by Charlotte Pearson Methven
Born in New York and raised in London, actress LUCY BOYNTON is equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic. Now the former child star’s acclaimed performances have led to her being snapped up for two hotly anticipated new Netflix dramas plus a coveted role in Murder on the Orient Express opposite Johnny Depp.
Having been discovered as a South London schoolgirl, Lucy Boynton may now become the Netflix face of her generation. The former child actress – who has made the elusive leap to adult star – is poised to be binge-watched by her millennial contemporaries when she appears opposite Naomi Watts in Gypsy, a highly anticipated new drama from the streaming service. In the ten-part series, released this month, Lucy plays a young woman addicted to prescription pills who becomes overly close to her therapist [Naomi], who has issues of her own and encourages the crossing of doctor-patient boundaries. I have previewed the show, filmed in
New York and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (among others), and predict it will be a huge hit. ‘Big films used to be very much the thing, but nowadays people see the value in getting to explore characters over a longer space of time,’ says Lucy.
We meet just hours after she has finished filming in a Welsh forest for another Netflix drama, Apostle, starring Dan Stevens (of Downton fame), about a religious cult in 1905, with Lucy playing the leader’s daughter. Filming wrapped at 2am: ‘Sorry I am so incoherent,’ she croaks. ‘Lack of sleep is not helping my vocabulary.’ Yet despite being tired, she is articulate and effusive.
From Blackheath, Southeast London, Lucy, 23, is the daughter of two journalists, which may explain her eloquence. Her father Graham is a newspaper travel editor and her mother Adriaane is a freelance writer. Lucy seems highly intelligent and is a product of top London girls’ schools: first Blackheath High School, where she was discovered in a drama class aged 11, and then James Allen’s Girls’ School, which also turned out actresses Charlotte Ritchie and Sally Hawkins.
For as long as Lucy can remember, she has wanted to act. ‘It was never enough for me to just watch something, I needed to understand it. My favourite film was My Girl [the 1991 coming-of-age tale]. I’d replay Anna Chlumsky doing the funeral scene [her best friend dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting] over and over, and then go to the mirror to see if I could make myself cry by thinking of my cat dying.
‘The pivotal moment came when I was ten: I had this brilliant drama teacher, Helen Kay. She taught us that acting was not playing pretend; it was understanding the human mind and why people function as they do. And that you act with your eyes – I found it fascinating that you could become another human through something so minute.’
Lucy’s big break came when she won the role of the young Beatrix Potter in the 2006 biopic Miss Potter, alongside Renée Zellweger, after a casting agent sat in on a drama workshop at her school. ‘I came home with a letter saying, “Your daughter has been invited to audition.”
My mum thought it would be lovely for me to try. Neither of us expected it to come off, but I got through round after round. After the last audition, we were in a café having hot chocolate, and my mum was saying, “As long as you did your best…” and then her phone rang.’ It was the agent telling them Lucy had the part. ‘Mum burst into tears, which I found mortifying.
‘From that moment, something shifted permanently within me in terms of how I viewed myself and school. Filming was magical – being on a set where I was treated like an adult.’ Renée, already famous as Bridget Jones, was, she recalls, ‘soft, sweet and such a gentle presence’. (Lucy hasn’t kept in touch with her, but has seen the subsequent Bridget films. ‘Hell yeah! I loved the most recent one.’)
‘It was so special, delving into the world of Beatrix Potter, which was such a part of my childhood,’ Lucy says. ‘Everything about that experience was perfect, so to go from that back to school and being told off for talking was hard. I learned quickly not to discuss my “other life”. In my excitement at telling friends, some girls thought I was bragging, which was hurtful.’
Lucy thereafter avoided the thespian scene at school. ‘It was very cliquey. I felt intimidated, so I didn’t audition for plays and kept acting as something I did outside school. None of my old school friends are actors; they have normal jobs.’ Luckily, the work kept coming, though Lucy went through a ‘difficult period. It was around the ages of 16 and 17, when I was too old for child roles, but too young to play the leading lady.
‘It’s this weird limbo where, if you’re not a Fanning sister [actresses Elle and Dakota who, unusually, peaked in their teens], it is hard to place yourself. Thankfully, I came out on the other side. I’m consistently getting work now, but I never take that for granted; I cross my fingers every day. I would never say, “I’ve made it.” I hope one day to feel the calm of being settled.’
Lucy says another pivotal moment came when she bagged the female lead in last year’s Golden Globe-nominated feel-good film Sing Street, set in 1980s Dublin and directed by John Carney. When she does get recognised nowadays, it is as Raphina, a big-haired aspiring model whose beauty inspires the male lead to start a band to impress her. Lucy describes filming as ‘possibly the best two months of my life. Raphina is different from me in every way, and the fact that I could portray her as well as I did showed that I can be trusted with characters who stray wildly from my own personality.’
The same can be said of Allison, her character in Gypsy, who has dropped out of university and is losing her mother to cancer and her life to drugs. Lucy’s performance is compelling, as is her chemistry with Naomi Watts – ‘the most generous and present actor’ – whose character, therapist Jean Holloway, becomes something of a surrogate mother to Allison in a way that is not entirely appropriate.
‘Although I am not a drug addict or in therapy, I relate to Allison and to that feeling of, “I thought I’d have everything together by now.” When you’re younger, you have a perfect plan for your life: I thought I would be engaged at 24, married at 26, have my first child at 28 and my second at 30. But as you get closer to each age, you realise it’s unfeasible. I am getting used to that lack of control, but Allison struggles with it. I empathise with her and the desire to retreat to being a child, when your mother solved everything.’
Although the series focuses on a sinister therapist, Gypsy is generally helpful in furthering the conversation around mental health, Lucy thinks. ‘Therapy used to be something I associated with America, while there was a desire in the UK to maintain a stiff upper-lip, but I think Prince Harry coming forward and people talking about it more now is great in terms of lifting the taboo.
‘Hopefully people are realising that seeing a therapist is no different from going to a doctor for a physical ailment. I am trying to be more accepting of myself: you feel what you feel; every feeling is valid; you have to acknowledge it and move forward.’
Lucy admits that her industry is not one for the fragile: ‘The pressure to look good is intense. It is hard to be immune to that and the self-consciousness that comes with it. Having been at girls’ schools, I am well-versed in fad diets and how brutally women can judge themselves. It gets easier as you get older. The people I look up to most are actresses such as Kate Winslet and Amy Schumer, who have never been size zero and are judged on their bodies of work, not their bodies.’
Funnily enough, Lucy’s hair – naturally ‘a sad, mousy brown’ – has made her feel less scrutinised. ‘No one knows who I am,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve been platinum blonde, which is my favourite. Currently, I’m a redhead [for Apostle], which has taken some getting used to. Now I’m coveting dark hair. Sometimes even my friends don’t recognise me, so walking down the street isn’t an issue!’
That could be about to change. Lucy was recently named a new beauty crush by Vogue, and such is the reach of Netflix that she will doubtless become a household name whatever she does with her hair.
And there is the small matter of her role in Murder on the Orient Express (for which she went blonde), directed by Kenneth Branagh and set to be the A-list ensemble film of the year when it is released in the autumn. Its all-star cast includes Johnny Depp (who, US tabloids reported, fell for Lucy on set), Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz and Olivia Colman.
Lucy concedes that the filming experience was intimidating. ‘I’d assumed that after shooting everyone would retreat to their own corners, but we all hung out in one room together, drinking tea. It was surreal – all these faces I had grown up admiring and having to hold up my end of it. Kenneth created this warm atmosphere, though, where we were all like a family.’
The one person she felt starstruck about was Michelle. ‘It took me three days before I could even speak to her. She exudes cool, but actually she is warm and funny.’ Sergei Polunin, the controversial Ukrainian ballet dancer who quit the Royal Ballet, also appears in the film. Lucy was ‘in awe’ of him. ‘He never overthinks a scene; he is just so present, moving through each second instinctively. You can feel the energy change around him. I plan to steal his work ethic with immediate effect.’
She won’t countenance the Johnny rumours – ‘please write, “She says something clever and witty about not discussing her love life”’ – or say which of her leading men has been her type. ‘I don’t have a type!’ She concedes that dating someone ‘who understands the twists and turns of this industry’ would probably make sense, ‘but that could be someone behind the camera’. Her other big-screen release this year is Rebel in the Rye, a biopic of Catcher in the Rye author J D Salinger, with Nicholas Hoult in the main role. And there is, of course, Dan Stevens in Apostle. It’s rich pickings, but all she will say is that they are both ‘warm and lovely’.
Like several of her recent projects, Apostle is fairly dark. ‘It’s a lot of fake blood and scary night-shoots, but I’m loving it. The set is a 1905-style village in the woods – it is really spooky. I think I’m drawn to darker material because it’s a more extreme look at the depths of human experience. Good horror is about so much more than slashing: it’s a way of examining grief and loss of self. I have always been afraid of loss, so now I am drawn to exploring it in my work.’
Lucy’s family are supportive of her career, though they do not share her love of horror. ‘Mum, in particular, cannot stand it. Although I want her to be proud of me and my choices, we are very different, so I do not feel I need to consult her when I am unsure of a part. When I do, though, she tells me, “gut instinct above everything”, which is great advice. Because of the beautiful roles I was fortunate enough to get when I was starting out, it’s been easy for them to be excited for me.’
After Miss Potter Lucy landed parts in the BBC adaptations of children’s novel Ballet Shoes, opposite Emma Watson, and Sense and Sensibility. When, however, she was asked to read for raunchy film St Trinian’s, her mother vetoed it. ‘That was news to me at the time. I only found out about it more recently,’ she laughs. ‘I suppose it would have been quite fun, and I was a huge fan of the original St Trinian’s films.’
And when Lucy dropped out of school before her final year (to work on the US Civil War film Copperhead) – ‘much to my parents’ and teachers’ distress’ – she duly returned the following year and finished her A-levels at a sixth-form college. ‘As I got older, my mother became protective about ensuring that my education was top priority. She was my chaperone when I was a minor, but she has no interest in being my manager or trying to control my career now.’
Lucy’s elder sister Emma-Louise – a ‘seriously intelligent’ political journalist, to whom she is ‘incredibly close’ – is based in New York, where Lucy was born and lived until she was five while her father helped to launch the US edition of Condé Nast Traveller. ‘I divide my time between London, Los Angeles and New York now, and I feel I belong in all of them, partly because I sort of feel American. When we moved back to London, my sister and I were devastated. It became a competition, who could keep their accent more American. Any time either of us sounded English, the other would shriek, “English girl! English girl!” and that was the deepest insult.
‘I love London now, but can see myself settling in New York. I like Los Angeles, but I start to go crazy there after three weeks. I need to see urban architecture and high-rise buildings.’
Because her parents worked in travel journalism, Lucy globetrotted extensively as a child – good preparation for the peripatetic life of an actress. Her most memorable trip was a cruise down the River Nile, which was ‘terrifying, because right before we went my parents decided to show us Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile!’ Her fondest memories are of safaris in South Africa. ‘I loved seeing animals free, not in cages. I’m a massive animal-lover. My plan B, if acting didn’t work out, was to be a vet or to work for the RSPCA.’
Luckily, it doesn’t look as though any plan B will be needed.
Netflix favourites I’m a terrible binger. Currently it’s Stranger Things and The OA.
Who would you most love to work with? Felicity Jones and Andrea Riseborough are both phenomenal. It is such an exciting time to be a young British actress.
Beauty secrets I have very sensitive skin so discovering Kiehl’s was a gamechanger.
Fashion fix I am lucky to work with Miu Miu and Prada, who keep it fun and aren’t as intimidating as other fashion houses.
London hotspot Wherever I am going, I get off the train at Charing Cross and wander through Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.
What do you miss most when you’re away? The architecture: I love being aware of history in London and seeing myself as a tiny part in the grand scheme. I also miss the cynicism and the self-deprecating sense of humour. fitness regime I walk. I only like exercise when you don’t realise you’re doing it. I haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years and I don’t intend to.
Favourite books Anything by [American horror writer] Shirley Jackson.
Gypsy will be on Netflix from Friday. Murder on the Orient Express will be in cinemas from 3 November