Lucy Boynton: ‘When I was younger, I found it easier to be politically apathetic. Now, there’s no excuse’

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  • From a star-making turn in Bohemian Rhapsody to a leading role in sassy new Netflix show The Politician, Lucy Boynton is ready for her close-up. Here, she tells Jane Mulkerrins about her life-changing year

    When Bohemian Rhapsody star Rami Malek closed his Best Actor acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars with a declaration of love for his co-star and girlfriend, no one was more surprised than the woman herself. ‘Lucy Boynton, you’re the heart of this film,’ he gushed. ‘You are beyond immensely talented. You have captured my heart.’

    As anyone who has seen the phenomenally successful Queen biopic will attest, Malek is correct on both counts – because, while he might have had the glory of the lead role, Boynton’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s muse Mary Austin undoubtedly steals the show. If the 25-year-old American-English actress had been hoping for a quiet night at the Oscars, she would have been disappointed; by the end of the evening, several hundred million viewers in over 225 countries knew her name.

    ‘He specifically told me he wasn’t going to [mention me]!’ laughs Boynton when we meet in the lobby of the hip Manhattan hotel where she’s currently living with Malek. ‘Sitting front row, right in front of him, it felt like a very personal exchange. And then he walks offstage and there’s applause, and you suddenly realise you’ve shared it not only with an auditorium of people, but everyone watching on TV. I didn’t clock until everyone kept asking me about it. I’d be, like, “None of your business, you weren’t there. Oh, OK, you did see it, yes.”’

    I bring it up not just because it feels like a significant moment in her flourishing career so far, but because, with any luck, it will be the last time Boynton plays ‘the girlfriend’ – on or off screen. This autumn sees her take centre stage with her first leading TV role in The Politician, the latest razor-sharp comedy drama series from Ryan Murphy (cult creator of American Crime Story, Feud and Pose). In another scene-stealing performance, Boynton plays Astrid, a Machiavellian high schooler with a wardrobe to die for.

    When I first met Boynton a year ago, we talked at length about Mary Austin’s ‘evolved’ relationship with Freddie Mercury, since she remained his close friend and muse long after their romance ended and he embraced his true sexuality (albeit never formally coming out). So, it’s interesting that The Politician – in which Murphy and his co-creator Brad Falchuck (aka Mr Gwyneth Paltrow) have transplanted narratives surrounding presidential elections and debates about wealth, power, entitlement and privilege into a darkly comic high school drama – neatly takes the topic of sexual fluidity and non-conformity to a contemporary (if somewhat utopian) place.

    ‘The characters never have a conversation about their sexual orientation or gender identity,’ explains Boynton. While there are numerous same-sex relationships in the show – and lots of sex in general – they are never discussed or defined. ‘It’s a huge leap forward,’ she enthuses. ‘Obviously, these are important things to discuss, but the next step is that it doesn’t even need to be a discussion. No one needs to come out at the beginning of a show, being, like, “I’m THIS”.’

    Lucy Boynton

    If the zeitgeist content wasn’t appealing enough, The Politician also boasts a starry cast including Ben Platt, Jessica Lange, January Jones (who plays Astrid’s former prostitute mother) and Gwyneth Paltrow. ‘I didn’t meet her until we did press, so that was intimidating,’ admits Boynton. ‘But then you feel so stupid for having been intimidated, because you meet her and she’s so normal. And I hate the fact that “normal” just came out of my mouth, but you hold her to some other level and then she’s just really nice. And not sugary nice – brilliantly funny nice.’

    ‘Nice’ isn’t a word you’d use about any of the characters in The Politician. And in the parlance of real political elections, the privileged, glacial Astrid would certainly not pass the ‘likeability’ test. But labelling her the Mean Girl is to miss her complexity entirely. ‘The ways that she is bad or unappealing or unkind are so rooted in lessons that I think are very valuable for a young woman,’ nods Boynton. ‘Her parents have raised her to be a girl in that world and use her looks. But Dylan McDermott, who plays my father, is relentless in the way that he treats her, and I don’t think it would be any different if he had a son. There is this sense of ruthlessness, the idea that this world will eat you up if you let it, so how are you going to prepare?’

    Boynton’s own feminism was formed in large part by her older sister, Emma. ‘When I was 17, [she] thought I wasn’t being enough of a feminist, so she gave me a book called C**t: A Declaration Of Independence,’ she tells me with a laugh, the provocative four-letter word sounding even more gloriously transgressive in her clipped RP. The seminal text by Inga Muscio is, she says, ‘all about how that word used to be associated with queens and female power, and was hijacked by men using it derogatorily, and how that then weighs on society.’

    Lucy Boynton

    Boynton’s portrayal of Astrid certainly gets the thumbs up from Emma. ‘She watched the first episode and was thrilled, because she knows I learned all of Astrid’s glaring and snarkiness from her.’

    In spite of her cut-glass vowels, Boynton was born in New York. Her parents, Graham Boynton and Adriaane Pielou, are journalists who were working in the US at the time, and moved back to London when Lucy was five and Emma, six. Their profession has, she says, made her own itinerant career less of an issue. ‘All my relationships are long distance, but it’s something I’ve grown up with.’

    I wonder how she’s finding living in the hotel she’s been based at for the last five months. ‘It’s thrilling at first; you feel like Eloise at the Plaza,’ she laughs. ‘But it never seems like your space. You start to feel as if you’re just on borrowed ground and borrowed time, which you are.’

    Did they not consider renting an apartment? ‘It made sense at the time,’ she smiles, rolling her eyes. ‘Because we’re both back and forth all over the place.’ Malek, 38, is currently juggling shooting the new Bond film, in which he plays 007’s latest villainous adversary, and the final season of his award-winning hacker drama, Mr Robot, while Boynton spent the summer promoting The Politician in the US. ‘I’ve been feeling quite baseless for a couple of years now,’ she adds.

    Lucy Boynton

    Boynton attended the prestigious James Allen’s Girls’ School in London, where she was spotted at the age of 11 by a casting director who was visiting the school in the hope of finding a girl to play the young Beatrix Potter in the 2006 film Miss Potter. With no professional experience, she was cast alongside Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.  ‘And once I got a taste for it, there was no way back,’ she explains.

    Parts in the BBC adaptations of Ballet Shoes and Sense & Sensibility quickly followed. ‘I never did kids TV, so nothing I was doing ever felt child actor-y,’ she says. ‘My agent, who signed me at 11, and who I am still with, encouraged me to say no to a lot of things. It’s an industry that’s not guaranteed, and there is always the concern that if you say no too much, you might ‘no’ yourself out of the door. But she gave me a baseline of what to expect and what I should say yes to.’

    After that came what she drily refers to as her ‘hiatus’. Turning 16, and deemed ‘too old for the kid roles and too young for adult roles’, coincided with ‘braces, bad skin, crap metabolism and school exams. I wasn’t even auditioning,’ she says. ‘Thank God that time [wasn’t] captured on camera.’

    ‘There were years of going to auditions pretty much every day and getting nothing,’ she recalls, of trying to pick up where she left off a couple of years later. ‘But it forced me to check myself and check I really wanted it.’ Eventually, the work rolled back in. She appeared in a couple of small films, before bagging more significant parts in Sing Street (2016) and Murder On The Orient Express (2017).

    While we get our teeth into season one of The Politician, Boynton will be stepping back into Astrid’s brocade shifts and knee socks – twin-sets and diamonds for season two, which films over the next five months. As for future goals, ‘I’m trying to get involved in projects earlier on,’ she explains. ‘So, instead of just coming in and auditioning, helping develop what it will look like and sound like. I’ve been reading predominantly female authors with female protagonists, with an eye to developing them. It turns out most things are bought.’ Probably by Reese Witherspoon, we speculate. ‘I’m becoming more opinionated, and I don’t think I would have been able to try this any earlier in my career than right now,’ she says.

    Perhaps less surprisingly, Boynton has become more engaged in political matters. ‘When I was younger, I found it easier to be politically apathetic. It always just felt very distant, not personal in any way. And, then, in the last few years, since Trump and Brexit, there’s no excuse,’ she says.

    ‘It affects everyone so deeply, and goes so far beyond just politics, into human-to-human respect, interaction and rights.’ As a US as well as UK citizen, she will, she adds, be fully exercising her right to vote in the 2020 presidential election. ‘You just can’t not be outraged, I think.’ Astrid would be proud.

    The Politician is on Netflix now

    Photograph by David Roemer; Styled by Jayne Pickering 

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