Interview with Alex Lawther who plays James in The End of the F***ing
Your new series is called The End of the F***ing World. What’s it about, and who do you play?
It’s about two teenagers, Alyssa and James, stealing a car and heading away from their families in the suburbs. Each has their own ideas as to what will happen next. This all happens over the course of a week, and the two of them couldn’t be more wrong about what’s going to happen next. I play James, he’s 17, he’s added up the facts and he’s come to the conclusion that he’s a psychopath. But he’s never killed a human before, and that’s something he thinks is a pretty necessary requirement if he wants to graduate in psychopathy. And then Alyssa suddenly comes into his life.
What was it that attracted you to the role?
It was dark and it was funny, and those are my favourite things. I enjoyed how James was sort of split down the middle, and how much sometimes he was really what he was saying he was, and how much was covering for something else. And I knew that Jess Barden was playing Alyssa, and the two of them, James and Alyssa, made sense together in my imagination.
I read an article recently which opened “Alex Lawther has already made quite the name for himself playing peculiar boys.” This isn’t exactly going to change that view, is it?
[Laughs] No, I suppose not! But I suppose it’s my job at the end of the day to make those people individually peculiar. I had been thinking about this recently, funnily enough. When you spend a decent amount of time with any human being, it isn’t a long time before you start to see their glorious peculiarities – everyone has them. I suppose that’s what interests me, at the moment, with the work that I come across. Examining the peculiar is a natural part of pretending to be other people.
You’ve mentioned you were drawn to the darkness of the material – did you have any misgivings about it, as well?
No. I suppose if things had turned out for James the way he thinks he wants them to, I would have had my hesitations, but that wasn’t the script. What I read was two people trying to figure out how the fuck to survive – just the two of them, sometimes winning, sometimes not – and then these dark and bleak things of course happen as a consequence, such is life. But the dark and the bleak I don’t think are fetishized; they’re dealt with with humour. So when I first read the script, my first impressions were that it was something very human – initially in a deliciously strange, almost hallucinogenic world.
It’s based on a series of comic books – did you read them?
Yes. I read them after reading the script – mostly out of curiosity. They’re also dark and bleak and quite beautiful, I think. But I only read them the one time, because Charlie Covell’s adaptation has a life and story of its own, and Charlie’s James and Alyssa exist in a parallel world to Charles Forsman’s original story. They’re in a parallel British world, and I suppose my job is to use my imagination to serve what Charlie has written, and to trust that, and not to cloud it with the original source material.
You and Jessica are in almost every scene – how did you enjoy working with her?
[Laughs] I am still recovering! I’ve never had so much fun working with another human being, and Jess demands a lot of you, which is such a gift. When you’re doing scenes which are often two-handers, it might be Monday morning and you got up at 4:30am to get to set for 6am, and you’re knackered. I don’t know where she gets it from, but Jess is always ready to play and to be silly. I was very lucky to have her as my Alyssa.
There’s a slightly disturbing stillness to James. Did you study other psychopathic performances or material?
It’s quite a complicated question to answer. James is pretty sure that he’s a psychopath, it’s something that he’s trying to work out. So I was trying to work out psychopathic personality traits as I thought James would be able to. For him, it’s better to identify as a psychopath than nothing at all, and that sort of made sense to me on some strange level. That gives him something to hold on to. So my research was books and films that I thought James might have had contact with as part of his own working out. So I was sort of, in a way, trying to work out what a psychopath means to James, rather than what they’re necessarily exactly like. Sometimes it seems as though James is simply trying psychopathic traits on to see if they fit. I thought that he might have read a few psychopath studies, and seen the odd documentary. So my research was about someone trying out traits of psychopathy rather than someone who was a medically diagnosed psychopath.
Because it’s a road trip, you encounter various characters along the way. Who did you enjoy filming your scenes with?
That particular part of filming was amazing. The fact that we were lolling around strange parts of Britain, and bumping into these weird and wonderful acting types along the way, it felt quite a lot like the lines between myself and Jess and James and Alyssa were quite blurred. We’d been let loose in the British countryside and were meeting these strange characters. It was quite nice to have a couple of pints with Barry Ward on the Isle of Sheppey. And I remember Earl Cave came in for a few days, and was so brilliant that we spent the rest of the shoot trying to think up ways we could write him into later episodes. But sadly we didn’t come up with any solutions. But he was brilliant, and a lot of fun to have on set.
Were there any scenes that you found particularly difficult to film? Either because they were so disturbing or because they were so funny?
Not really. There are always times when things become technically difficult – when you’re closed in in a car and things become very hot, and you start forgetting your lines because there seems to be no air in the vehicle, and you haven’t stretched your legs for the last six hours. And shooting in Britain, you never know what the weather’s going to be like. You might have a line about what a lovely day it is, and it’s actually pouring down with rain. And there were times when Jess would make me laugh a lot, and I’m meant to be playing someone very serious who finds very few things funny. That was challenging, having to keep a straight face in front of Jess Barden.
You gained a lot of recognition in the last couple of years for The Imitation Game. Did you feel that the role upped your profile a lot?
I guess it was nice to be in a film that reached a lot of people. There’s a lot of work that, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t ever reach that many people.
Are there similarities between the characters of Alan Turing and James, in terms of them being outsiders?
I suppose that there is something actually very different about their outsiderliness. There was an immense steel to Alan in the fact that he knew exactly who he was, and he was ready to devote his life to that. With James, underneath his stillness and his strangeness, is completely lost. When he gets into that car with Alyssa, for better or worse it’s the first time he’s finally doing something with his life. But not because of any certainty, but just because he hasn’t got any better ideas.
Lastly, thanks to recent events, do you worry that The End of the F***ing World might actually be about to happen before the series even makes it to air?
It could happen, but I feel optimistic that humanity might at least make it past 24th October. Fingers crossed.