Photography by Perou
Styling by Ozzy Shah
Get a spray tan. Wear Spandex. Meet Cher. As gay vacations go, the island escapade shared by Hugh Skinner, Jeremy Irvine, and Josh Dylan last year is difficult to beat. Items on the to-do list also included: Listen to and learn ABBA Gold, clown around with Meryl Streep, and dance with Christine Baranski in sequined jumpsuits. A week in Mykonos has nothing on this.
“It was a ridiculously good time,” says 33-year-old Skinner of the two months working (yes, you read that right, working) on location for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, this summer’s sequel to the 2008 ABBA movie musical. “At the beginning, I thought, It’s just a job. But by the end of it, we were all in love with each other.”
Irvine is similarly effusive while reminiscing about a typical day on the sun-soaked Croatian island of Vis, the new film’s stand-in for its original Greek setting. “We had an apartment on the beach,” says the 27-year-old actor. “I got to ride to work on a speedboat. It would pull in and there’d be Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, and Stellan Skarsgård on it. It was ridiculous.”
Ridiculousness — silly, histrionic, love-hearts-bursting-out-of-emoji-eyes ridiculousness — is in Mamma Mia’s DNA. The original musical, which premiered in London in 1999 and ran for 14 years on Broadway, made hay out of bursting into ABBA’s biggest hits against a fantastical idyllic backdrop. The movie added star wattage, giving cinemagoers the gift of seeing Streep let her hair down to “Dancing Queen” and Baranski turn “Does Your Mother Know?” into an exercise in high camp. While reviewers were unkind, audiences were enraptured, and it made a sunny $600 million at the global box office. The story centered on bride-to-be Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who attempts to discern her father from three men who were romanced by her single mother, Donna (Streep), in the late ’70s on the Greek island of Kalokairi.
Mamma Mia 2 is about how the past informs the present, which means Streep, Baranski, and Julie Walters are back, as are the three lead actors, Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgård. The new, younger cast members play their earlier 1970s selves. “We have all the original cast, but also flash back in time, when Donna meets the three potential fathers to her daughter,” explains Irvine, who plays a younger version of Brosnan’s character, Sam. “The film is a split between the two time periods.”
In Mamma Mia 2, Donna the Younger is played by Cinderella’s Lily James. Harry — Firth’s character — is played in his earlier incarnation by Skinner. Dylan is Swedish yachtsman Bill, the equally blond but boyish version of Skarsgård’s character. The film also represents the first big-screen role for Cher since 2010’s Burlesque, in a part that promises to be equally arch: Donna’s mother.
At 24, Dylan is the youngest of the three British actors playing Donna’s suitors. Fresh out of drama school in London, he has a CV that is short but impressive. He was in Brad Pitt’s World War II drama Allied and is in The Little Stranger, the big-screen adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2009 novel, also out this summer. Though Mamma Mia 2 is a lighter affair, Dylan still went full method. He hit the gym to perfect Sam’s lithe, 1970s physique and donned skimpy pants, as instructed by the costume designer. “My character is very athletic and sporty and he’s in the sun. He’s not going to be wearing much, so they gave me very short shorts to wear,” Dylan says. But while his co-stars Skinner and Irvine spray-tanned their way to an authentic-looking Mediterranean hue for production, he did not take so well to sun in a bottle. “I looked like an Oompa Loompa,” he says with a laugh. “So the producers sent me out to Croatia ahead of everyone else to get a tan.” What. A. Super. Trouper.
Another element of Mamma Mia 2 that proved taxing — for all three actors — was the songs. Dylan, Skinner, and Irvine all confess to a rather superficial knowledge of the ABBA back catalog. “It’s a bit like ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” says Skinner. “ABBA songs are so anthemic, and so ingrained in your system, that you can’t really remember when you heard them.” Skinner, who starred in the hit Amazon comedy Fleabag, has done musical theater before: He had a small part in the film adaptation of Les Misérables and played Patrick Bateman’s closeted gay friend in the London production of the musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. But taking on the Swedish pop legends’ greatest hits led to a new appreciation of the music. “You think you know the songs, but when you try to learn them, the word a note moves on is completely different to what you’d expect — they’re so clever and intricate,” he says. “They are harder to learn than I thought they’d be.” The music, drawn exclusively from ABBA’s vast oeuvre, was rearranged and rewritten for the film by band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.
Mamma Mia 2 is the first taste of musical theater for Irvine, who broke out in another stage-to-screen adaptation, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, in 2011. He describes his previous work as “gritty,” with leads in the Japanese prison camp drama The Railway Man and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall. “I never thought I’d ever be doing a musical,” he says. But he loved the experience of taking the original tunes and putting a fresh spin on them. “These songs are given a much more visceral emotional connection, which is what film musicals can do,” he says.
In the grand tradition of musical theater, there is a show-stopping finale in Mamma Mia 2. For the number, the cast wore ABBA-esque spandex, and Dylan recalls larking around with Streep in Lycra jeans. Is this the kitschiest thing these actors have ever committed to?
“The costume at the end, alone, makes Mamma Mia the campiest thing I’ve done,” Irvine says, smiling. “It was beautiful: Lycra-sequined, flared trousers, and an open-necked jumpsuit with high-heel platform boots. The open neck went down as far as we are allowed to show in a PG-13 movie.”
Skinner, meanwhile, lost his shit to Cher, which on a scale of one to gay is everything. “There was a week when the whole cast was on set, including her,” he says. “When I realized I might be missing my opportunity, I just ran over and said, ‘Hi.’ She was completely lovely and brilliant. She’s incredible. It was a pinch-yourself moment.”
The bottom line: They danced, they jived, they had the time of their lives. “We were living in a bubble,” Irvine says. “I ignored the news for a couple of months, and I think the film is a 90-minute vacation, too. It’s a nice little break from reality.”
And that bubble is about to get a little sweeter: In April, ABBA announced that the band was reforming after a 35-year hiatus, and launching two new songs into a world sorely in need of some twinkling old-school entertainment. Here’s to enjoying a whole new batch of hits by the time Mamma Mia 3 rolls around.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hits theaters on July 20.