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Worried About The Boy - Douglas Booth interview

Worried About The Boy

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Boy George has made more than a few headlines, but the years before his Top of the Pops debut in 1982 are less well-known. Living in a squat, attending the Blitz Club, falling in and out of love – Worried About The Boy is a compassionate portrait of a much-loved icon.

Emerging young actor Douglas Booth talks to us about some of the challenges of playing the pop icon, getting to grips with no eyebrows and some of his forthcoming projects, including The Pillars of the Earth.

Q. Were you ever worried about playing the Boy [George]?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, I mean it’s nerve-wracking when you first find out, especially when you know you’re going to be playing someone so iconic as George. As you can imagine, you have to step into some big shoes. Also, for like a younger audience… when I think of Johnny Cash when he’s younger, I think of Joaquin Phoenix [in Walk The Line]. So, young people, when they think of George younger, they’ll picture me, which is weird because that’s really bizarre. He’s also still alive, of course, and I’ve met him a few times. But it’s lovely to hear that he has really enjoyed it.

Q. He’s seen it then?
Douglas Booth: Yeah and he loved it. I heard from a close friend of his that it really evoked [memories] for him. Scenes such as the one where he splits up with Kirk… I’m glad it evoked something in him because it means that I’ve achieved something.

Q. It’s good in that it doesn’t just praise him. It’s a warts and all depiction of Boy George…
Douglas Booth: I think it’s very admirable that he really likes it for that because it doesn’t sugar-coat his life at all. It is warts-and-all. But that’s important because you don’t want to make something that’s all kind of poppy and happy. First of all, it’s not true. But you also don’t want to show something that’s just so gritty and shows negative, negative, negative. This has a nice mix of telling the truth, showing the grit, but we all had so much fun filming it. I hope that comes across. I became really good friends with Freddie Fox, who plays Marilyn, and Richard Madden, who plays Kirk. So, we had just had fun.

Q. Was that sense of fun embellished by getting to wear some of the outfits of the era?
Douglas Booth: It really does. It’s crazy. But that’s what’s great about the film, Donald McInnes, the hair and make-up designer has known George for a long time, so we got the look spot on. Christine [Bateman], who looks after most of my make-up… my face was done by her. But she’s George’s make-up designer, so she’s worked with him for over 10 years and knows him and his face very well and managed to get it perfect.

Q. How long did it take to apply the make-up?
Douglas Booth: Hours and hours and hours! One look should take about an hour and a half. But sometimes, because we filmed it so fast, it would be like I needed to be on set in half an hour to do the next film, so I’d have five people working on me. But it’s tiring. I remember my skin started to peel, especially here [gestures towards eyebrow area] because I had so much eyeliner on. The first day off I had, it was just really dry and flaky there. It’s back to normal now, though. But of course I also had to shave my eyebrows off [laughs]! That was scary, as you can imagine. I was like: “Please come back!”

Q. Did you avoid going out while you had that eyebrow-less look?
Douglas Booth: [Smiles] I really didn’t have the time. We did split days… I’d get picked up at 10am or 11am and we wouldn’t finished til 3am. My longest shooting day was 16 hours, which is ridiculous. It’s a seven hour turnaround. I’m pretty much in every scene, so I didn’t really have chance to go home. It meant I was in this bubble, so it didn’t affect me. If I’d walked around my hometown looking like I did… at first I also had these long hair extensions and no eyebrows, so I looked a right character. But when you’re in a different place, you think: “OK, it’s fine.”

Q. What did you think when George first emailed you? He got in contact via Facebook, didn’t he?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, everyone seems fascinated by that. But he did… he sent me a message and the title was: “Well….” He then wrote: “I hear you’re going to be playing me, I’m not complaining, I look forward to watching it and I wish you all the best. Don’t be camp! I’m not camp.” It was nice to touch base like that first, and then he got more and more involved. Eventually, he came on set and we met. He was constantly being updated about what was going on, so he always knew about every look and he kind of gave it his OK.

Q. Did you think it was a prank at first?
Douglas Booth: No, not really. I don’t know why. I just thought it was quite a George thing to say. But it was very bizarre because I had only known that I had the role for about a day and a half and I was just sitting on the train home and this Facebook message came up from George O’Dowd. I was like: “Whoa! Bizarre!”

Q. How many times did you subsequently speak to him?
Douglas Booth: Quite a few times and I did a photo shoot with him for ID a couple of weeks ago. He’s just a really lovely guy. He’s very misrepresented often in the press. He’s hugely intelligent, hugely witty and very fast. I think that comes across in the drama, too, because he has a lot of really good one-liners. He puts people down. So, he’s a great guy.

Q. Do you think learning and playing someone like George teaches you, as an emerging star, about how to deal with the press and what to expect from them perhaps?
Douglas Booth: I suppose so, in a roundabout sort of way. It shows you that fame has a very deep, dark bad side. He was hounded by the press, he couldn’t get out of the house… it really shows what fame can do to some people. So, that’s something that you have to watch out for.

Douglas Booth in Worried About The Boy

Q. How’s your singing?
Douglas Booth: I used to sing a lot before my voice broke. I can sing… or at least I hope I can. Obviously, I mime over the tracks because he mimed over Top Of The Pops. I mimed to White Boy, which we got as a demo track that was recorded really early on… so it’s not the perfect track by any means. That was one of their early rehearsal tracks. So, it wasn’t a problem as there were only a few little bits that I had to actually sing.

Q. How aware of Culture Club were you before getting the role?
Douglas Booth: I was aware of their hits but their heyday was way before me [Douglas was born in 1992]. So, I was aware of this colourful character who kept popping up on TV and always thought he was very interesting. But there was so much to explore and to look into, which was exciting for me. Everyone knows George through the papers, the headlines and the hits and his TV appearances, so it’s interesting for people to now find out what happened when he was younger and what kind of led up to his first iconic performance on Top Of The Pops when everyone was going: “Is it a boy? Is it a girl?”

Q. You’ve got some remarkable co-stars, such as Mark Gatiss playing Malcolm McLaren…
Douglas Booth: He’s just genius. I remember being on set and he walked on… I didn’t know a huge amount about Malcolm McLaren and I was wondering what he [Mark] was doing with his eyes when we were doing press shot photos. But then I looked at a photo of Malcolm and Mark looks so much like him, it’s scary. It’s so sad that he died before this came on. I think everyone got so attached to their characters doing this. I nearly emailed Mark when he died to say: “Sorry for your loss…” So, it’s very emotional. But there are some great turns… Mark Warren as Steve Strange, who is absolutely brilliant, Freddie Fox as Marilyn and Richard Madden as Kirk Brandon.

Q. What was it like kissing Matthew Horne? I gather that was your first screen kiss?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, it was my first screen kiss. I think I said to someone once that I was nervous and it was suddenly everywhere on the Internet. They latch on to one thing you say. But I think you’re always going to be slightly kind of anxious. That kiss was on the second day of shooting, or the third day, so I didn’t know him that well. And it was my first screen kiss, it was with a bloke, there were about 50 people watching, there will be millions of people watching… so, you’re obviously and understandably going to be a little nervous. But Matt’s great. He’s very funny and very professional and a great guy. I don’t feel like I’ve kissed Matthew Horne or Richard Madden, who plays Kurt. I’m good friends with Richard now, but I don’t sit in a room with him thinking: “This is awkward… we’ve kissed.” It’s like George kissed Kirk and Kirk kissed George. So, it’s left behind.

Q. Obviously you were born after the ’80s. But what do you think is the continued appeal of that decade?
Douglas Booth: I think for people of my age, they just look back and think it was a huge amount of fun. So, I think for parties it’s a great thing because there’s so much to go and dress up as. But I’ve heard of a couple of ’90s parties that are starting to happen, so I guess they’re going to creep in soon. But people are always going to be fascinated with different eras that they weren’t involved in, or were involved in and want to remember.

Q. Were you a fan?
Douglas Booth: I think so. Before I got the part, I wasn’t an ’80s geek or anything. But I love the Culture Club music now and George has such a beautiful voice. Victims is my favourite song. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. He writes great songs, he really does.

Q. How was working with a director like Julian Jarrold, who has such an eye for style and performance?
Douglas Booth: Brilliant. He’s the favourite director I’ve worked with. He has such a great way of working, which is something that really suits me. He really… I don’t know how to describe it. He very rarely shouts, he’s not a hot-headed director. He’s very quiet. He’ll look at something and, with his director of photography, will say: “Right, we’re going to do this, and get this shot…” Some directors – and not ones I’ve particularly worked with – but I’ve heard that a lot of directors get an opportunity and just think they’re going to shoot [a scene] from every different angle they can. Julian manages to say: “This is what I want, we’ll just do that, we’ll do this…” and it just works. So, he’s very efficient and economic while being really creative.

I think he’s created a really interesting visual drama. It’s really different. There are those photos that intersperse the drama. You can’t imagine it when you’re filming, but it looks really interesting when you see it. He really captures the era as well. But as you said, he’s got a really interesting CV. He’s done Kinky Boots, which is not the same as this in the slightest, but it has that extravagant dressing up. And then there’s Becoming Jane, which is a very good costume drama. So, it was a real honour to work with him.

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Q. You’ve been lucky to work with some brilliant directors as well. You’ve just down a mini-series [Pillars of the Earth] produced by Ridley Scott and a film for Julian Fellowes…
Douglas Booth: Absolutely. I’m 17 now and my first film was when I was 16, which was written and directed by Julian Fellowes, who did Gosford Park. That was brilliant. I t was my first film and I was sitting there reading through with Maggie Smith, Dominic West, Pauline Collins, Timothy Spall and Hugh Boneville. So, I was like: “Wow!” To be with them was such a great learning experience…

Q. That was From Time To Time?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, that hasn’t come out yet. It’s sort of a Christmas movie, a very old school film in the manner of The Railway Children or The Secret Garden. It’s not got a specific audience… it’s not Transformers and it’s not going to make a billion at the box office. But it’s a really beautiful film, so I hope it gets well received when it comes out. It premiered at last year’s London Film Festival but they missed the Christmas release slot last year. Disney’s A Christmas Carol was the big film then. And then I went on to Pillars of the Earth… I’m not the lead but it has an amazing cast, like Rufus Sewell, Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen… it’s insane. It’s a £50 million budget. It’s huge. So that was very exciting. I’m in the last episode, but I got to go over there and do loads of horse-riding. There’s lots of blood involved. I found myself in this battle with hundreds of extras charging around killing each other. It’s a boy’s dream really. So, that’s coming out later on. But this is my first kind of lead performance and this is my chance to shine.

Q. So, how do you feel as the air date approaches? Are you nervous? Will you be reading the reviews?
Douglas Booth: I will read the reviews. And I always will. People say I shouldn’t but I think you’re always curious. I’ve read some previews and Time Out have said some really lovely stuff. So, it’s nice to have that so far. Everyone I know has really enjoyed it. One of the most important for me, of course, is George and he’s happy. He loves it. So… I don’t know how the public’s going to receive it but I think it’s a drama for so many different people – if you’re a fan of Culture Club it’s great, if you don’t particularly like Boy George, it’s not a problem. It just follows a journey and is nice to watch. It shows a more human side to him, as well as the many different sides to him… my father, for instance, picked out the scenes between George and his dad as being really emotional for him to watch.

Q. What does your father think about your career? Is he proud? And is he aware of the potential dangers that come with celebrity?
Douglas Booth: I think I’m from good stock in the sense that if I ever ran off course, my mum would be…. you know what I mean? I’d like to think I’ve been brought up well and am strong enough mentally to be able to not touch. Things can go downhill very quickly, but if you’re mentally strong enough. I don’t need those to keep me going. I’ve surrounded myself with friends and family and people that actually have my interests at heart. I have a great team behind me. I’m 17, I have time to choose projects, and can pick a really interesting career for myself hopefully.

Q. What made you decide to go into the profession?
Douglas Booth: I’m dyslexic and when I was at school I struggled with academics. At first, I said to myself that if I can’t become an academic, then I’ll become a musician and took up the trumpet. I became very good at a very young age. But that kind of slipped away as I found acting because I fell in love with it. I got into more youth groups and kept on doing more things… I did 12 hours of extra-curricular drama a week at one point. I’m a member of the National Youth Theatre and the Guildhall, which is obviously one of the drama schools I went to every Saturday since I was 13. So, it’s just been my love and was always something I wanted to do. It’s been a dream to be an actor, so to discover it is hugely exciting.

Q. Is Hollywood on the agenda for you as well?
Douglas Booth: Yeah, I was over in LA just before Christmas and it’s a fun place. There’s a lot of money out there and it’s a fantastic place to be. I was really lucky to get offered representation over there by some really good agents. So, we’ve got a great relationship and have started to forge a career for me over there as well, which is cool.

View photos of Worried About The Boy or read our review

Worried About The Boy airs on BBC2 on Sunday, May 16, 2010, at 9pm.