Man of Many Faces

9.30.2013

By Francesca Babb

He’s played Boy George, paid homage to Christopher Isherwood, and done Dickens. Now Douglas Booth is tackling the greatest love story ever told.

Photography by Samuel Bradley

Douglas Booth is in a car en route to New York City’s annual CFDA awards the first time we speak. Of course he is. Where else would he be? Resplendent in Tom Ford, the 21-year-old actor walks the red carpet alongside Hollywood’s glitterati — Jessica Chastain, Rooney Mara, Zachary Quinto — brushing shoulders with Hillary Clinton like he was born to be there. In a way, he was. Given his inherent good looks — pillowy lips of the Angelina variety, an impeccably stubbled jawline, hair you could get lost in for days—this sort of invite has been a long time coming.

While his appearance there may have been a first sighting for many, in Britain, where Booth was born and bred, his work as an actor has been notable for quite some time. He landed his first major part when he was 16 in the ghostly drama From Time to Time (directed by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes), and since then he’s been gay, straight, Dickensian, and postmodern (how else would you describe a film called LOL, featuring Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore?). Now he’s turning his hand to Shakespeare, playing Romeo to Hailee Steinfeld’s Juliet in Carlo Carlei’s remake of the classic love story, lending the perfect face for such an indelible character. And with this role, his star is about to turn supernova — much like that of his hero before him, Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Our Romeo and Juliet is such a different thing,” he says when asked how this retelling compares to Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 version, which starred DiCaprio and Claire Danes. “But even to be mentioned in the same sentence as Leonardo DiCaprio... I look at him and think, What an interesting journey you’ve made. He’s had great variety; he hasn’t overworked or done loads of shitty films. He specifically picks the jobs he does, and they’re all very different.”

His take on Romeo and Juliet (opening October 11) is the first of a few game-changing new projects for Booth, including Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming epic Bible ark tale, Noah (in which he stars with Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson), and Posh, based on the acclaimed British play and directed by An Education’s Lone Scherfig. So how does it feel to be on the precipice of the Big Time? “I try not to think of it like that,” Booth says with a laugh when we catch up again a month after the CFDAs. “I don’t ever want to bank on something. I can’t wait about on my laurels and think success will happen. As soon as you finish something, you’ve got to start working for the next thing — just keep working hard.”

It’s this attitude that has helped Booth avoid the curse of the beautiful: being typecast in pretty but vacant roles. While his looks certainly haven’t hindered him (he was cast in a series of Burberry campaigns with Watson when he was 16), taking on the part of Boy George in the 2010 British TV biopic, Worried About the Boy, was a perfect way to show off his dexterity.

“That was my most challenging role, physically,” he says. “It was such a transformation from who I am.” To prepare for his scenes, Booth would sit in the makeup chair for five hours a day before slipping into costumes that ranged from vinyl bodysuits to dominatrix-nun ensembles. “You can’t half-arse that part,” he says. “You have to get it right, or you’re just going to look like a fucking idiot. I watched his mannerisms, read his autobiography — all about his upbringing and what makes him the person he is today — and then I shaved my eyebrows off and just threw myself into it. I would wake up, become him, and then go to sleep. There wasn’t time to break character.”

This wasn’t Booth’s only brush with gay iconography. He notably played Heinz Neddermeyer in another TV movie, 2011’s Christopher and His Kind, based on the life of author Christopher Isherwood. “Sexuality is only one small part of what makes up a character,” he counters when asked about the experience. “With Boy George it was a big part, but with Heinz it wasn’t.”

Gay or straight, Shakespeare or Scherfig, Booth is proving himself in each role he plays. His is a face worth watching, in every sense.

Watch the trailer for Romeo & Juliet below:

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