Freak Show is a teen comedy starring young British actor Alex Lawther as oddball Billy Bloom, who turns his school upside down with his larger-than-life persona, non-conformist behaviour and extravagant outfits. This directorial debut by Trudie Styler, already well known for her producing skills, has a tinge of the 80s teen flick about it, attributed to the soundtrack, style and or even the depiction of a Republican ‘red-state' high school setting. Freak Show is a film which celebrates difference, where the oppressed are not meek but dressed in glittery green mermaid outfits, where a young gay boy refuses to be anything else apart from who he is.
Raised in a fabulousity by his liberal, larger-than-life mother Muv, aptly played by the exceptional Bette Midler. In a turn of events she sends him to live with his father (Larry Pine) in Virginia, supposedly temporarily. Billy inevitably runs into trouble when his unsual fashions dont go down well after the first day at school and subsequesntly the rest of his schooling days that follow. His conservative fellow students, headed up by promo queen wanabe Lynette (Abigail Breslin), are having none of it and turn against him. Through adverisity comes courage and determination, he soon makes friends with jock Flip (Ian Nelson) who he develops an unrequited crush on, but more importantly decides to run for ‘Prom Queen'. Despite the occasional tweeness and the schmaltzy ending, Freaky Show is a spunky film, at points very funny, with an empowering message. Above all its truly inspiring to see a potrayal of someone like Billy being so resilient, refusing to be sidelined or shut down.
Lawther at just 23 has already managed to create a name for himself as a versatile actor, bagging himself an array of leftfield often disenfranchised characters, such as: a spooked youth in Ghost Stories who is tormented by ghosts, in the The Imitation Game he plays a young Alan Turing or a blackmailed teenager turned criminal in Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance. Billy Bloom is an upbeat amalgamation of his roles but with a more self-confident, grab the bull by its horns slant; coupled with a dose of gender-fluid-queerness and countless sprinkles of shiny sequins.
We fired some questions over at Alex to tell to us about the film and his role and this is what he had to say.
Can you tell us how you got involved with the film? How was the casting process?
There was a casting in London back in December 2015, which feels like a long time ago now. I was doing a play at the time in London and I got sent the script literally the night before. I turned up at the casting and I said to Trudie “I am really sorry”,having promised myself I wouldn’t be that actor who does this, “I am really under prepared and I’ve not learned the scenes as much as I’ve liked to. I am not off book”, which means I didn’t know the words by heart, “But I am happy to just give it a go….”. I think we tried a few times with the script in my hand and then I just said Trudie “Do you mind if I just riff/ improvise a bit and see what comes up”. She was very happy with the outcome. So I seemed to have sort of winged it and she seemed to like that.
In Freak show, you play an odd ball character; similar to roles we’ve seen you of late such as Ghost Stories, End Of The F**king World etc. Are you drawn to characters like Billy Bloom? Is it something you seek out?
I was really drawn to Billy Bloom because I felt that it was for someone who saw himself or felt on the fringes of things. But found his own way of dealing with his ‘outsideliness' through his extrovertidnesss. So there is this violence that is directed towards him and instead of him fighting it inwardly, he fought outwardly. I found that idea really exciting, his refusal to be suppressed. I liked his anger, I liked his irreplaceability.
Billy could be seen an inspiring figure for anyone who feels different, but at the same time he pays a lot of attention the way he looks and getting attention for it. How in your mind did you marry his social warrior persona with a degree of narcissism?
I found that hard to navigate at first because removing the social issues and Billy’s understanding of his gender. Looking at it from a purely dramatic way, I tried to find out what the costumes and his appearance represent dramatically and how that changes over the course of the narrative. Billy starts out in this hostile world and using his appearance as a weapon to fight and to agress those around him, in response to him being aggressed. His appearance is important to him, as that his the way of interacting with the world around him and I respect that. Then as the story continues, his relationship with his appearance became less about other and more about self, his self and his appearance becomes a reflection of himself, rarther than a weapon he uses to attack others with.
In terms of his social warrior persona and his narcissism, I feel like they go hand-in-hand. Cause thats all he has, that we all have our physical bodies. Billy decides to use his physical body, his appearance, the way he dresses as weapon to better the world around him. At the beginning of the film, I felt that it was coming from a place of violence and by the end of the story it comes from a place of a more honest representation; how he wants to present himself in the world.
Maybe because of his wealth and/or his mum’s liberal care-free upbringing, he does come into the new school with a certain air of superiority, which may have aided in people disliking him further. Would you agree?
I feel that there isn't a sense of superiority as such, but more that Billy is acutely aware of a difference of perspective on the world. He is acutely aware of his own difference. I don’t know how much of it is to do with his wealth or his mother, or maybe its something inherent in Billy seeking out fabulousness in the world and that’s what sets him apart.
At the beginning of the film, I suppose, there is a sense of him pushing against others and that this is perhaps because he is pushed against. He starts his first day at school in his Adam Ant get-up with the best of intentions to make friends and then very quickly sees that’s going to be difficult in this environment. I suppose there is a sort of sense of he is sure of his own self. That makes him seem that he is taking some sort of moral high ground.
In terms of his wealth that’s an interesting question because this is not a boy who is from an economically deprived background and this isn't a film that speaks of a young queer boy, dealing with the same issues as well as coming from a place of financial hardship. Of course that film needs to be made and should be made but this is not this film. This deals with a boy from a well off family, but is nevertheless in a very hostile environment and I suppose our imagination can only ask ‘how worse could it be had this boy not been fortunate enough to also be born a position of affluence, does that money doesn’t cushion his loneliness.
What was it like to star opposite Bette Midler?
It was wonderful, like a whirlwind. We filmed together only two days. In fact we shot the whole thing in 20 days, which is very quick for a feature film. It feels funny your phrase ‘starring opposite Bette Middler’. I can’t really say that I did, I just sat and watched her in awe, rather than starring opposite. I was sort of an audience to her, a fortunate audience one at that. She came in and she was laser precise, very prepared, she had done her homework ten-fold. I don’t think she made a film in a couple of years, so we were really lucky to have such a pro on our team to take on that particular role and being so pivotal in Billy’s narrative.
What’s next for you?
I just finished filming a French film, entirely in French Les Traducteurs (The Translators) directed by Régis Roinsard. It’s a thriller about an international group of translators, translating a new worldwide best-seller and then things start to get very Agatha Christie. It was a total joy to make and really looking forward to watching it, once it comes out of the edit.
Then there is another film called the Old Boys , which will finally get its festival outing in Edinburgh. It's loosely a modern re-telling of Cirano De Bergerac. It's with Jonah Hauer-King and Pauline Ettiene who is just dead charming in this lovely film about a slightly odd young man falling in love for the first time and not feeling that he has the resources within himself to get the girl whilst also forming a slightly odd relationship with a seemingly much more capable young man, palyed by Jonah. That should be released following its whole festival run.Also Im currently doing a play called The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre which talks about refugees and migrants at the makeshift camps in Calais, France, specifically between 2016-2017 and we had our first preview last night.
Freak Show will be in cinemas and on demand from June 22.
The Jungle runs at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End from 16 June – 3 November.
Words By Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_