Barnes's career blossoms in U2's shadow
Killing Bono star Ben Barnes tells Hilary A White why Colin Firth has replaced Stevie Wonder as a role model
IT HAS been a long day for Ben Barnes. At 6.30am, the actor was at a London airport bound for a Dublin press junket for his latest release, Killing Bono. Then technical difficulties arose. "I think someone said that the handle from the door on the outside of the plane came off, so they couldn't lock it," he grins wearily.
It's now mid-afternoon and he's just arrived. "I'm all right," he chirps in a light but confident English public-school accent. At 29, Barnes is fresh-faced, tanned and unsurprisingly pretty. His big Disney eyes are animated and his hair is swept back in a neat cow's lick. He may as well have stepped off a Milan catwalk.
A cynic would attribute his ascendency in Hollywood to these looks, and it's likely they haven't hurt. Barnes, however, has proved himself to be more, delivering assured performances in sizeable blockbusters such as Stardust and the Chronicles of Narnia sequel as well as the more organic acting challenges of the recent West End drama Birdsong.
In Killing Bono, he plays Neil McCormick, the author of the book of the same title. As a film, it's a cartoonish and freewheeling account of McCormick's clueless and undignified pursuit of rockstardom while his schoolmates U2 go on to conquer the globe. Barnes, who himself had a brush with the pop world in blink-and-you'd-miss-them boyband Hyrise, was drawn to the Commitments-esque feel of the project.
"I grew up wanting to be Stevie Wonder, basically," he chuckles, "so to watch a film about white guys trying to sing soul was extraordinarily exciting to me when I was 17. Killing Bono is a movie about failure, but The Commitments is more about what it takes to pursue your dream. It's a bit more optimistic; it was Wilson Pickett who pulls up in the car at the end, and they were amazing and they did have their moment in the sun. This is more the moment in the sh*t!"
Mentioning Hyrise had seemed to catch him out a little. "Well, that was my first year of uni," he points out, "and it was just an extracurricular activity that I was in for two weeks. It was just one song that I sort of did once as a favour for someone really. I can look back and have a giggle at it now. It was never what I wanted to do. I knew at the time it was going to be dreadful, but you try everything when you're 20."
It fits into the picture Barnes paints of himself as a shy youngster growing up in Wimbledon, the son of a psychiatry-professor father and therapist mother. He excelled at most things he put his hands to, despite an age gap with his peers. "I was always the youngest person in any sports team or music group or in my school year, so I always felt like I was playing catch-up a little bit, until I hit late teens and started to realise I was good at certain things.
"It had always been sport when I was a kid, [I was] captain of all sports teams and everything. Then puberty hit for everyone else and didn't for me and I found that quite difficult. But then I kind of found this little extracurricular niche; I found you could mix drama with music and singing, and my jazz bands and soul bands in school could be incorporated into plays and musicals." Barnes "very quickly" realised that he was never going to be Freddie Mercury and took two years out before starting third level to explore other avenues such as TV presenting. He also became involved in the National Youth Music Theatre, the alma mater of Jude Law and Jamie Bell.
"I didn't want to be a little fish," he says. "There are those extrovert show-off people who have to have that attention and then there are people who step into the spotlight because it's almost the easiest place to hide. I think my reality is somewhere in between."
After studying drama and English in Kingston University, near London, he took up an opportunity to babysit for a friend in Los Angeles. Immediately he met a manager and an agent and found himself auditioning for film and television pilots. It is tempting to say the rest is history at this point, but Barnes, who lives in south London with younger brother Jack, knows he still has some way to go. "Actors are very disposable these days," he argues. "The A-list works differently because there are just so many people wanting to do it.
"I look at my mentor and close mate Colin Firth, who's just coming into his own," he continues, "and he's already done some amazing stuff. I'd like to still have goals like him in 30 years time. I'd definitely like to think of myself as a family man by that point as well because at the moment my focus is very much on my work and giving myself the best possible chance of maintaining this career for the rest of my life."
Killing Bono is now showing
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