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‘Operation Finale’: Why Joe Alwyn Wanted to Play a Real-Life Nazi After His ‘Billy Lynn’ Breakout

After breaking out in Ang Lee's ambitious adaptation, the actor explains to IndieWire why he wanted to pursue the kind of role many would find unsettling.

Joe Alwyn attends the premiere of "Operation Finale" at the Walter Reade Theater, in New YorkNY Premiere of "Operation Finale", New York, USA - 16 Aug 2018

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Part history lesson, part moral reckoning, Chris Weitz’s “Operation Finale” dramatizes the 1960 operation to bring former SS officer Adolf Eichmann to justice following his years-long escape to Argentina. The film follows Israeli intelligence officers Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, and Nick Kroll as they hunt the unrepentant Nazi, capture him, and take him to Israel to stand trial. Along the way, their efforts are thwarted by many, including Eichmann’s eldest son, Klaus (Joe Alwyn), who has long embraced his father’s twisted ideals.

Alwyn was drawn by a true story, a slice of history that continues to compel the world, the opportunity to work with a living legend like Sir Ben Kingsley (who plays Eichmann), and the challenge of presenting a multidimensional villain.

“The way that I wanted to try and play him wasn’t as a kind of 2D baddie with no kind of other sides to him, but hopefully that, in another world, he could have otherwise been a decent, normal good guy,” he said. “You hope that maybe with [his relationship with] Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson) at the beginning of the film, there could have been in another world where he realizes that it doesn’t matter about her religion and that they could try and be together. But obviously, that hope is kind of dashed when his dad is taken.”

For the actor, the key to the character was his relationship with his father, a man that Klaus idolizes and doesn’t wholly understand. “I think his choice to follow in his dad’s footsteps, rather than coming from some strong nationalistic feelings himself, more comes out of a loyalty and love of his father,” he said. “I thought that was interesting, that you could have him find empathy in that situation of what Klaus is kind of born into.”

Instead of being hobbled by the tilt of Klaus’ narrative arc — in the film, as in real life, the character is never “redeemed” — Alwyn attempted to empathize with the broader implications.

“I found it interesting and sad, even if he isn’t redeemable,” Alwyn said. “I think he doesn’t fully understand what his dad has done and what he’s responsible for. It’s quite an abstract thing to him. I think the war crimes of his dad … he hasn’t quite computed it and so he’s being dragged further and further into this world without actually recognizing the kind of full implications of what it means.”

The actor said earlier versions of the film included scenes that tapped into that disconnect between history and Klaus’ comprehension. “There was a conversation that Klaus has with his mother after his dad has been taken, asking her about what he’s done before, as if in a way that he doesn’t quite recognize the severity of it all, quite what it means,” Alwyn said. “There were moments kind of peppered throughout where he’s more on the fence about where he belongs and which path he thinks he should take.”

“Operation Finale”

Although the actor was bent on finding glimpses of humanity in his character, he readily admitted it was a tough task. “He is, of course, not a nice character, not a good person,” he said.

Given the current cultural climate, Alwyn hopes the film will serve as a reminder of the pain that hatred, ignorance, and bigotry can inflict on humanity. “Given the kind of rise of right-wing nationalism in the world today, it’s a reminder that even decades later these divisions continue,” he said. “The world has to remain strong and fight against bigotry and pursue justice.”

“Operation Finale” is only Alwyn’s third film credit, but it’s not his first foray into stories set during times of cultural heartbreak. As the eponymous Billy Lynn of Ang Lee’s 2016 film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Alwyn made his debut in a technologically ambitious work (Lee’s film was the first, and so far only, to be shot using 120fps) about a traumatized soldier thrust into the national spotlight.

The film made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, where it was touted as a Special Presentation, but flamed out when it was released in theaters just weeks later. Ultimately, it only made $1.7 million at the U.S. box office (globally, it pulled in just under $29 million).

“I wish more people had seen it than they did,” Alwyn said. “But I think the way that it was made with the technology that was used, there was always only going to be a limited amount of people that could see it in that way. That was gonna be a very expensive way of showing the film and definitely proved problematic in being able to screen it in that way, which is definitely a shame. But I still feel so proud of the film.”

Still, “Billy Lynn” served as a major coming out for the actor. “Doing that film definitely opened up a lot of doors,” he said, adding that “having been spoiled by working with Ang as [my] first director, I wanted to try and find more great filmmakers to learn from and build in that way.” That meant finding projects he was passionate about making, “even if it was just a supporting role … rather than just jumping into something big for the sake of it.”

The upcoming fall season speaks to that intent; over the next few weeks, he will appear in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” and Josie Rourke’s “Mary, Queen of Scots.”

“Operation Finale” will arrive in theaters on Wednesday, August 29.

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