'Morrissey tries to be cool. That's more endearing than people who are cool'
The rising Scottish actor Jack Lowden speaks about how he made Dunkirk and emoting Morrissey in ‘England is Mine’
Where did Jack Lowden come from? You doze off for a moment and suddenly the young actor is in all the right places. He was the Scottish Spitfire pilot in Dunkirk. This week he plays the young Morrissey in the rainy England is Mine. That was him as the young Anthony Wedgwood Benn in A United Kingdom.
Plucked from obscurity? Not really. Lowden has been acting steadily in juicy roles since leaving college at the start of the decade. He won an Olivier Award in 2014 for playing Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts. He was lead in the West End version of Chariots of Fire. The man has scarcely taken a breath.
“I have been very lucky,” he says. “There was a period of about four months where I worked in a bar. Every actor should go through that. But I’ve been lucky.”
This is how things go. A blonde, handsome man from the Scottish Borders, Lowden has established himself as one of the era’s great young stage actors. But nobody much notices until you appear on films or on the telly.
“My younger brother is a ballet dancer. I went along with that first, but I wasn’t very good. So I ended up in the speaking parts. I ended up as the narrator,” he remembers.
While Calum Lowden set off on a journey that ended with him becoming first soloist with the Royal Swedish Ballet, his brother studied acting at Glasgow and eventually made the inevitable trek to London. Now, in England is Mine, he mopes through a film that works as a sort of Morrissey origin story. It begins with the Mancunian singer depressed in school. It ends as he finally teams up with Johnny Marr to form The Smiths.
“I didn’t grow up with The Smiths,” he says. “When I read the script, I thought it was incredibly funny. It is the story of this extremely awkward teenager. The fact that he became Morrissey is sort of the icing on the cake. I found the guy on the page so entertaining. He really tries and I always find that more endearing than people who actually are cool. I prefer those who just try to be cool.”
Morrissey has grown into a (let’s be kind) problematic figure. He was barely out of The Smiths before he was brandishing Union Jacks and writing songs called The National Front Disco and Bengali in Platforms. “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away,” he told the NME in 2007. After the Manchester attacks, he chose to attack Sadiq Khan, London mayor, for being insufficiently condemnatory of Islamic State. The once-lovable eccentric looks to have become almost, well, Myersian in middle age.
Lowden has a firm line on this. “I can see how if your hero says things you disagree with, it can be painful,” he says. “But I didn’t have that weight on my shoulders. I am just playing that guy on the page. As far as his views now are concerned, they were never of interest to me. I was told to ignore anything past the day he met Johnny Marr. It is for everybody on the outside to call it a Morrissey biopic. It didn’t feel that way while we were doing it.”
One thing that does come through in England is Mine is the underexplored Irishness of the singer. (Who’d have thought that somebody called Steven Patrick Morrissey would have parents from this side of the Irish Sea?) Simone Kirby and Peter McDonald have strong supporting roles as his parents. Manchester is, of course, awash with Irish folk. Noel and Liam Gallagher are from the second generation. So is Steve Coogan.
“I noticed his Irishness when I listened to the songs,” Jack says. “You can hear it in how he says ‘any’.”
How interesting. That is something that few Irish people would notice.
“Yeah, yeah. We had two brilliant actors in Simone and Peter. Peter was desperate to do the film because he was a great fan. Nobody makes a comment about him being Irish or anything. But, being Scottish, I get the Irish sense of humour. It’s about taking the piss: ‘Stop being a d**k!’ The audience get their own back on him from Simone and his sister. That’s very Celtic.”
Lowden is currently appearing in the world’s biggest movie. It must come as a relief to be able to talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. When I spoke to Barry Keoghan a few months ago, he was still unable to say anything about the plot. But he did say that he was surprised to discover that almost everything on screen was there on location. Computer graphics are at a minimum.
“I think Barry was confused about the knitwear he had to wear,” Lowden laughs. “What is this all about?”
I had assumed that, playing a fighter pilot who remains within the cockpit for almost the whole duration, Lowden shot most of his scenes in the studio. This is to underestimate Nolan’s passion for the real.
“None of it was in a studio,” he says. “I was in the air. I was flying alongside Spitfires with an Imax camera strapped to the wing. Or it was in a gimbal with the cockpit suspended over a cliff with the sea behind it. It was a strange experience in that I spent a lot of the time on my own. It was a bit like England is Mine that way. I did that just before and I’d spent half that film in his bedroom. Ha ha! So I was used to the idea. But if you see me in the air, I am in the air.”
That sounds just a little frightening.
“Not really. I am good at giving myself over to these things,” he says. “The first time I went up, though, the pilot said: ‘See that red lever. Let me know if it’s not in that position.’ So I spent the first 15 minutes staring at my shins. That was terrifying. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say most of it was ridiculously exciting.”
Lowden is not exactly a movie star yet. But he has certainly arrived. There is much more to come. He will appear opposite Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots. He is also shooting Stephen Merchant’s hugely intriguing Fighting With My Family, a wrestling drama with Florence Pugh and Lena Headey. Where will this lead?
“I really want to direct,” he says. “But, for the moment, I just want to see what I can get away with. I’ve managed it so far.”