Front and Center with Joe Alwyn

Front and Center with Joe Alwyn

Playing a returning war hero in Ang Lee’s newest drama, an unexpected recruit is ready to take Hollywood by force.

Playing a returning war hero in Ang Lee’s newest drama, an unexpected recruit is ready to take Hollywood by force.

Photography: Sharif Hamza

Styling: Anna Pesonen

Text: Joseph Akel

When you ask Joe Alwyn how he came to play the starring role in Ang Lee’s adaption of the Ben Fountain novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, his answer is the stuff of Hollywood lore. In 2015, while still studying acting at London’s prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Alwyn—at the time 22—had recently been cast for a new BBC series and his agent began scouring potential scripts. After reading Lee’s treatment of Fountain’s novel, Alwyn was captivated. “My agent sent my demo tapes in and she got a call back the same day saying, ‘We want to send you loads more,’” he notes. But before he could complete the next set, Alwyn received another call from Lee’s team asking if he could fly to New York to meet the director. “It all happened pretty much overnight,” Alwyn now recalls. After arriving in New York, he read with Lee for a few hours. “I felt like it had gone well, but I didn’t want to think too much of it,” he continues, “and then I got a call that day saying, ‘We want you to stay on and meet the producer.’”

What Alwyn didn’t know then was that the studio executives involved in the movie were pushing back against Lee’s decision to cast him in the starring role. From the outside, the studio’s resistance makes sense: Alwyn had never before worked in film. He was a relative unknown from London being cast to play a returning Iraq War veteran. “I always thought that Billy is a million miles away from me in so many ways,” Alwyn acknowledges. “He’s American, he’s from Texas, he’s a soldier. But there was an essence, a part of him that I could hold onto.” At its heart, Alwyn points out, the film’s narrative is “about coming of age and finding yourself.”

The movie tells the story of its titular hero, a young man thrust into the spotlight after surviving a hellish gun battle while deployed in Iraq. Footage of the fight is broadcast back home, transforming Billy and his company members into heroes overnight. Unlike Joseph Heller’s urtext, Catch-22, set amidst the fog of war, Fountain chose to focus on the soldiers’ return home and the incongruities they experience. As with Born on the Fourth of July—Ron Kovic’s Vietnam War-era autobiography—Fountain’s novel also addresses the alienation veterans often experience. But whereas Kovic’s narrative is framed within the context of 1960s anti-war sentiment, Fountain’s story unfolds in the early days of the Iraq War, when the majority of the nation was very much behind the effort. For Alwyn, the adaptation highlights “the reality of what [Billy is] going through, the glitz and the wackiness of what America has turned him—and turned this bunch of boys—into: a token hero of the war.” As Alwyn sees it,  “Everyone wants a piece of [Billy] and everyone’s trying to use him. Everyone wants his story. Their story is now America’s story.”

Just as much as the film is about the trials facing a war-weary veteran returning home, it is also, as Alwyn points out, “just a simple coming-of-age story about a 19-year-old boy fighting for who he is and where he belongs and where he wants to go in life.” It is perhaps that youthful innocence that Lee saw in Alwyn, who, like the character he is portraying, has been thrust into the spotlight with all eyes upon him, eagerly anticipating a star performance. If such a parallel is true, then Alwyn is certain to have his own awards ceremony in the near future.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is in theaters November 11, 2016.

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