The face of Hollywood’s newest, boldest bildungsroman is a self-described “boy” who’s just as stunned with his sudden fame as his onscreen alter-ego.
Joe Alwyn, a recent British transplant, was still training at drama school in London when he got the call to audition for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The 25-year-old had just finished his first term of his last year in the program, and signed with an agent off the strength of his showcase. She sent him a few scenes to tape for Ang Lee’s new film—and two days later, he was flying to New York to meet with the three-time Oscar winning director.
In person, Alwyn is almost unrecognizable. That’s saying something, considering the fact that Lee’s 3D, 120 frames-per-second experiment renders its protagonist’s face in microscopic detail. Even after spending an hour and 52 minutes getting up close and personal with Alwyn through his breakout performance, I was caught off guard by his hairstyle—an overgrown, untended evolution of his character’s standard issue military cut—and his civilian attire. And then there’s the accent.
Alwyn is as surprised as anyone to see a British unknown cast as the ultimate All-American boy. Describing his extended New York audition process, he admits, “I thought it had gone well but didn’t expect anything from it, it was all a crazy situation—it was an adventure and an experience but I didn’t know what was what.” It soon became clear that Lee and the film’s casting director wanted him for the part. “But there were some hurdles to jump over because obviously I was not a name that was going to finance the movie,” he explains. “I had never done anything before, I’d never stepped in front of the camera.” Until he did.
In Atlanta, Alwyn was faced with his first high-intensity, huge Hollywood film set. With technology tests up and running, the powers that be decided to audition Alwyn by fire. Or as he quips, “Let’s just chuck Joe in and see how he fares.” Despite being surrounded by stars—Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin, to name just a few—Alwyn believes that the disarming nature of the new technology acted as an equalizer. “Because it was an experiment, and a brave step into something that had never been done with the way it was made, everyone was in that together and trying to learn through that together,” he explains, adding that the learning curve extended to every single detail, like “the fact that we couldn’t wear makeup because the camera was picking it up.”
As a result, “Everyone was sort of finding their feet, so I didn’t feel so isolated, even though I was overwhelmed and terrified at times.” He was always under the impression that the next day on set would be his last. But one day in full costume and makeup quickly turned to ten. Finally, Lee sent him back to London. “I was in bed the next night and I got a call from my agent saying I got the part,” he recalls. “And I had to drop out of school and about three days later flew back and started boot camp.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set in 2004, and is based on an award-winning 2012 novel by Ben Fountain. The narrative ingredients are a hodgepodge of Americana: a young soldier copes with PTSD. A troupe of homecoming heroes are honored at a football halftime show. A small town family grapples with illness and loss. Texan cheerleaders grace the edges of the frame. Also, there’s Beyoncé.
It’s a story whose predictable elements are rendered alien through its unique cinematic perspective. Set in the very recent past, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk looks like the future—or at least the future of film, as Ang Lee imagines it. The director explains, “My hope with this new technology is that it could allow for greater intimacy, to really convey the personal feelings of a conflicted young soldier. That’s why I call it ‘new cinema’—because it’s a new way of making, watching and experiencing a movie and it seemed perfect for this project. It’s a great way to put Billy Lynn in the center of this halftime show that is very dramatic and an intriguing way to examine humanity and our society.”
To carry the weight of this project, Alwyn and his fellow Bravo Squad members needed to bulk up. The young actors were sent to military boot camp, where they gained a sense of the physical and psychological impact of war. “We were taken away for two weeks and put up into this kind of motel where we had to build our own bunk beds and stay and live 24/7. All access to the outside world was taken away from us, no phones or any form of communication. And then every morning, very, very early in the morning, we’d be taken off to this training camp in the woods run by Navy SEALs.” For Alwyn, it was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But the two-week facsimile was integral to the chemistry of the film.
“It really importantly brought us together as a group of boys, like a unit, which is important for the story,” he says, “as much as it is about the tactics and how to use the weapons, it kind of psychologically pulled us together.” Alwyn also benefited from the stories and experiences of their military trainers, which he incorporated into his portrayal of a 19-year-old soldier who’s been to Iraq and back again.
For all its headache-inducing realism, Ang Lee’s war movie is deeply strange. As The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato wrote, this new cinematic experience “imparts the sense that something is just barely and imperceptibly off…we observe Lynn wander about a familiar world—a world that should be home to a returning soldier, but which suddenly feels irreversibly alien.” The film milks the visual landscape of American patriotism for its unreality. As moviegoers, we can relate to Billy’s disbelief. It’s all just a little too much, the bright lights of the football stadium highlighting the external chaos and the internal disorientation.
It’s impossible not to read a film like this, set in Texas aka “real America,” through the lens of present day American politics. Billy and his Bravo Squad are disillusioned to find themselves used as patriotic props in a halftime show. They’re surrounded by civilians who celebrate their story but can’t seem to empathize with, or just don’t care to understand, their struggle. One of the film’s emotional crescendos is a standoff between Lynn and the wealthy owner of the Texas football team, Norm, played by Steve Martin. Norm prides himself on his association with the squad, and wants to profit from their patriotic story. He ultimately attempts to take advantage of their desperation, as the soldiers count down the hours until their redeployment.
It’s appropriate that the main villain of Ang Lee’s saga is a manipulative billionaire who fancies himself an American hero. But while Norm is an insider milking the Bravo Squad’s pain for all its worth, he’s not the only voyeur. Civilians—predominately well-off white males—reveal their bloodthirst to the war-weary troupe. There are layers of “real America” here; the Bravo Squad’s once in a lifetime experience fighting in Iraq, and the over-the-top, uber-patriotism that many of us only see once or twice a year on our television sets. In the wake of this historic election, movies like Lee’s can feel like tourism into an America that we don’t always deign to fully grapple with.
But according to Alwyn, still an outsider just getting his first taste of America, Billy’s story is hardly inaccessible. Alwyn doesn’t see his performance as a political commentary. He insists that the heart of the film transcends both its technological futurism and its hyper-real rendering of a moment in time. Alwyn muses, “I was not in too dissimilar a position to Billy at times. He is thrown into this surreal situation where cameras are suddenly being pointed at his face, and people are putting microphones in front of him, and there was an echo between that and me suddenly being plucked out of school and taken to America where I had never been, and working on a set which I had never been on, with faces that I knew but...I was also thrown into something at the deep end.” While he admits that the film carries an anti-war, pro-soldier message, he sees an even more universal story within it. “I also think it’s really a very intimate, quiet story about a pretty normal 19-year-old kid, coming of age and just trying to navigate his way through the day and also where he is and where he belongs and where he wants to go.”
Garrett Hedlund, who plays the senior sergeant keeping the Bravo Squad in line, recalls meeting with Lee to discuss the film. The director told him that due to the film’s revolutionary technology, “everything is so clear you can see everything even if it’s on your back. You cannot act. If you try to act, we will see you act.” That piece of advice—which would likely terrify even the most experienced actor—lends credence to Alwyn’s claim that Billy’s confusion, innocence, and shock came to him naturally. Through Lee’s vision, the viewer is so close to Billy’s headache-inducing world, we feel like we might fall into it. Alwyn really did. “It’s all a little bit strange,” he confesses, fidgeting with his cup of coffee in an unnaturally empty hotel room. “Even over the last couple of days, to suddenly sit down and do interviews and have people take photographs and ask for autographs, it’s not a normal situation to be suddenly thrown into, and it doesn’t feel quite real.” He pauses. “It doesn’t feel real. it’s quite abstract.”
Like Billy, Joe is seeing himself on screen for the first time, caught on camera and broadcast out to an audience of perfect strangers. As an experience, “It’s very strange…being in every scene and not being able to escape it.” But unlike Billy, Alwyn is decidedly, uncomplicatedly proud of the work that he’s done. “People worked so hard on it, and it’s so exciting to jump into something unknown.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk finds both its titular character and its breakout star on the cusp of something bigger than themselves. It’s a movie about a big event, but it’s also about the in between, as Lynn grapples with his return to active duty. At the time of filming, Alwyn’s future was also an unknown entity. These days, he seems poised to take his place as Lee’s latest, greatest discovery. When I spoke with him, Alwyn boasted about his tiny part in next year’s The Sense of an Ending. Now he’s set to lead the cast of Keepers, a psychological thriller, alongside Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan. While Alwyn is on his way out of the liminal space of almost-stardom, the legacy of Billy Lynn and the hyper-patriotism it portrays is still up for grabs. Given critics’ mixed reactions, it’s hard to say if Ang Lee’s production marks the future of film, or just an experimental fad. And with amped up American nationalism arguably reaching a new nadir, Billy Lynn’s recent history might become our new normal.