” he admits. “I always do one vocal take and jump out of the control room, and people push me back in… It’s a real turn-off to hear things that are too polished. I feel like I’ve almost fought for the right to be that kind of musician — we used to be on a major label and now we’re on an indie.”

Flynn’s folky music has usually been bracketed with the likes of Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons, but he insists that he’s heading in a new direction this time. “I feel like it’s really different. I really love a lot of early Sixties R&B, rock’n’roll, and I love performing songs that have that power and soulfulness. We’ve been enjoying that groove a lot more.”

That Sixties swagger is finding its way into more than just his music, however. A black comedy, Hangmen is set in a pub run by a hangman (Harry, played by David Morrissey) in Oldham in 1965. Hanging has just been abolished — but the axiom “old habits die hard” is tested when a suspicious stranger named Mooney shows up.

Flynn is that stranger. There’s a generation gap and a cultural shift, as well as a geographical distance, between Mooney and Harry; the latter stuck in a “damp, northern, dowdy, Fifties” milieu, whereas Mooney represents a blast of swinging London: “The Rolling Stones, Carnaby Street, a different energy, slightly longer hair!”

His performance was acclaimed by critics for its “charismatic menace”, and as a “breakout performance at impressive odds with the actor’s cherubic demeanour”. It’s true that with his floppy blond hair and piercing blue eyes, Flynn is more often cast as a romantic lead than a psychopath, whether it’s playing a sensitive troubadour opposite Anne Hathaway in last year’s Song One or leading the cast of the unfortunately named Channel 4 romcom Scrotal Recall.

“A lot of the work I’ve done has involved playing quite sympathetic characters,” he acknowledges. “I was excited and slightly daunted by [Mooney].” But despite the brilliance of the part, Flynn had some trepidation about revisiting it for the West End run. Flynn lives in Hackney with his wife Bea and their son Gabriel; they’re expecting another child in March. Wonderful news… but timing is a bit tight. “Our second baby is due on March 6 and the play finishes on the 5th. At least there are understudies — I am going to be at the birth of the child!”

Gabriel is four and, while he’s too young for Hangmen, Flynn loves taking him to more child-friendly theatre. “I find it incredibly moving seeing him watch a story being performed. Partly because I remember watching my dad onstage and him taking me to things — I find the romance of theatre quite strong.”

His father was actor Eric Flynn, who died in 2002. The performance gene certainly seems to have passed through the family: Flynn’s older half-brother is Jerome Flynn, while his sister Lillie has starred in musicals such as the West End Kinks show Sunny Afternoon.

Like his father, Flynn seems to have a knack for getting cast in theatrical hits: he was in Jerusalem, and played opposite Mark Rylance again in the Globe’s Twelfth Night, which transferred to Broadway. Film work has been more under the radar, however — Song One didn’t make many waves. Flynn’s shy, slightly shuffly performance was considered by some to be too low key, although it isn’t a million miles away from what he’s like in real life: considerate, laid-back to the point of vagueness and just, well, really nice.

Come on then — how was Anne Hathaway? And is it true that she gave him a shot of whisky before their sex scene? “Yeah she did! That was sweet. She’s a cool person — we became really good friends. Watching what she has to deal with in life, being a mega-famous person, I started to feel sorry for her. It was the first thing she’d done since winning an Oscar [for Les Misérables] and there was a weird pressure. She was having to deal with quite a lot of crap.”

The next film in the pipeline will plunge him — yet again — into the world of Sixties rock’n’roll. Flynn will star as Ray Davies in a biopic of The Kinks, directed by Julien Temple, who has managed, astonishingly, to get both Ray and his brother Dave onside. Thanks to their famously vicious sibling squabbling, even nailing down the band’s story hasn’t been that easy, Flynn begins to tell me, stopping himself before he gives away any juicy details — the film is in pre-production and he doesn’t want the part whipped away.

He’s also tight-lipped about a few fledgling writing projects. “I’m working with Matthew Dunster, who directs Hangmen, on a new musical… it’s too early to report [what it’s about], but it’s nice to be thinking about things from scratch.”

And Flynn is tentatively hopeful that there will be another series of Scrotal Recall — a show that’s a lot sweeter, and smarter, than its laddish title. The series, in which Flynn’s character discovers he has chlamydia and must contact all his previous sexual partners, has enjoyed a second life after being picked up by Netflix; America has embraced it, apparently. “There was a bit of shafting going on by Channel 4,” he says wryly. “But Netflix is cooler than Channel 4 anyway!”

He’s less sure about returning to Brotherhood, a sitcom in which he played a hapless child-adult trying to raise his kid brother. It’s just been on Comedy Central, meaning it’s also sold internationally. “We were told it’s going to get 80 million [viewers] worldwide, guaranteed,” says Flynn, still looking a little boggled at the thought.

A multi-camera sitcom, it was filmed in front of a live audience. “I’m a big fan of classic comedy stuff, and it just seemed like a great opportunity to have a go. I think there’s a real art to it. My dad played the straight man in the Two Ronnies’ sketches, so I’ve grown up with this — I don’t take it lightly! I see it as an honourable line of work.” Some fans of his music were apparently disgruntled at seeing their earnest folkie goofing around — but that’s good, Flynn insists. He’s determined to avoid being pigeonholed.

“I feel really lucky that I somehow have blagged my way into loads of different experiences. I find making a film fascinating, I find making a play amazing, and working with my band and scoring things… it’s all really cool. I’m just a glutton for experience, really.”

Hangmen is at Wyndham’s Theatre, WC2 (0844 482 5120, from December 1 to March 5

Where next?