While Benedict Cumberbatch basked in front of the nation’s cameras at Sunday night’s BAFTAs, his younger self was cooking dinner at his flat in Peckham as he watched on TV.
19-year-old Alex Lawther recently won Young British Performer of the Year in the London Critics Circle Awards for his role as a young Alan Turing in Oscar-nominated historical thriller, The Imitation Game. It is recognition for a performance that the film’s director says gave him goosebumps, and a measure of his meteoric rise to stardom.
At 16, Lawther made his professional debut in David Hare’s South Downs, for which he was told by Dame Maggie Smith “most of us spend our lives trying to do what you’ve achieved.” At 18, he was sitting his A-levels and leading a West End premiere. He’s featured in Tatler’s Little Black Book, been lauded as the young Benedict Cumberbatch and he’s “hung out” on the red carpet with the likes of Juliet Stephenson and Kiera Knightley.
But what was it that really made him call himself an actor? “Tax”, says Lawther. “It was only when I was earning money acting, paying my own rent and having to pay tax – that’s when I thought: Oh, I’m actually an actor now.”
Born and raised in the Hampshire town of Petersfield, Lawther is the son of two lawyers, and the youngest of three siblings. “My parents were set that I would do a degree,” he says, explaining how he had a place at Kings College London to read History. “Applying to South Downs, I had no idea how to be an actor.”
Unlike Harrovian Cumberbatch, Lawther attended his local independent day school, Churcher’s College. Asked whether he considered drama school, the young actor, who did not study drama for GCSE or A-level, explains: “It’s a place where you can make your mistakes for three years. Now I’ve kind of made my decision to make my mistakes very publicly and on camera.”
Yet the 19-year-old seems aware of the uncertainty that comes with a career in acting. “I look very young at the moment, but there might come a time when they’re like: ‘Ooh, you’re a hard age to cast.’” That might be the time to go to drama school, he says.
Whilst sister Ellie studied neuroscience, Lawther’s first glimpse into the industry was through brother Cameron, five years his elder, and now a film producer in LA.
He smiles as he speaks of taking his family to the premiere of The Imitation Game last year. “Grandma loved it. She was dancing so much. At two o’clock in the morning she had to be asked to leave because the after-party was closing. She sent me a message the next day, saying: ‘Alex, life is made up of moments. Last night was one of those moments for me.’”
And what about Cumberbatch? “He’s exactly as charming and gentlemanly as you might imagine,” says Lawther. “Before the premiere I was a bit nervous, and Benedict sent me a text saying: ‘Just be yourself, celebrate the film with the people that you worked with, and smile a lot.’”
For newcomer Lawther, being plunged into the celebrity world has been a whirlwind. “You’re suddenly on this carpet and everyone’s taking photos of you, and you forget how to smile properly,” he laughs. “You sort of play a character. You play Alex the actor. It’s quite nice that you get to wear a suit or tux, because it’s a kind of costume.”
And it is a whirlwind that is taking him all over the world. Next month he will star in X Plus Y, a British maths Olympiad-themed drama filmed in Taiwan. Lawther will head out to Budapest in March to film for new musical period drama Virtuoso, in which he plays a 15-year-old Italian castrato.
But Lawther’s most prominent film role to date sees him playing a leading role alongside Juliet Stephenson in upcoming film Departure. “There was nowhere to hide,” says Alex, who spoke of his embarrassment in having to shoot his very first scene in the nude.
This morning Lawther was filing his tax receipts. This afternoon he is off in search of a dance class in south London. His plans for the evening? “I’ve got this little awards thing”, he blushes, referring to the two awards he and The Imitation Game cast will be receiving at the Newport Beach Film Festival pre-BAFTA private reception in London tonight.
Lawther admirably combines exceptional talent and creativity with huge modesty. So far he’s doing a very good job of keeping his feet on the ground. As much as you can, anyway, when you’ve been labelled the next Cumberbatch.