From War & Peace to Fantastic Beasts, Callum Turner’s roles are anything but predictable. The Brit actor tells Sophie Goddard about counting Jeff Bridges as a friend and why he’s glad he skipped drama school
Callum Turner has just said goodbye to his colleague. Smudge, he explains, is an ex-paratrooper training him to play Shaun Emery, a soldier convicted of murder in Afghanistan, in new six-part BBC drama The Capture. ‘It’s intense,’ he says of the role, which sees the soldier fighting for his freedom. Later this year, Turner also joins Anya Taylor-Joy and Bill Nighy for the 2019 big-screen adaptation of Emma, in which he plays romantic deceiver Frank Churchill. Growing up on a council estate in London’s Chelsea, Turner left school at 16 to pursue modeling – ‘[school] was very rigid, I couldn’t wait to leave’ – before his first major role beckoned in 2014’s Glue. The BBC adaptation of War & Peace followed, then his breakout film, The Only Living Boy In New York, before Turner was selected by JK Rowling for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald, which firmly put him on the map. Now dating fellow actor Vanessa Kirby, who he met on 2014 drama Queen & Country, Turner explains where it all went right…
What was it like training with a real soldier for your character in The Capture?
‘I trained with Smudge four times a week. We learned surveillance and how to shoot guns. That stuff is so important because if you’re playing a trained soldier, it’s a completely different perspective on life.’
Is it ever surreal, thinking, ‘Who am I today?’
‘Yeah. I didn’t have it so much with Shaun, but I was doing a dance sequence in Emma and I had an out-of-body experience, like, “What’s going on?!”’
Do you think skipping drama school has had an impact on the kind of roles you’re offered?
‘At the beginning, definitely. I remember people saying I should go to drama school [while I was modelling] and I thought about it, but, actually, in the three years I would’ve been at drama school I worked with John Boorman, Paul McGuigan, Jeremy Saulnier, Adam Leon… I would’ve been wandering around pretending to be a tree so I’m glad I didn’t!’
Did the modelling come in useful?
‘I guess [acting and modelling] are similar. I started modelling at 16 − I’d just left school and someone asked, “Do you want to go to Paris tomorrow?” and I was like, “Sure, why not?” I didn’t do it for long, but I guess being in front of a camera, understanding angles and building confidence helped.’
What kind of films were you into growing up?
‘My early inspirations were − and still are − anything by Gary Oldman, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is the god of cinema. He did Five Easy Pieces playing this alpha male character, then in The King Of Marvin Gardens he plays the complete opposite. He can do anything!’
‘In the years I would have been in drama school, I worked with John Boorman, Paul McGuigan and Adam Leon… I’m glad I didn’t go’
Your roles are varied, too…
‘If I do ten per cent of what Jack Nicholson does, I’ll be happy.’
What made you want to become an actor?
‘I’ve always loved films and the way you can tell the same story in different ways. Watching films for escapism, and being entertained – that’s why I’m in it. I don’t want to just plod along, I want to work with people who do stuff that’s interesting. My philosophy has always been that I’ll take on any character… it means I get to play a varied bunch of people.’
Fantastic Beasts was huge. How did it feel to land the role?
‘I was over the moon because I really wanted to work with David Yates and Eddie Redmayne. And obviously JK Rowling, whose cultural footprint on this earth will last hundreds of years. I wanted to learn from them, and Zoë Kravitz. We’re all friends now, that feels very special. To see how it works on such a big movie − what they all do is create this safe space, this intimate environment for you to feel comfortable. Everywhere you go, there’s a Harry Potter shop! I feel very blessed.’
What’s it like to step on to a new set?
‘I think every actor will say it’s nerve-racking on the first day. It’s like going to a new school. But that’s why I like playing leads because you’re on the journey the whole way through, with the director and other actors. So you find the rhythm and the flow, and can really start to play.’
It must take time to spot everyone’s work style?
‘Completely. Like when I did The Only Living Boy In New York, I had two weeks with Jeff Bridges, then a week with Pierce Brosnan and a week with Kate Beckinsale, then finished with Cynthia Nixon. I didn’t go to drama school, but watching those guys do their thing − that’s how I learn. These people are experts; they’re at the top of their game.’
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the talent?
‘No, I don’t get star-struck. I get nervous in the same way I’d get nervous if I went to a friend’s party and you don’t know many people. But it’s soon cool and I don’t get overwhelmed.’
I guess they’re not ‘Jeff Bridges’ any more, just ‘Jeff’?
‘Yeah it’s funny. I’ve got a great video of me and my friends and Jeff and his mate when we were doing the press for The Only Living Boy In New York. We got a helicopter and were all pretending to play it cool like, “Yeah, we’ve been in a helicopter before” and all of us are freaking out and laughing − it felt like we were six years old, having too much sugar.’
Some actors hate watching themselves back. Do you?
‘I think it’s important. I’m a visual person and I’ve got a system − I watch it once to get through it, cause I’m dying inside. Then I watch it again [feeling] less [like I’m] dying, then the third time I watch it for the performance. Like, “I wonder why that shot was used”, or “I could’ve done that more”. I analyse.’
Acting can be feast or famine. Is that stressful?
‘Last year, I didn’t work because the films I wanted to do fell through, and I was quite bored work-wise. We spend all this time doing interviews, going to events, meeting with people… then the bit you enjoy most is between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. That’s what’s frustrating. You’re not doing ten hours of acting, you’re doing 20 minutes. Playing someone else, going ten to 15 times, that’s what I want to do. That’s what’s exciting.’
The Capture is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer now