Billy Howle: "It got me noticed, I saw it as a blessing and a curse. I think at the time, youth gives you this blasé view about what is happening to you."
Alice Gee | 15/3/2022
I grab a coffee with Billy at Gail’s in Highgate to chat with him about his latest role in BBC’s latest drama Chloe. As we catch up, I get to know that Billy partially grew up in Stoke-on-Trent somewhere I know all very well from spending much of my childhood visiting family there. Reminiscing about the popular oatcake shops Billy tells me a little more about his childhood and the places he’s called home over the years.
“Well, I recently had a chat with my mum about this, because I kind of didn’t know how long I was there. But I think it must have been until I was about two. It’s funny because I have some quite vivid, well I say memories, more sort of fragments of visual images in my head. Then we moved outside of Oxford until I was about 10, I remember spending the ‘millennium’ in our small town with my very close friend and running to his house before midnight and knocking on the door so we could celebrate with them. It was shortly after the millennium, that we left.”
His family then find a home in Scarborough, I ask if he finds himself visiting it as home often? “Well, less so now. I mean, my parents are ready to move on to the next chapter of their lives. They were full-time teachers for the whole of their careers. Not to say they weren’t interested in what they were doing when they were teaching. But they want to get creative and feel like human beings rather than automatons.”
Moving and experiencing so many places growing up, I find the process fascinating having spent my entire childhood in the same home and small-town village. I wonder whether moving around so much had an impact on him.
“Yes and no. I’m still doing it. It gets easier, but I think it becomes easier with time, from learning coping strategies. I think there was a shift after we moved from Oxford. I was 10 years old, the end of my formative years. I remember I was starting to see the world differently. You know, it starts to come alive in a way that it wasn’t before, you start asking new questions, so it’s quite a fragile period. To go from having my best friends who I saw every day who I was exploring the world with, and to be torn away from them and from what I knew affected me. Since then, moving around has often been dictated by something that I want to do. Going to university or a role which it’s in my interests to do. It’s not from things that have been outside of my control.
I think moving when I was younger affected me, in quite a big way, as it was a culture shock. Scarborough is very different to Oxford in so many ways, and that’s not to say that I didn’t adapt, I had to, but I think over time, in retrospect, I realise how uncomfortable the need to adapt was, and how much of it had to do with my survival. I think that’s something we kind of take for granted.”
As we hover over our teenage years I talk to Billy about On Chesil Beach, a book I studied in college which Billy went on to feature in, as Edward alongside Saoirse Ronan. I was interested in how the success he found from a sterling performance impacted his acting career?
“It got me noticed, I saw it as a blessing and a curse. I think at the time, youth gives you this blasé view about what is happening to you. I think it was also tinged with, although I’m hesitant to call it arrogance, I guess it kind of was. I don’t think I was an arrogant person but I think it was almost like a coping mechanism. I was surrounded by my peers, who I was imitating so that I appeared to understand what they were doing. To fit in, you must at least assimilate that behaviour. Then something clicked, and it sort of makes sense to enough people. For them to go ‘that piece of work was good,’ watchable, great reviews were new to me. I’m probably doing myself a disservice talking that way about it. I was learning to land on my feet. I could theorize and read as many books as I liked on filmmaking but it’s not until you go on set that you learn. My ethos, the thing that has been carrying me through is quite simple, no matter the job it’s about some level of enjoying whatever I’m learning and doing.”
It’s an ethos that not only means a lot to him but one that’s working. Speaking of success, I steer us towards the incredible hype around Chloe, what’s behind his latest role and the writing involved in featuring in BBC’s psychological thriller.
“It’s really about human behaviour. It’s about what makes people tick and obsession, idealising people or having an ideal version of yourself that you can present to the world utilizing social media. It’s about having an unhealthy level of obsession with that. Then the themes also touch on suicide and touch on control from controlling relationships. Really big themes, that need a delicate balance. I mean, it’s a testament to the writing.”
Having studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School it must have been a welcomed surprise to work alongside fellow alumni. “It was great timing. I mean, working with Erin Doherty who was at the same drama school was great. I think we were one year apart; she was one year below me. We kind of knew each other but I don’t think we ever really crossed paths. When we found out that we were both working together, it was great, something to look forward to. There’s a style or residual thing that sticks around. I think you can kind of tell when someone studied at Bristol, there’s something about Josh O’Connor and Olivia Coleman that’s distinctive. I guess it’s probably one of only a few times where I’ve been proud to represent an institution. I am proud of the school and the part of me and the tools that it’s given me to get where I am today. I’ll always be kind of grateful for the teaching staff and the rest of the students when I was there. I have a real fondness and nostalgia for Bristol.”
Since leaving Bristol, Billy has performed several high-profile roles. Something I was curious to ask is how performing in darker roles impacts those performing. I wanted to know whether it takes as much of a toll as the character feels.
“That’s a good question. The short answer is, yes, I think it’s unavoidable or at least it is for me. I can’t speak for other actors, but I do know some actors who seem to be quite resilient. When I was a younger actor, I really would take the work home with me to such an extent, the only real way for me to manage was to drink. But that’s only got a limited shelf life. It’s not a sustainable thing. I think in some ways it was some sort of rite of passage. Doing this job, you find yourself in a different universe and in some ways, the world has opened up to you, and it provides you with so many more opportunities, so many that wouldn’t occur to you otherwise. But what it also does over time, if you allow it to and you don’t have the means with which to stop it, is that it takes you further away from your truth. So, you start to play into the version of yourself that they expect you to be. If I start behaving how people are expecting me to behave, the next time they see me they’re going to expect me to do it again.
I think I understood that from playing the clown in new schools every time I moved. That I could make people laugh. I knew how to work a room, I could tell stories, silly things that were guaranteed to get a reaction out of people. So I got to a point, I was working more and more, drinking, and blurring the lines. When I looked back on the last 10 years, it became a bit of a blur. There was a lot of celebration which is difficult when it’s constant and you’re trying to figure out what you’re celebrating. I had a lot of social anxiety, I’m just a kid from Scarborough. It’s a very weird feeling coming back down to reality. It’s frigging exhausting.”
I imagine it’s a dangerous game, getting to grips with newfound fame all whilst finding a balance in your personal life. “Yeah, definitely. When people would say to me, be kind to yourself my reaction often was like, Oh, well, it’s fine. I’m doing fine, look at what’s happening. I’m doing well aren’t I, these people are applauding what I’m doing, never mind the fact that I keep being brought in to play these roles. It’s something I think that’s fascinating. I think it’s interesting, as I’ve enjoyed the characters I’ve played but I guess they have had some residual impact. They’ve kind of informed who I am today.
But something, I think, to bear in mind is that there’s always a sort of forwarding momentum to how the industry operates. I must be on my game, and I must accept this. What’s important to remember is that it’s a two-way street. And the two-way street is a negotiation. You can say to them from a place of trust and a place of mutual understanding and respect how you feel. But often what my job is, is to get under the skin of this individual, and convince myself so much that I truly believe the character’s journey, but it’s also about recognising the longevity of that in real-time. How sustainable is it? Because I don’t know. But with that in mind, I’m curious as to what is on the other side of this journey.”
Which is something obvious to the viewer’s eyes. Billy’s capability to get under the skin of what makes each character who they are is something he does well, so it’s no surprise he has found such success so far in his acting career. His honest and open conversation with me about his experiences with mental health and his work as an actor is something I’m sure will resonate with others out there, especially those that have taken on difficult roles. What’s nice to hear is he’s still clearly enjoying the experience and opportunities each one brings, and although there’s a question of sustainability for many in the industry, it’s not something Billy is worried about acknowledging and challenging.
Words: Alice Gee
Photography: Iona Wolff