By Moonah Ellison
Photography Autumn de Wilde
In Autumn de Wilde’s upcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma Mr Flynn combines his longtime love of the Austen oeuvre with an uncanny ability to look through the camera lens straight into our eyes and give us a Mr Knightley never seen before.
“… what are the important stories to tell now? How relevant is this?’ It’s an urgent age for storytellers across the board and we can’t waste our breath …“Johnny Flynn is walking and talking in the rain on a drizzly London day and has to find a quieter place, a quieter seat, to continue our chat. I’d like to think of the raindrops hitting him as a metaphor for how many roles he’s going to be offered this year, and based on his current resume, a monsoon is upon us. Every actor worth his weight has experienced the moniker of “potential breakout year” but for Flynn, 2020 could be just that.
The British actor and musician will soon star as Mr. Knightly in Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic 1815 novel Emma. He’s also portraying a young David Bowie in Stardust, a Tribeca Film Festival entry that focuses on Bowie’s first visit to the US in 1971, a trip that inspired the invention of Bowie’s iconic alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Flynn has two World War II films on the horizon: he recently finished filming the Netflix UK feature film The Dig with Ralph Fiennes, and is currently filming Mincemeat opposite Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen and Penelope Wilton. Flynn also stars in the UK thriller film Cordelia opposite Antonia Campbell-Hughes.
But next up is Emma. Flynn loved Austen’s book and studied it cover-to-cover. (The book also happens to be his high school English teacher’s favorite book, the same teacher who was a mentor and believed in him, inspiring his love of poetry and literature. He still keeps in touch with him to this day.) But like so many adaptations from book-to-screen, Flynn was cautious because for every hit, there are a ton of literary flops. “The other part of me was a little skeptical about [being a part of] another version of Emma because it’s been adapted so much, and as an artist it’s always hard to be like ‘what are the important stories to tell now? How relevant is this?’ It’s an urgent age for storytellers across the board and we can’t waste our breath.” But then Flynn met Autumn de Wilde, famed photographer and now director, and quickly realized how special this was going to be. “Her vision for her pitch and her aesthetics, her references. It’s kind of a profound story which at first is not necessarily apparent, in that it’s about a woman in 1815 who doesn’t have much agency but then she did, using her intelligence and wit for the one thing she can control which is the social interactions of her circle, and that in itself is kind of the profound thing,” says Flynn.
“… It’s a really tough moment we find ourselves in. I’m struggling at the moment. I feel like I have days when it’s just too much. I’ve been out in the street for protests about Brexit to try to educate my kids about climate change and some of the political things going on …“
Flynn’s profound journey, which began with violin lessons at age 6 in Winchester UK, started out with a lot of foreshadowing: his mom used to take him to lessons every week to the house where Jane Austen died. “It was very atmospheric, and I was friends with the daughter [of the persons who owned the home] and at her birthday parties we’d always play hide and seek and I was nervous to find a dead Jane Austen, whoever she was, underneath one of the cupboards,” Flynn reflects. “We rented a tiny flat in the village, which was kind of proper Jane Austen country, and felt like I knew the villages she was describing when I finally got to read her books.”
His dad was a singer and an actor, and it was Flynn’s love of music that instantly created a a special connection with de Wilde. “To work with Autumn, whose background is music and being a photographer and being on the road with Elliott Smith and to talk to her about that stuff and how she approached the work. And then she asked me to write this song for the film from the perspective of my character.
“I had been living with that character for so long and had his perspective of Emma and so I was allowed to just picture it like a broad ballad film, like one of those period songs about one of those things around the piano. I was listening to a lot of folk songs from that period. You have to channel that.”
A family man, Flynn is doing his best to educate his children on the world around him, knowing all too well real-life struggles with his mother’s family from South Africa and witnessing firsthand the effects of apartheid. “It’s a really tough moment we find ourselves in. I’m struggling at the moment. I feel like I have days when it’s just too much. I’ve been out in the street for protests about Brexit to try to educate my kids about climate change and some of the political things going on.”
Brexit deepens the divide for Flynn. “I think it’s based on a series of lies that we’re told to believe about ourselves being individuals or a side of humanity that is fundamentally selfish. This is the thing I wrestle with every day: who am I? What do I want in the best version of myself? To quote John Dunne, ‘no man is an island.’ The best side of myself is the version that stands with my brothers and sisters around the world and part of that community. What politicians would have us believe in order to divide and confuse us is that we need to fight for ourselves, and that’s where there’s more money to be made.
“I keep clinging to the phrase ‘talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t.’ We, the people who are privileged to be in a position having a voice or a platform, we need to step aside. Make the change and ask questions. Which stories need to be told? I think I can try to support stories to be told that haven’t been heard before and that’s what I’m excited for at the moment.
At the moment, Flynn is readying himself for a planned trip to New York City. He hasn’t been back since 2018 so it’s been a while. His return trip is to promote Stardust, and being a huge fan adds a little bit of extra pressure for Flynn and the rest of the cast – but will no doubt revel in the moment.
“This is huge and he was huge for millions of people,” insists Flynn. “I wanted to savor this thing. Our film is very small, it will be playing at festivals. It’s about enjoying the moment, it’s not like these big moments. It’s about enjoying these as an artist.”
Johnny Flynn’s own star is rising rapidly.
Photograher: Autumn de Wilde
photo assistant: Ben Tietge
personal assistant: Sarah Graley
Johnny is wearing a Paul Smith suit, shirt & shoes.
Groomed and styled by Autumn herself.