Following his breakthrough performance as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, young Alex Lawther is carving out quite a name for himself. After a memorable turn alongside Jerome Flynn in Charlie Brooker’s darkly engrossing Black Mirror series as Kenny, a blackmail victim caught in an online trap, Alex can now be seen as the eponymous character in Goodbye Christopher Robin.
The film, which is released by Twentieth Century Fox on Friday 29th September, and stars Margot Robbie and Domhnall Gleeson, is a fascinating insight into the origins of Winnie The Pooh, and the impact that success had on its writer AA Milne and his family, particularly his son Christopher Robin.
EF caught up with Alex to chat about working on this remarkable film, the real Christopher Robin, and his career to date…
Check out our review of Goodbye Christopher Robin
Firstly, many congratulations on the film. How much did you enjoy working on this fascinating film, which reveals the dark side to Winnie the Pooh?
Which [was something] I didn’t know about prior to reading the script. It was a big part of my childhood in a sense, in that the stories were read to me when I was little and my nursery school was called The Pooh Corner, and I grew up in a similar lovely part of the English countryside. Having then read the script, it is obviously very bitter sweet that part of Christopher’s life, [which was] so affected by his childhood fame…That tension between the boy that was Christopher Robin, who I only vaguely knew was based on a real boy, and the success of Christopher Robin the character. The impact of that on Christopher’s own life…I found very moving and was a big reason that I wanted to be part of telling that story.
Tell us a little bit about the film…
The film is a story of the Milne family – AA Milne, his son Christopher and his wife Daphne. And the conception of the Winnie the Pooh books and also within that, a story about a father and a child and a mother and her son, who grow up together…with the success of these internationally known stories – so the conception of Winnie the Pooh and its global effects and its fame, and also its personal effects and what that did to the family.
It seems fascinating that Winnie the Pooh, who has brought joy to millions for almost a century, came from the horrors of the First World War and also the pain that bear brought to Christopher Robin.
It’s a strange thing isn’t it, because it is a story that is still read today and movies are still being made about this boy and the bear…The fact that one gets so much joy from the stories and [then] rereading them and doing the film, they are still as innocent and lovely as ever, and then having to think about the effects of that on the individuals and Christopher suffered a sort of trauma with the fame.
In some respects he had an incredible happy childhood – and was loved very much as depicted by his nanny Nou, and grew up in a very privileged part of England in a particular society – but the personal loss and what he felt to be the loss of his childhood is enormous and so the conflict between those two things, I think the film tries to explore. And I felt very lucky to be part of the more bitter side of Christopher’s story and the complicated man he was, and also I find Christopher such a contradiction as a man.
He wanted to separate himself from his family and the Christopher Robin name – all of his friends called him Christopher when he went off and started his own life, and then he spent the best part of his life afterwards setting up a book shop which seems such an interesting contradictory thing to do, because if there is one place that people are going to go to meet Christopher Robin, you are going to go to Christopher Robin’s bookshop. So he’s pushing away but at the same time holding on, which I suppose is deeply human.
In some ways it is the archetypal tragic childhood star story…
Although it is a very particular story about a child who became very very famous very very young, which is quite particular, also there is quite a ready comparison about just how much we try and fight, especially as an adolescent, against your parents and your upbringing and the way they see the world and the box they try and fit you into. And then you might get so far but in a sort of Brideshead Revisited sort of way, there is always a thread pulling you back and I suppose for Christopher that was complicated in that he wanted to escape something but he couldn’t…
The film explores relationships and emotions – a lot of them buttoned up. That would have been bad enough before you bring in fame and being hawked around for publicity.
The sense that you can’t speak to your parents seemingly and suddenly you have to talk to thousands of children around the world, when at home you aren’t having proper conversations and no one is really speaking at all and suddenly you have this voice and you are a public figure. For anyone that is difficult, but for a child that is still forming themselves, and this is only my interpretation of Christopher Milne, but he did a recording for Desert Island Discs and he is in his fifties by this point, and of course the interviewer wants to talk about Christopher Robin the boy, but Christopher too can’t get away from this cycle. And his life in some ways seems to have been built around as a consequence of his childhood.
How did you approach playing Christopher, and what research did you undertake?
It’s a funny thing when you are representing someone who has really lived, the balance between being authentic to the life that they lived and the people that are still alive that knew them and respecting that and that sort of responsibility but then also you have a duty to the story…that you are also trying to serve so you have to keep in mind your responsibility to be authentic to the real person but also accept the fact that you have two hours or an hour and a half to tell this film.
Things have to be missed out and things have to be simplified in order for it to be a story, which ultimately it is. So I did do a lot of research into his biography and into what is known about Christopher and his voice recordings and his own writing, but with his own writing it is tricky because it is not necessarily more true than anybody else writing about him.
It is still his interpretations of past events which sometimes coincide with his father’s, sometimes are completely contradictory of and sometimes almost don’t make sense, and so the individual has to serve the story in the script and that has to come first I think.
Tell me about working with Domhnall & Margot…
It was a pleasure and it was interesting because by the time I came to do my little bit, they had had this whole time filming with Will (who plays the younger Christopher in the story) and they had this idea of Christopher as a boy which I didn’t have and couldn’t have…and that was very useful I think because it was maybe quite true to Christopher himself. His own idea was quite different to how his parents remembered him as a child. That sort of lack of familiarity with them was actually very useful. By the end of my time shooting, [Domhnall and Margot] are not the stiff upper-lipped types – they were both gregarious and lovely and warm and you just hope for that, particularly if you are coming in for just a few days every so often…
…And working with Simon Curtis as a director?
He’s very precise. Simon is very warm and I often found there was a sense that he was telling this story for his own kids. That he was a father making a story for his children and it was a nice thing to be under the shelter of…You knew when Simon was happy and we would move on, and that is such a gift when you have that in a director because you can trust that when it is done…and you can let it go.
Were you a Winnie the Pooh fan?
Yeah massively in that they were stories read to me and I had my own Tigger toys and all of those things. But it was on rereading them, which is interesting because as a child you get lost in the fantasy of it, but rereading them when older, you appreciate the beauty of them and…it’s less about the enjoyment of getting lost in the imagination but the sort of yearning of childhood and wandering off into the woods. I found it deeply nostalgic rereading them again this time.
Why are the Winnie the Pooh stories so loved?
They are innocent but then sometimes witty and there are…things in there for the parents too, I mean there is grumpy Eeyore making these fantastic, rambunctious slights and there are a whole array of personalities in the book. I think there is a sort of earnestness to them, which maybe comes from the fact that they were stories that Christopher and his father would make together, or that they were inspired by stories that they would tell each other. There was a real sense of a child’s imagination behind them, which is everlastingly lovely to read.
So what can audiences expect from the movie?
It is hard to say, but I suppose in a very basic sense, I knew maybe two per cent of that side of the real Christopher Robin and I suppose this story examines that. We know Winnie the Pooh the story, it’s internationally known, and this is an examining of the consequences of the people behind the story and the lives behind the story.
As a young actor, tell me about the impact of starring in The Imitation Game as a young Alan Turing…
The Imitation Game was my first feature film and it was a wonderful safe first experience of film-making – I had only the responsibility of telling the short-lived love story between Christopher and Alan, and it had these heavyweights like Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch to tell the meat of the story so it was safe and a massive gift, and I wasn’t aware at the time what a gift it was. I mean it was a brilliant script but I hadn’t read many scripts and was just excited to be part of it.
How was it then working on Black Mirror with Charlie Brooker and opposite Jerome Flynn?
I was a massive Black Mirror fan series 1 and 2, and I’d never been part of something that I was already an admirer of. And Charlie’s writing is just a joy to play and having Jerome and these two-handers in the car shot very quickly over three weeks – it was over before I really knew it.
It seems like a golden age of television – that must be exciting as an actor?
That’s what I loved about Black Mirror – they all felt like standalone movies on their own. I’ve grown up in the industry the way that it is with so much more television so I’m growing up with the fact that television is something exciting and there’s brilliant writers and brilliant directors and I can only think that that can be a good, interesting thing and more work from the people all over the world with international giants like Netflix and Amazon…And maybe more risks can be taken.
And I think there is something risky about Black Mirror because it is not pleasant. You don’t want to binge watch Black Mirror because you’d have a seizure afterwards but what is interesting about Black Mirror and Charlie with his background as a journalist is his want to interrogate and as an actor that can feel quite exciting because you feel like you are being subversive in some way or at least you are part of something that is on Netflix and on the internet and yet it is sometimes about the dangers of that.
When we were shooting [our episode], I was reading in newspapers about cases of men who had committed suicide because of acts they were caught doing on the internet and that felt very strange to be creating what was supposedly fiction but was actually happening in the real world right now – and it sort makes the world seem quite a scary place to me.
Next up you’ve got Ghost Stories with Martin Freeman – what can you tell us about that?
Yes that was a lot of fun… It’s three standalone stories based on the play that Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson wrote and directed on the West End, and they’ve adapted it into a film. And I suppose it is a horror film of sorts and becomes something even more complex than that with many twists and turns, even in the script, and I hope that that plays out on the screen…You are always being…manipulated as an audience member, or at least as a reader of the script. I saw the play and you were manipulated then too and I sort of enjoy that, being on the back foot as an audience member and thinking you know something and then it turns out you don’t know so much at all.
So what is it that you look for in script?
I always find it hard to answer because as an actor, only so much is your decision. It is the casting director, director and producer who either want to pick you or don’t and therefore there is a big element of chance of being in the right place at the right time…But if something comes along and I read it and I want to carry on reading it and want to get to the end of it, then that is usually a good sign that it could be something good to be part of, because hopefully that will translate onto the screen or onto stage.
With Goodbye Christopher Robin due to be released this week, what are your final thoughts on AA Milne and his son Christopher?
…I hadn’t expected to find Christopher into his fifties still so sad and hadn’t expected to find that so moving. It makes one think if there is something you are hung up on when you are younger, get it sorted out now because those things don’t go away and they, at least they didn’t with Christopher, are like a thorn in your side. And [for him] there was no one to talk to. He couldn’t even talk to his teddy bears because they were going to betray him!
Goodbye Christopher Robin is set to be released in cinemas on Friday 29th September.