“I try and draw on as much of my own life and my own emotional experiences as possible,” says Luke Evans. “Doesn’t matter if you’re playing Dracula or a dragon slayer or a psychopath or a KGB assassin – you have to find the humanity in it.”
Two takeaways from the above:
1) Luke Evans knows his acting.
2) Luke Evans has played some cool roles.
Let’s do the cool stuff first. Over the past decade Evans has swashbuckled as one of The Three Musketeers; tussled with Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious 6; his Bard the Bowman shot down Smaug so the Bilbo Baggins didn’t have to. Throw in Vlad the Impaler, two separate Greek deities – Apollo then Zeus: upgrade! – and the dart-playing, heartbreaking Gaston in last year’s Beauty and the Beast, and his filmography reads like the guestlist for a teenager’s dream dinner party. (Intended as the highest of compliments.)
Evans loves a blockbuster; or rather blockbusters love Luke Evans. Yet the Welshman has joined the many A-listers swapping big screen for small to star in a ten-part adaptation of The Alienist, a period thriller based on the novel by Caleb Carr. It’s a piece of ‘Statement TV’ – Evans is joined by Daniel Brühl and Dakota Fanning; the production looks a million dollars and cost a whole lot more – that further rams home the medium’s cultural dominance in 2018. You want superheroes? Head to the multiplex. Compelling, character-driven drama with the world’s leading actors demonstrating why they are that? Your sofa’s where the action at.
The series opens with the mutilated body of a young boy and goes darker from there – moving through a murky, meticulously constructed 1896 New York, a city of lost souls and lurking shadows. Brühl plays Dr Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist obsessed with those ‘alienated’ from their true natures: a useful area of expertise with a child killer at large. Evans is John Moore, an accomplished newspaper illustrator and Kreizler’s dashing best friend. (Like most great detectives, Kreizler counts his friends on one thumb.)
So far, so Holmes and Watson. But Moore is no stolid sidekick: indeed he proves as rich and complex a character as Kreizler himself. Despite having the face of Luke Evans, the divorcee is hardly a catch. He drinks as heavily as you would expect of a man who frequents brothels and lives with his grandmother. “He’s punishing himself,” says Evans sadly. “He’s extremely vulnerable, a very sensitive creature.”
The affection is palpable; Evans readily admits, “There’s a lot of me in John Moore.” A longer format offered ample opportunity to slip inside the mind, beneath the skin. “There’s so much of me and my interpretation of how he must have felt – being heartbroken and finding his purpose in life and struggling with his demons. Each and every one of us has those things. I related to him a lot.”
Our conversation spans The Alienist press junket – round table, then a one-to-one interview – and then a phone call a week later, once I realise we have talked a lot about the show but not much about Luke Evans.
Luke Evans is worth talking about. He was born to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Welsh town of Aberbargoed, once home to the largest colliery waste tip in Europe. (Bargoed Colliery closed on 4 June 1977; Evans arrived on 15 April 1979.) On weekends young Luke unwillingly helped his parents spread God’s Word on the town’s doorsteps; the rest of the week was spent avoiding the classmates to whom those doorsteps belonged.
When I started doing movies ten years ago it was like starting from scratch. I knew nothing about film acting at all.
“You’re knocking while they’re watching He-Man on a Saturday morning,” Evans told The Guardian in 2016. “Who wants to be interrupted when they’re watching He-Man? I don’t blame my parents or their religion but I hated it. I absolutely hated it. There were streets I wouldn’t walk down in case the bullies were there. I wouldn’t play out in the evening with my friends. I’d go half an hour out of my way to avoid those streets. Then I’d have to stand on a bully’s doorstep in a suit with my parents behind me on a Saturday morning.”
You can understand why, aged 16, Evans dropped out of school and moved to Cardiff, but that doesn’t make the decision any less ballsy. “I was ready and headstrong,” he tells me. “I was always very worldly wise, and knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted a career and to see if I could be an actor.”
Were his parents happy? “I don’t think anybody’s parents would be quite happy to see their child leave home alone and move to the big city,” says Evans flatly.
“It was not the route that my parents wanted. I don’t think many parents, whether they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses or not, would like their children to become actors. Many of my friends became actors: none of their parents pushed them to do what they wanted to do, because they were scared they’d end up being a waiter in a restaurant.”
Evans became a mailboy at a bank. Every week, £15 of his wages was spent on singing lessons from local voice coach Louise Ryan. (Ryan has quite the hit rate: Charlotte Church is another alumni.) Even as a teenager his star quality was apparent.
“Luke is a diamond.” Ryan tells me over email. “When I first heard him, it was obvious he was blessed with a beautiful gift, not just as a singer, but as a captivating performer too.”
With Ryan’s encouragement, Evans won a scholarship at the London Studio Centre and spent a decade performing in West End stalwarts such as Rent and Miss Saigon. Still hungry, still pushing himself to excel. “I was always quite humble about my ability… I never felt I was the best person on stage, I always felt like there was somebody better, but I was always able to learn. In acting you never stop learning. You should constantly be learning.”
On stage, “I learnt how to perform live, in front of an audience that reacted or didn’t react to what you did. You get to repeat the performance every night, so you can adapt, very slightly, nuances of your performance, and you can get an audience to eat out of the palm of your hand, if you’re good.”
He was good. His role as Vincent in a 2008 production of Small Change brought award nominations and the attention of Hollywood. After a small part in the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Evans landed in his first blockbuster with 2010’s Clash of the Titans and has knocked out a minimum of two films a year ever since. Big films as well: his 2013-14 run of a Hobbit sequel, Fast & Furious 6, Dracula Untold, and another Hobbit sequel saw Evans notch up nearly $3bn at the global box office. That would fill a lot of colliery tips.
How Luke Evans conquered Hollywood
“When I started doing movies ten years ago it was like starting from scratch. I knew nothing about film acting at all. I didn’t know camera angles, I didn’t understand any of it… But then I always say, you strip it all down and it’s acting. You’re telling a story.”
His story reads like a film spec. In an age where no celebrity biography is left unwritten, surely Evans must be tempted to have a crack?
“I’ve thought about it,” he says cautiously. “I mean, it is a little Billy Elliot. There is a slight resemblance to that. It’s interesting, it is something I’ve thought about, but would anybody really want to watch that?”
The Luketeers certainly would. The Luketeers is the name adopted by the dedicated community of Luke Evans fans across the globe. In 2015 British GQ ran an online poll on the identity of the next James Bond, and the Luketeers mobilised to ensure their guy donned the hypothetical tuxedo ahead of perennial favourites Tom Hardy and Idris Elba. (Evans would, indeed, make a fantastic Bond; “it would be very hard to say no,” he concedes. “But whoever does take on that role has very big shoes to fill.”)
After the initial interview I message a Luketeer Facebook page, inquiring why it is that Evans inspires such dedication. A woman called Ann Robinson responds: “I created this group to show my support and admiration for him. So few actors get that these days. They are treated more like hunks of meat than people. I don’t consider us fans. We are like family, even though we’ve never met. He inspires us, motivates us and cares.”
At the end of the follow-up call I read this message to Evans. “How lovely!” he says, sounding genuinely moved. “How amazing.”
I have therapy, and have done for years. It helps me decompress and download many things.
He shares a story of his own. “I was in Paris yesterday opening Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman in France. This older woman behind the first row of fans at the red carpet had this huge drawn sign saying ‘Luke! I’ve written a poem for you’ with an arrow pointing to this young girl in front of her.”
The pair transpired to be mother and daughter. “This woman had been dragged through the rain to stand in front of the Rex Club cinema and hold this poster so that her daughter would be able to give me this poem – which was very beautiful, very touching.”
Evans and the Luketeers share a rare bond. “I do it for them,” he says. “You need people to watch your movies, and you need people to love what you do… it’s part of being a performer: a performer doesn’t just do it for themselves, they’re doing it for a much bigger group of people. I’m very grateful for them.”
A multitalented film star respected by his peers, adored by his fans, enjoying success surely beyond the boldest dreams of the boy who hid from bullies on the lonely streets of Aberbargoed. His world is gilded – yet, as this interview runs in our mental health issue, I ask if Evans has ever struggled with his mental wellbeing, whether owing to the stresses of work or his day-to-day life.
It’s a personal question, one he’d be well within his rights to swerve. Instead he delivers a candid, articulate assessment of mental health and the importance of maintaining it.
“Let’s break it down to day-to-day life.” He talks of travelling and the solitude of the road – working on a new film, promoting an old one. “That’s my pressure. I know people say, ‘oh, don’t complain, it’s first-world problems’, and maybe it is, but it can be immensely stressful when you’re juggling a lot at the same time.
“I have therapy, and have done for years. It helps me decompress and download many things. My personal time is so precious – I get very little of it. I work a lot, and I like working, but work sometimes doesn’t allow you to process things going on in your own life. I found having a therapist helped me offload things I hadn’t even had time to think about.
“I think mental health is a very common problem. And it doesn’t get easier, it doesn’t get better, doesn’t matter what age you are – it can affect everybody. And it’s not something I’m ashamed of – if I say, ‘yeah, I’m super stressed out today’. I get that. You feel like that world is on your shoulders and you can’t move on. I get it. I found a way to vent that through therapy, and I’ve found it’s really helped me.”
It’s in my blood to perform, and to perform with a live audience, there’s nothing quite like it.
What made him turn to therapy?
“It was work, it was travelling, it was my personal life – it was a few things. They all sort of culminated and I just didn’t want to go out, I just wanted to give everything up. Very dramatic, but people sometimes get to that point. When you live in a city, you’re forced to move at such a fast pace. Sometimes you just need to look after yourself a little better. Protect number one – I always think, I’m a one-man band, I’m the CEO of my own internal company, and I need to manage my company as well as I can. If that means a little maintenance now and again then so be it.”
It would be hard to admire him more at this moment. For many people, taking “a little maintenance” is no small step; to freely share such personal experiences so that you might inspire others is an act of utter class.
His parents still live in his childhood home, and he visits as often as possible. Never with any fanfare, of course – “I probably see the neighbours a couple of times when we’re walking the dog” – but it’s chance to relax with friends and family, maybe visit a pub or two.
(You suspect a night on the town with Evans would be a blast. His go-to karaoke songs? Adele’s ‘When We Were Young’ and Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’. Buy that man a drink and hand him a microphone.)
One day he hopes to return to the stage. “It’s in my blood to perform, and to perform with a live audience, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s the best high you’ll ever have.” For now, however, he stays on screen: 2018 is slated to bring three more films, and there’s chatter of a second season for The Alienist.
It’s safe to say that Evans will be keeping busy. His Instagram bio reads: “Welsh lad having the time of his life.”
Long may the good times continue.
The Alienist is out now on Netflix.
Square Mile is partnered with CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably. Male suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. For more information, visit The Calm Zone