Saturday 19 October 2019

Billy Howle gets to grips with craic and chemistry in On Chesil Beach with Saoirse Ronan

From upstaging Cinderella to starring in 'On Chesil Beach' actor Billy Howle is no longer 'up and coming'

Bleak honeymoon: Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach
Bleak honeymoon: Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach

Anne Marie Scanlon

On paper Billy Howle, who co-stars with Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach, the big screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, could come across as a 'luvvie' who takes himself far too seriously but in the flesh he's a very engaging young man. Howle is well aware of how he can sometimes be perceived and tells me that Ronan, who he has previously worked with in the film adaptation of The Seagull, had "pulled me up on that, she put me through the ringer sometimes and it was just good craic. And," he adds, "she taught me the word 'craic'."

I read that he'd called Ronan "very Irish" and ask him what he meant by that. I must have had my intimidating face on as Howle looked a bit nervous and hesitant about answering. "Well she's funny, very funny, has a very dry sense of humour which I enjoy." In several interviews Howle has said that he and Ronan share a special chemistry.

When I ask him to explain what he means he replies "I don't particularly like that word (chemistry) - it's to do with presenting your co-worker (another actor) with a gift and saying 'there you go, unwrap that', and then hopefully they give you something in return and if they do I call that good chemistry." See, this is the kind of statement that sounds pure luvvie but Howle is chatty and quick to laugh.

It's a blazing hot day and we're both suffering badly from hay fever. He tells me he wishes we were doing the interview outside the pub across the road. Just then a waiter brings a fancy drink in a tall glass with lots of ice and Howle laughs "it's just iced coffee, it looks like an espresso martini or something. I'm not getting hammered!"

Billy Howle (Matt Crossick/PA)
Billy Howle (Matt Crossick/PA)

In On Chesil Beach he plays Edward, a very bright young man, who falls in love with Florence (Ronan) equally smart and an extremely talented musician. The film begins with the couple on their wedding day in the early 1960s, about to consummate their relationship. A series of flashbacks tells their individual stories and that of their relationship.

The pair come from very different backgrounds - Edward lives in a cluttered home in Henley on Thames where his father Leonard (Adrian Scarborough) is a teacher and his mother (Anne Marie Duff) is severely mentally ill after a terrible accident.

Florence, by contrast, comes from a rich and pristine household. Her mother Marjorie (Emily Watson) is a raging snob who thinks a school teacher's son beneath her daughter. Father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a terrible human being.

Ronan was cast first and Howle endured a long delay between his initial audition and the call-back which took place in New York where Ronan was appearing in The Crucible on Broadway. "I paid for the flight to New York myself," he tells me, "that's how much I wanted the job. To be honest it paid off!" he concludes laughing. The flight over was full of familiar faces - actors he recognised "because we're always auditioning for the same things". One actor, who he refuses to name, was reading the original novel, "I thought that was quite funny."

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle in 'On Chesil Beach'
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle in 'On Chesil Beach'

On Chesil Beach is a wonderful film and is beautifully shot. The climactic scenes take place on the beach itself which is a long thin rocky strip of land between two bodies of water in Dorset. "It's one of those strange natural phenomena," the actor tells me, "It really is one of those terribly beautiful places."

Howle has appeared in several 'period' pieces, including the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution. I ask him what he thinks about audiences' apparently insatiable appetite for period drama. "I think people are fascinated by nostalgia," he says. "I think stories are to do with the political landscape of the time and the reason why people become interested in stories from the past is that they find it comforting."

On Chesil Beach is not comforting nostalgia, it's a bleak look at how respectability stifled people and how women's sexuality was reduced to 'wifely duty'. It is a fascinating study of how two people fail to communicate either physically or verbally.

The film is heartbreaking, not least because the audience can see that the two main characters love each other but are victims of the repressed times they live in and their own personal history.

Howle realised he wanted to be an actor at the age of eight while playing Cinderella's dog in pantomime at the Oxford Playhouse. He has me in stitches as he tells me about the performance that made him realise that he had "power" while on stage.

"My job was to console Cinderella dressed in this ludicrous dog outfit with a big papier-mache bone, instead I was standing at the side of the stage... got distracted and was mucking around with the bone while Cinderella was sobbing her heart out. The audience started roaring with laughter," Howle tells me. "Realising I had that level of power, I was fascinated, I could change the story just by making a small adjustment to my performance, inverted commas," he laughs and goes on to elaborate, "I don't think my thought processes at that time were quite that sophisticated but that's when I caught the (acting) bug."

The Howle family moved from Oxford to Scarborough when the actor was 10, and Billy tells me that the film locations around the Cotswolds and Oxford included many places that he hasn't been to since. "There was one day we drove past the house I'd lived in as a child and I asked the driver to stop so I could see it. That was quite amazing."

We chat for a while about how the places associated with childhood exert a lifelong influence on adults. "That's actually part of my process when I approach a script," Howle tells me.

"When I approach a character my first port of call is geography. The first thing I think about is not just the places themselves but even the size of the house they grew up in, how big was the garden? Was the garden a happy place where people were welcomed?"

Howle has shared the screen with many of the luminaries of the industry but says he doesn't get star-struck. "You earn your stripes but there's only so long you can be 'up and coming'," he tells me, "I think it would get in the way if I was star-struck."

See, that sounds a bit arsey on paper but the reality is very different.

'On Chesil Beach' is in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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