Roll The Tape: Luke Evans
During his relatively short screen career, Luke Evans has been in some of highest grossing films ever made. But the role that defines him is surely still to come
Even now, all this clearly comes as a surprise to Luke Evans. Here he is in a vast, absurdly opulent suite on the fifth floor of Knightsbridge’s Bulgari Hotel London, being offered whatever he likes from the menu, while waiter, groomer, stylist, photographer, art director, agent and a showering of assistants – none of them his – hover and try to look busy. He’s the centre of attention.
‘I’m having experiences and moments I never thought would be my experiences,’ he admits. ‘I thought they would be somebody else’s or something I’d see on TV. The fact I’m having them and sharing them with my family and friends, doing a photoshoot, wearing these amazing clothes and talking to somebody about my life…’ He leans forward, eyes widening. ‘Like somebody gives a f**k that much that they want to talk to me about my life?’ He settles back on the sofa laughing after I suggest we go for a beer sometime and talk about my – considerably more ordinary – life. ‘But it’s a lovely thing.’
The reason he has such a strong sense of watching his life of fame unfold as if it were happening to someone else is that it’s come late to him. At 37, Luke Evans is only just finding his place among the stars. A working-class son of a builder from the Welsh Valleys, he left home at 16 for a life in musical theatre and only made his silver-screen debut seven years ago in Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
Grey suede blazer, £3,700; grey cotton and silk seersucker trousers, £400, both by Giorgio Armani. Grey Knit long sleeve polo top, £115, by Hardy Amies.
‘Seven years – is that all?’ he says. Success has come as quickly as it has late. The is-this-really-happening-to-little-old-me shtick could come across as disingenuous, and it might grate on the page, but in person, it doesn’t. Memories of being an actor who couldn’t get a gig – ‘I had to take a job in PR, dealing with Z-list celebrities. God, they were awful people’ – aren’t old yet, and you can see it, although he says he now feels ‘very much in control’ of where his career is heading.
And where it’s heading looks starry. Right now, he’s in Disney’s latest live-action sing-along cinema-filler, Beauty and the Beast, playing the main villain, Gaston, alongside Emma Watson’s heroine Belle and Dan Stevens’ Beast, while the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson voice the animated roles around them.
Then he’ll take the lead in what might be the year’s most unlikely biopic, Professor Marston & The Wonder Woman, which plots the true story of 1940s polygraph inventor and Wonder Woman creator William Marston and his polyamorous relationship with his wife and their lover. (By happy coincidence, Wonder Woman makes her feature-film debut this summer.)
“I’m having experiences I never thought would be my experiences. I thought they would be someone else’s”
Then comes a role opposite Michael Shannon in the art-house psychological drama State Like Sleep in which he plays a peroxide blonde club owner offering clues to a widow as she pieces together the truth behind her husband’s suicide.
He’s also slated to make his small screen return later in the year (his only previous outing was in 2013’s BAFTA-nominated drama The Great Train Robbery) facing off against Daniel Brühl in The Alienist, a crime drama he’ll shoot this summer for American channel TNT. And when we meet, he’s fresh off the set of 10×10, a film about a kidnap that he describes as ‘very violent and quite uncomfortable, quite often’.
Looking at that eclectic line-up, this could be the year when Evans escapes the curse actors fear, that of being pigeonholed, emerging instead as one of the most versatile talents of his generation.
Blue-brown check double-breasted linen and silk jacket, £990, by Dunhill. Pale blue cotton button down shirt, £185, by Turnbull & Asser. Brown silk tussah tie, £125, by Drake's. Brown linen trousers, £2,740, by Brunello Cucinelli (part of a suit). Octo Roma with automatic mechanical manufacture movement, £4,850, by Bulgari
Brown and white linen stripe button-down shirt, £480, by Brunello Cucinelli. Grey wool pleated trousers, £295, by Rubinacci at Mr Porter. Wool textured tie, £120, by Thom Sweeney
Olive suede bomber jacket, £375, by Private White V.C. Sand merino wool short-sleeve polo top, £235, by Thom Sweeney
Camel wool and cashmere double-breasted jacket, £3,745; pale grey cotton jersey shirt, £290, both by Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Olive silk knit tie, £95, by New & Lingwood. Beige cotton chinos, £150, by Hackett. Brown suede lace-ups, £205, by Grenson
Only a few years ago, a casting director dubbed him the ‘go-to period action guy’ after he’d played Apollo, Aramis and Zeus in Clash of the Titans, The Three Musketeers and Immortals, respectively, and took a bit-part role in Russell Crowe’s easily forgotten Robin Hood. Then he was Bard the Bowman in parts two and three of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, before getting up close and personal with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Vin Diesel as Owen Shaw in the sixth and seventh installments of the indefatigable Fast & Furious franchise (Furious 7, incidentally, is currently ranked as the sixth highest-grossing film in history). In the box office hit Dracula Untold, he led the line as Vlad the Impaler, morphing into the blood-sucking count (‘I get Dracula all the time’). As Evans knows, ‘go-to action guy’ comes with a none-too-distant sell-by date.
‘I want to be a chameleon,’ he says, using a term members of the acting fraternity are known to call on when typecasting looms. ‘I’m very happy to have been part of those and proud of the performances,’ he adds of his early work. ‘But then when you get a title like that, the challenge is to break it and to find new platforms and new identities.’
And break it he did. In Ben Wheatley’s intoxicating, intensely unsettling screen adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1970s dystopian novel High-Rise, he played Wilder, tearing through every scene first with a swaggering, mutton-chopped, denim-shirted masculinity, and then with a mesmerising mania that ends in a kaleidoscopic scene in which he’s stabbed to death by Jeremy Irons’ retinue of well-to-do women. His turn earned him a best supporting actor nod at 2015’s British Independent Film Awards.
As he acknowledges, ‘certain roles get seen by more people than others,’ and High-Rise hardly pulled in the punters. But it gave him a chance to show what he can do. ‘Balancing the two [types of film] keeps me fit mentally,’ he says. ‘Creatively it keeps me lucid and I like that. It’s why I’m in this business. I want a new skin to get under.’
Sand perforated leather bomber jacket, £750, by Hackett. White cotton button-down shirt, £125, by Drake's. Green check silk tie, £80, by Hardy Amies. Beige cotton chinos, £150, by Hackett
You get the impression he’d rather the balance swung towards the mainstream, though. ‘Wilder was an exhausting role to play,’ he admits. ‘I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I could play somebody like that regularly. It did leave its mark. It was Oliver Reed, that’s what it was. Watching it back, I really lost myself in the role. There are moments in that film I don’t even remember shooting.’
No matter the tenor of the film, Evans often picks the unlikeable, sometimes unhinged characters, which is at odds with the man himself, who during our shoot is polite, confident, funny, engaging and fully deserving of the ‘easy guy to work with’ tag he’s fast developing.
Why does a man who ‘grew up in a miner’s house in south Wales’ and who says ‘family makes me feel warmer than anything else that’s ever happened to me in my life’ choose to play killers, kidnappers and knuckle-dusting hired hands? ‘It’s interesting to deliver a character the audience thinks is a bad guy, and then to force them to question whether they’re on the bad guy’s side, or whether he’s even a bad guy at all,’ he says. ‘It questions their morality and where they stand, and gets them to see there’s a human behind that character.’ That could be true of Beast’s clown-turned-monster Gaston, just as of the picture-perfect, but deeply flawed husband he played in last year’s The Girl on the Train.
How much of Luke Evans there is in the characters he plays is harder to judge. He’s famously, compulsively private. When I ask him about ‘the good team of people’ around him, he mentions only his agents, although clearly there are others he’s shielding. Family? Friends? Lovers? Who knows. Dig around, and there’s very little on what he’s like when the cameras stop rolling. At 22, he came out as gay in an interview with The Advocate magazine, saying he had no need to hide it, which as a stage actor in the West End, he didn’t. Fast-forward 15 years and he’s a heartthrob, action hero and considerably quieter about his sexuality.
Blue textured wool, silk & linen jacket, £1,500, by Chester Barrie (part of a three-piece suit). Pale blue cotton shirt, £115, by Thomas Pink. Navy textured wool tie, £80, by Hardy Amies
‘I try to keep my personal life and my private life separate,’ he says, his tone now more controlled, but not frosty. ‘Not for any reason other than there’s a clue in the title – it’s private. As an actor you have to keep some sort of enigma and mystery. There’s a dignity to keeping private. I’m trying to keep a bit of dignity to my private life and to protect the people in my life. Like my family. They don’t do press. They don’t do interviews. I don’t get photographed with them. Although everyone knows they’re my mum and dad in the Valleys. It’s the choice I’ve made.’
“As an actor you have to keep some sort of enigma and mystery. There’s a dignity to keeping private”
Can Hollywood cope with the idea of a gay action hero? ‘That question is difficult to answer,’ he says. ‘I don’t know how “Hollywood” as you call it, thinks. I don’t think about it. I don’t feel they’re connected. Talent, success, what you do in your personal life – I don’t see how one should have an effect on the other. I don’t think I’d be in this business if I felt that I was not being employed because of who I am in my personal life.’
Perhaps because of his stance, he is one of the first openly gay actors not to be labelled as such. Or perhaps this is simply a sign that audiences have moved on. Either way, there’s a more pressing issue at hand, which is Evans’s future. What does it look like? And where does he fit in among that mid-to-late 30s generation of British talent, compared to whom he’s still less well known, at least on this side of the Pond?
Judging him against his peers, he’s not as dangerous as Tom Hardy, nor as silver-tongued as James McAvoy. Despite his many admirers, he’s not as loincloth hot as Aidan Turner, and he’s certainly not as posh as Messrs Redmayne, Cumberbatch and Hiddleston.
But he is every bit as bankable. Among that British cohort, only Cumberbatch’s movies have raked in more – $4.4bn to Evans’ $3.4bn. But if Beast crosses the increasingly less magical mark of $1bn – which seems inevitable given the first trailer has clocked up 30 million YouTube views – Evans’ career gross will put him on top of that particular pile. Not bad for a Welsh lad who never thought he’d ‘get the opportunity to be seen in a film’ and has been ‘playing catch-up’ these last seven years.
Is this, therefore, the year that Luke Evans becomes one of Britain’s most famous movie stars? Will his name appear on the next round of nominations alongside those BAFTA darlings? Now there’s talk of him as the next Bond. Not long ago, he came top of a poll picking a successor to Daniel Craig, pushing Hiddlestone, Hardy, Turner and Idris Elba down the ranks. Could it happen? To Luke Evans? Let’s roll the tape and see.
Beauty and the Beast is in cinemas March 17; State Like Sleep and Professor Marston & the Wonder Women are due out later this year.