The world of Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a brand new one, at least when it comes to the big screen. Lee’s evolution as a boundary-pushing director has perhaps reached its apex with the technical innovations that Lee required to tell the story of a young solider (Billy Lynn, naturally) who returns home an unlikely hero and is forced to grapple with a series of overwhelming events that push his emotional mettle. Lee fell in love with 3D during “The Life of Pi” and, for him, “Billy Lynn” is the next logical step forward – when presented in Lee’s specifications, the film is shown at a super-high frame rate (120fps), with ultra-high-definition 4k resolution and 3D to round out the highly immersive experience.
With such technical demands, the film required an outstanding actor to portray young Billy Lynn, someone willing and able to take on an emotional role in a hyper-real world that simply doesn’t respond well to the normal actorly tics that often creep into performances.
Meet Joe Alwyn: Twenty-five years old, British, a stage actor by training — oh, and a total newcomer to the world of film acting.
IndieWire sat down with Alwyn just hours after the film made its debut at October’s New York Film Festival in October. Its unusual world premiere actually included three screenings, back to back to back, at the AMC Lincoln Square Theater, the only theater in New York City with the necessary equipment to screen the film as Lee had designed it.
An Intense Experience
The next afternoon, Alwyn was still reeling from the spectacle.
“God, it was a lot of things,” Alwyn said of the premiere. “I’d never been in a film before, let alone seen myself on the big screen before, so to have that experience of being in every single scene at a very high level of frame rate and clarity was a trip. It was an intense experience.”
The young star was quick to turn the conversation to his director and the bold new technology he created in order to deliver an otherwise unseen experience to his audience.
“I was so proud to have worked with Ang,” Alwyn said. “Somebody who so boldly, in every single film, leaps into new territory and tries to push things, be it the technology or the content or whatever, and is willing is risk and jump into the unknown.”
Alwyn, however, knows a thing or two about jumping into the unknown.
Early last year, the young actor was still finishing up drama school at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama when he started making moves towards a professional career. A standout at the London-based institution, Alwyn’s talent was apparent to everyone he encountered.
Nick Moseley, RCSSD’s principal lecturer — and Alwyn’s frequent stage director — recently told IndieWire that when Alwyn arrived at the school, “He brought a maturity and intelligence that was of immense benefit to the group. He also had a passion for the work and a conviction within his own artistry that was an inspiration to some of his younger colleagues.”
By the time Alwyn was approaching his final year at RCSSD, he had become, by Moseley’s estimation, “completely fearless.” He’d need that for the next step.
Alwyn’s first big hurdle in making the jump from drama student to movie star? Finding representation. Mere days after landing at London’s Independent Talent Group, his newly-minted agents were already sending Alwyn a number of promising scripts. One of them was for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
“If Billy’s Real, Who Would Billy Be?”
Casting director Avy Kaufman had been trying to fill the title role for months, one she and Lee initially envisioned as going to a known actor. A few months into the process, Kaufman basically threw out her short list of up-and-coming names.
“I was trying to find somebody who was kind of close to the bone of the character and the person that Billy was,” Kaufman explained to IndieWire. “If Billy’s real, who would Billy be?”
After taping his audition using a handful of scenes that Lee and Kaufman had sent around to eligible actors, Alwyn didn’t have much time to rest or reflect. Kaufman reached out that very night to book him for a trip to New York to meet and read with Lee.
“As soon as I saw the tape, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Billy,'” Kaufman remembered. “There was just something very subtle about his reading. You could feel the tenderness inside of him. He just felt real.”
Alwyn was soon winging his way to America – a place he’d never been before – to do something he’d never done before.
“Joe came with a backpack, with like one pair of underwear,” Kaufman said with a laugh. “He had not a clue he was going to stay. When I met him in person, he was just like how he was in the tape.”
Lee has always considered himself a “performance-oriented” filmmaker, but the unique technological demands of “Billy Lynn” – namely, how crisp and clear the final picture is – pushed that further than ever before.
At a media breakfast held the morning of the film’s triple-header New York Film Festival premiere, the filmmaker emphasized the necessity of quality casting. Because of the fast frame rate and the high resolution of what he hails a new medium, his stars couldn’t “act” in the traditional sense, as all artifice would be painfully evident on the big screen.
“You see the thoughts in their eyes, the emotions they feel under the skin,” Lee said at the event.
Kaufman, however, was unsure of how exactly Lee would translate that demand to an in-person audition.
“I wasn’t positive [of] exactly what Ang was going to look for in Joe, to see if he was Billy,” Kaufman said. “I just kind of told Joe, ‘don’t do anything. Don’t try to be anybody else but you, who you are right now.'” It worked.
“From the first reading, from halfway in the first scene, there’s no doubt, he’s top-notch talent,” Lee remembered. “I was worried: Is he too handsome? But then his face is so compelling, it doesn’t matter.”
Alwyn recalls the audition in slightly less effusive terms. “I thought it had gone well,” Alwyn remembered of the encounter. “I’d felt a connection with [Lee], but at the same time, this was Ang Lee and I was a kid at drama school and I was British and I had long blond hair and I was a lot skinnier than Billy and like, what do I know?”
“I was going to go home the next day to London and resume my life,” he said.
A Whole New World
That didn’t happen, as Lee and Kaufman asked Alwyn to stay on in the city for a few more days. For Lee, the decision to cast Alwyn as Billy was made during that first audition, but there were plenty of other factors at play, the kind that even a neophyte like Alwyn knew would take major precedence over the best of tryouts.
“I was not a name, I was not a face, I was not going to finance a movie, no one was going to come and pay tickets to see me,” Alwyn said.
Lee, however, remained optimistic that Alwyn was his guy. The production next flew the Brit to Atlanta, where the film’s crew was already hard at work acclimating to the new technology, and screen-tested him for more than a week. Alwyn was, in his words, “chucked in” to the world of “Billy Lynn,” from the sets to the costumes to the makeup. Even then, he wasn’t sure the part was his.
Alwyn’s whirlwind was hardly over, however, and two days after leaving Atlanta, he was finally offered the job. Three days after that, he officially left school and returned to America to start pre-production on the film. All told, Joe Alwyn went from anonymous theater school student to Ang Lee star in the space of about two weeks.
For most new movie stars, the big test is just getting the part. For Alwyn, it was merely the first step into a brand new world. While the actor was always aware that Lee was attempting something unique with the film and its production, he admits to not being truly cognizant of the situation until long after cameras started to roll.
“I guess it dawned on me as it went on,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, this is normal, right?’ For other people coming in who had years and years and years of making films, it was probably weirder in some ways.”
Although Lee made it a practice to never show dailies to his cast as they were shooting, he did allow Alwyn to see a few shots throughout production. Other actors may have been thrown by what they saw, but Alwyn used his sneak peeks as a way to stay very much on track.
“I tried not to think about it too much,” Alwyn admitted. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to – be it on theatre or on the camera – tell the truth and be honest in the moment. Of course with this, it is very, very clear, so you need to have the thoughts there. You just need to be there.”
That presence might be Alwyn’s best feature as an actor, and it’s one that Moseley saw early on and expects his former student will hold fast to.
“He has a disarming humility which appears both on and off screen,” Moseley explained. “I spoke to Joe recently and found that the experience of starring in a Hollywood movie had not changed him at all. He will continue to be the person he is.”
That includes being an optimist. Despite a lackluster critical response to the film (and its groundbreaking technology) out of those high-powered NYFF premieres, Alwyn is confident that Lee’s film and the innovation that shaped it will eventually be heralded by audiences, even if there’s initial resistance.
“I think we stick with what we know,” he said. “It takes people who are bold and take risks to change it, be it from going from black and white to color in a film, or from silent films to putting sound in, or maybe this leap now.”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is in limited release on Friday, November 11, with expansion to follow.