‘Benediction’ star Jack Lowden plays on both sides of the camera
David Hawkins/Frank Agency
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy? At least, not for Scottish actor Jack Lowden, who has his finger in every pie at the moment. During his recent press run for his upcoming film Benediction, in which we managed to speak to him about his role as the Great War poet, Siegfried Sassoon; Jack is also in the midst of shooting The Gold, a BBC and Paramount+ series that stems from the Brink’s-Mat robbery in the 1980s, and the legacy that follows “the crime of the century” in the world of trading, superstitious or otherwise. The series is under the directorship of Aneil Karia, whose recent collaboration with Riz Ahmed in the short film The Long Goodbye had bagged them an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.
Not only that, there is also the post-production for the second season of the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses. The first season’s adaptation of Mick Herron’s book series enjoyed a successful premiere in April last month, with favorable reviews ahead of the follow-up, speculated to be released later this year. Jack will reprise his role as MI5 agent River Cartwright, sent to the infamous Slough House to serve out his demotion with the other misfits there, led by the eccentric Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman.
Finally, right at the corner of Jack’s ambitious pie servings, is the debut endeavor for his newly co-founded production company, Arcade Pictures, with Saoirse Ronan and Dominic Norris; having just returned from Orkney, Scotland for pre-shoots of The Outrun, a film adaptation of fellow Scot Amy Liptrot’s bestselling memoir. With strong collaborations already going on in front of and behind the camera in anticipation for production to begin in July, it sure looks like everything’s coming up roses for this Jack!
Hiya, Jack! How’s it going?
Yeah, I’m good. Everything’s quite mad at the moment. We did a week of pre-shoots in Orkney for The Outrun, but I was only there for the first couple of days, and then I came back to London to carry on shooting another thing that I’m doing for the BBC. It went really well; it was a great test of how best to shoot up there, and how you can be as useful as possible with a smaller unit, before the main shoot starts again in July.
I think congratulations are in order for Arcade Pictures!
Oh no, thanks! Yeah, this is our first proper endeavor, Dominic (Norris, of Modern Life is Rubbish) and I. We produced a film a couple of years ago called Kindred, with Tamara Lawrence and Fiona Shaw. So, this is our second film in a way, but our first as Arcade, yeah. Myself, Dominic and Saoirse (Ronan, of Lady Bird, Little Women and The French Dispatch), the three of us are co-producing it with Sarah Brocklehurst (producer, of Black Pond and Animals) of Brock Media.
What was the motivation in setting up Arcade Pictures, especially with Saoirse and Dominic?
Well, personally, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do; not necessarily start a production company, but be involved in a different way than just being an actor. I’ve enjoyed — am enjoying my time as an actor, but it’s never felt enough for me. I want to feel more useful, and you’re only useful for small short bursts as an actor. Routinely, I would sit on a film set jealous of people, who look busy all the time (laughs). I’m not very good at not being busy. That was sort of the main motivation for making our first film Kindred. I was in it, but I also got to produce for the first time. Dominic is a friend of mine, and I think he’s a fantastic producer and leader as well, and a great person to learn from. Then, in talking with Saoirse about playing the role (in The Outrun), it was a no brainer, because Saoirse is exactly the same; she’s always wanted to get behind the camera in some way. She definitely wants to direct one day, as do I. So, this seems like the perfect opportunity for her to cut her teeth in that as well.
How’s it so far working with Saoirse again? I think the last time you both worked together was in Mary Queen of Scots in 2018.
Yeah, that’s the only time we’ve worked together. No, it’s great, because she’s a wonderful, wonderful actress; one of the best there is! Anybody’s lucky to have her. So, it’s fantastic that this second film with her, I get to produce with her too. It’s also in Orkney, part of the world that we both adore. So, really, that’s it — we’re not trying to make films that have any particular message, or come from any particular place. We just want to be useful in any way we can, learn what we can, make films that we believe in, and of stories we love; and personally, get to work with brilliant actors. My favorite thing about this profession is the actors. I just love watching good acting and good actors; I would watch them all day.
What was the initial process like in deciding to adapt Amy Liptrot’s book into a film?
Well, I read the book, I think it was just before lockdown or during lockdown. I knew the book before it, but I didn’t read it until, yeah, around about lockdown, when we all went through a stage of reading loads and loads of books. I said to Saoirse, I said you got to play this part; we’ve got to see if we can make this into a film. Then, we found out that someone already had the rights, and had been developing it with BBC Films. So, we met with (Sarah), and said we’d love to be involved. We’re interested in making Scottish stories, and being a Scottish-based production company, we’re able to bring that element to the film. So, we co-produced from that point on, and then, Nora (Fingscheidt, director of The Unforgivable) came on board — it all got incredibly real, very quickly!
“We’re not trying to make films that have any particular message, or come from any particular place. We just want to be useful in any way we can, learn what we can, make films that we believe in, and of stories we love; and personally, get to work with brilliant actors. My favorite thing about this profession is the actors. I just love watching good acting and good actors; I would watch them all day.”
Sounds exciting! We’re looking forward to The Outrun when it’s all done and dusted.
In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today about your upcoming film Benediction.
How familiar were you with Siegfried Sassoon and his works before this project came along?
I was semi-familiar. I knew of him, like everybody else who was taught in high school all the other Great War poets. His poetry obviously stuck out, because it’s so stark and brutal. I remembered that, whilst also being, you know, 14, 15 and being bored (laughs). I didn’t fully appreciate, like you never do at school, anybody’s work. When I got the part, I delved back into Sassoon’s poetry. From there, I also learned about all the other aspects of his life that I just wasn’t aware of before, like his stand against the war; I don’t think I knew about his declaration against the war (A Soldier’s Declaration). So, it was a wonderful excuse to be a bit of a nerd for a bit, it’s great.
I actually heard of Siegfried when I watched The Laureate. It’s another film about another war poet, Robert Graves. Siegfried was in that briefly.
Oh, yeah! Who played him?
Oh gosh, I don’t remember now! I’d have to look that one up again. (It was Timothy Renouf).
I’m totally looking that up!
What was the initial draw into this project for you?
It’s just a remarkable piece of screenwriting! The first thing that grabbed me was the humor in the script; I find it very funny. It’s not a film or subject matter that you would think instantly as being funny; which I always think is a mistake, if you can’t find a funny angle for something that’s miserable or horrific. But, Terence (Davies, director and writer) found it brilliantly. They weren’t just the average people, these guys that he hung around then, Sassoon included: Lawrence of Arabia (T.E Lawrence), Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine), you know, Robbie Ross (played by Simon Russell Beale)… all these incredible people. They were all very intelligent and quick witted, sharp and cutting. That’s all on the page, and the scenes that would bounce back and forth — really delicious to even read.
How do you even begin with the research process for this film and this character? Because, we’re talking about someone, somewhere that’s from more or less 100 years ago, during the First World War and the 1920s. It’s another lifetime that’s vastly different from the world that we live in today.
I mean, yeah, there’s copious amounts of archives on the First World War. There’s his poetry as well, but the thing I found most useful was his memoirs of an infantry officer, his diaries from the front; most incredible, revealing diaries I’ve ever read. It revealed him as an insecure, paranoid, jealous, vain man, you know. Jealous of people winning other medals at war, jealous of poets that he knew were better than him. He was a Great War poet thinking that he’s rubbish (chuckles). I found that really moving, because you’re reading about someone having all these doubts. It takes a lot of humility to do that, and I think he had so much humility, that man. He was a complete hypocrite, which is just fascinating to me; the best people at play are, in my opinion.
How was he a hypocrite, you think?
I mean, he was a brilliant soldier. He was nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’, he won medals for his bravery, and his men adored him. Then, halfway through the war, for him to turn around and say, this is all bollocks, and it’s a complete waste of youth… which it was, dreadful; it was an absolute human disaster, the First World War. I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but when you look at it, it’s just horrific. Siegfried realized that, and used his position to make a stand about it, which was a very brave thing to do in 1917. He was on the verge of being court-martialed and shot. It takes a hypocrite to change things sometimes, and I think he was certainly that. And his vanity! When he would go home, and sit with his mom, and if his mom had guests over, he would finish his dinner as quick as he could, so he can go outside, shut the door, and listen to the conversation to see if they were talking about him. I think that’s such a wonderful thing to admit, you know?
How much of your portrayal of Siegfried was based on these archival records you came across, and how much was it just a recreation of how you think Siegfried was as a person in behavior and manner?
It was evidently clear that (Siegfried’s) main motivation was redemption, and being terrified of regretting, even though he probably regretted things on a weekly basis, which is the thing that I could get to grips with quite quickly. My route into playing him was this suffocating regret that the man had. But you know, I’ve played a few real life characters now — I’m playing another one at the moment, and the older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve tried to worry too much about who I’m actually playing; if I’m getting it right, if I’m doing it justice, because I don’t think they exist. The portrayals of the people they’re based on, they don’t exist. When I’m doing it, I don’t think that these people exist, because then suddenly, the weirdness of what I’m doing becomes apparent (chuckles). I just think of them as fictitious characters on the page, and I try to bring things that only I could bring to a part. I still believe in doing your research, and doing your work, trying to be as respectful as possible, but there is still a certain amount of it that is reliant on you putting your costume on, and someone comes in, and calls you Siegfried in a scene. It’s just as valid, and it’s just as helpful, because it’s make-believe at the end of the day. So, I don’t feel any responsibility anymore, playing real people, I really don’t.
So, it’s more of a free-form creative process, in creating your own version of that person, rather than just rigidly following what you’ve known or read about him through the research?
Yeah, in my opinion, you’ve got to play a believable human being first. I remember the brilliant thing someone said to me once; I think it was Peter Mullan. He said, when you’re playing a king, and you have to tie a tie in a scene; a king doesn’t tie his tie in a certain way, he just ties a tie, and someone comes in, and calls him the king. You just focus on playing a human first, ie. tie your tie, and the king part can come after. That’s basically what I do, in this film in particular, because the writing was so good. While it’s based on true events, Terence has imagined scenes that probably never happened, and things (Siegfried) never said. He has worked it out to an absolute tee, and you just had to follow what was on the page. So, it takes the responsibility off you in a certain way, while you focus on playing a human being first.
Now that you have Arcade Pictures going on, you’re more than an actor now, you’re a producer. Has that changed your personal or professional perspective, when it comes to your experiences with the directors you work with going forward? Do you notice more things or different things when you’re on set as just an actor?
Yeah, I absolutely do. First and foremost, it’s really just given me even more respect for directors (laughs), and what they have to deal with. Also, the producers as well, it‘s really quite remarkable what some producers have to do. They’re very highly skilled people — I’m not speaking about myself there, as I’ve only just begun; but my God, there are some brilliant producers! I’m working on something just now with a brilliant director, who just won an Oscar for a short film; Aneil (Karia) with Riz Ahmed in The Long Goodbye, I think it was called. And so, we’re shooting (The Gold) at the moment, and it’s really fascinating to watch him. He has this real calm, collected air about him, for somebody that’s not shot a lot really, even though he’s won an Oscar; I don’t know if he’s even the same age as me, or maybe, no, he’s a bit older. But, he’s so calm on the outside at least, and how a massive difference that can make. You can have all the skill and vision in the world, but as the leader on set, the calmness is definitely preferable to someone who’s bouncing off the walls. I’ve worked on both of those kinds of sets, and I can tell you that calmness is the way to go. I think it’s incredible, watching his calmness, especially now that I have a fuller picture of the pressures that a director is under; knowing the things that he’s having to deal with constantly as the director, with about 50 questions to answer every day. It’s just given me a different perspective on a mad, mad, mad profession.
“I’ve played a few real life characters now, and the older I’ve gotten, the less I’ve tried to worry too much about who I’m actually playing; if I’m getting it right, if I’m doing it justice. I just think of them as fictitious characters on the page, and I try to bring things that only I could bring to a part. There is still a certain amount of it that is reliant on you putting your costume on, and someone comes in, and calls you Siegfried in a scene. It’s just as valid, and it’s just as helpful, because it’s make-believe at the end of the day.”
Is there anything you look for in a director, or something preferable you notice of a good director?
Being an actor, the thing that pings out to you quite quickly is how they are with actors. It’s the difficult bit; it’s the bit that nobody really knows what to do with you. Again, it’s not a light or a camera that you can turn up or down with a dial. It’s just this weird, strange bit that nobody can quite calculate; and it’s incredible to watch some directors struggle with that, and make a situation with an actor worse through tampering too much. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of very good directors, some of whom are heroes of mine. But, the most impressive directors I’ve worked with, from my point of view, are the ones that know how to use their actors best, because at the end of the day, what’s in the middle of the frame, or the side, or the bottom — that’s what counts to me; the most important instrument, and how the story is conveyed through it. All the other fantastic elements of the camera lens, the music, obviously, it’s massively important too, but you know, you don’t want well shot shit (laughs). You don’t want that, you want something of substance and engaging in the middle of the frame; and that is the actor, and they’re bloody difficult to find. Good actors, they’re rarer than gold, and good directors of actors are even rarer.
Alright, so Slow Horses — well done on the first season! It was quite an enjoyable watch for me; a bit of action, and a bit of dark humor. It’s not something that I’ve come across so far with spy thrillers. I’m definitely looking forward to season two, which I believe you’ve already completed production for that?
Yep. I’m doing ADR on it tomorrow, actually.
It must’ve been thrilling to go back to work again with these heavyweights.
It was an absolute privilege, and it’s quite a surreal experience to be working with these legends, who are sort of like old friends by now. Gary (Oldman, as Jackson Lamb), obviously, is just remarkable in everything that he does; it is really terrifying how good he can be at the drop of a hat. Kristin Scott Thomas (as Diana Taverner) and Saskia Reeves (as Catherine Standish) are both factors that I’ve just adored forever, and I’ve worked with both of them before, both of whom I think are utterly phenomenal in Slow Horses.
Any memorable moments with them on set?
There was a big scene between Kristin and Gary in an office; it must’ve been like a seven- or eight-page scene. I was in makeup, but I’d only come into the scene way later in the shooting day. But, I went on set as early as I could, just to sit in the background, and just watch them work. The final product is fantastic, like we’ve all watched these actors on the big screen; but to watch them in the flesh, and watch them work and try things out — it’s just brilliant! They should sell tickets for that. That would be a brilliant way of funding films: sell super duper highly exclusive premium tickets with, like a whole experience, where you get to watch someone work. You know, you get to watch Gary Oldman from trailer to camera (laughs). You could sell them for a fortune, and fund your film!
Who would you say is the most like his or her character?
Probably Kristin. You say that, but then she’s really giggly off-screen; so, maybe not her, but she would definitely be the closest. It’d be wrong to say Gary, because Gary’s not like Lamb, not in the slightest. Probably me (laughs)! River is the least archetypal, or at least with the broad strokes, bigger characters in it. River is the audience in Slow Horses; he is there to eye roll the ridiculous, straight-up, offensive things that Gary’s character says.
“You want something of substance and engaging in the middle of the frame; and that is the actor, and they’re bloody difficult to find. Good actors, they’re rarer than gold, and good directors of actors are even rarer.”
Petra Sellge/The Wall Group
Are there any of his personal traits that you’d like to have, or maybe something of yours that you feel can help Cartwright in his career in Slough House?
Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s many traits of his that I’d take, because they’re already mine. I mean, he has severe impatience, which I share; I have no patience, I’m dreadful with patience. He could definitely do with a lot more patience, because his pigheadedness and impatience just gets him into horrendous situations! Also, I think he needs a good night out, River. He needs to let his hair down, because you never see him with any kind of social life. I think he needs to go bowling or something (laughs).
I think that’s about it! Thanks so much again for speaking with us.
No worries. Thank you.
Jack, has anyone ever told you that you look like Simon Pegg?
(Laughs) I’ve been told that before. I don’t see it personally, but that’s not up to me.
Certain angles, just certain angles.
Oh, cool. (Laughs)
Anyway, I look forward to all your projects coming up, which is a lot of them! And, all the best for the shoot for The Outrun in July.
Thank you, Celeste. Thanks!
Benediction is now playing in UK cinemas and will release exclusively to theaters in the US on June 3rd 2022. Watch the trailer below: