Joe Alwyn recently met his childhood hero. The 28-year-old was attending the Academy's annual Governors Awards for the first time, where a who's who of Hollywood had gathered to schmooze with Oscar voters and watch this year's honorees receive honorary awards. The hobnobbing eventually led Alwyn to cross paths with none other than Zorro himself, Antonio Banderas.
"It took everything in me not to challenge him into a sword fight," Alwyn admitted.
Banderas, of course, starred as the masked vigilante in 1998's The Mask of Zorro and its sequel. "I was such a huge fan of Zorro growing up," Alwyn grinned. "That's one of the reasons why I probably ended up acting somehow. I literally just shook his hand and said, 'Hi!'" As it were, Banderas is in the awards season shuffle with Pain and Glory, while Alwyn was out in support of his new film, Harriet.
"There was no competitive element, obviously," he said. Still, the Governors Awards serve as the first pit stop for any potential Oscars contender. "You're sitting there watching these four amazing legends being honored for the most amazing backlog of work, someone like David Lynch and Geena Davis. And then you run into people that you have grown up watching."
Now, Alwyn is the one being watched. After studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier and Andrew Garfield did before him, a then-unknown Alwyn was cast as the lead of Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 2015. "That was the strangest experience when it ended," Alwyn said.
"Because it was such a surreal, full-on experience: Going to a country I'd never been to before, being on a film set -- which I'd never been in front of a camera before -- with a group of people who I'd grown up watching, it was the most intense experience I'd had, ever. And then suddenly--" He snaps his fingers. "It's ended. And you are back in London and everyone's still over there and you're back to walking the dog and it's raining and you're trying to compute what's just happened. It was very surreal."
When I met up with Alwyn after the Governors Awards, he greeted me at the door to shake my hand and promptly offered to get me a water. "Or Coke? Or coffee?" he asked, surveying the spread of beverages. All of which is to say, he's polite. And humble, too, whether it be over compliments of his wardrobe -- a peacoat over a cerulean sweater, khaki joggers and great boots ("Thank you! They're not mine!") -- or the trajectory of his career.
If Alwyn's unlikely start feels nearly impossible to match, he followed Billy Lynn with a run of meaningful supporting roles, which were only possible because Lee took a chance on him. "Every opportunity since is because of that," he said, arm draped over the back of the chair. "I owe him everything."
"I felt very lucky to work with someone like him for the first time, and I thought, if I can, I want to keep trying to work with really interesting, great directors and not just jump into something that's a big role or big for the sake of it," he explained. "Trying to find parts in really interesting projects and build that way rather than just blindly jump."
That thinking led to a truly breakthrough year in 2018, with Alwyn appearing in Operation Finale, as the Nazi son of Ben Kingsley's Adolph Eichmann, in The Favourite, as the airhead paramour to Emma Stone, in Boy Erased, as a troubled love interest for Lucas Hedges, and in Mary Queen of Scots, as hand to Margot Robbie's Queen Elizabeth.
All the while he was gaining recognition for his acting, there was another angle of interest about Alwyn, casting him into the public spotlight for his personal life as the longtime boyfriend of Taylor Swift. How, then, was he able to reconcile the two?
"I just don't really engage with anything that I don't want to engage with," he said. "And so if there's any kind of extra noise about things that I'm not so interested in, I'll just turn it off. And so it just disappears, to a degree."
Currently, he's engaged with his return to theaters in director Kasi Lemmons' soulful Harriet Tubman biopic. Harriet is the first time the abolitionist and activist's story has been adapted into a proper biopic, and Alwyn acknowledged that, before being sent the script, "I ignorantly didn't really know much about Harriet. Growing up in the U.K., she's not part of the curriculum. I'd heard of her name, I'd seen the iconic older image of her, but I didn't know really who she was or what she did and what she achieved."
Cynthia Erivo plays the titular role, with Alwyn co-starring as Gideon Brodess, the son of Tubman's enslaver. The Brodess family is a matter of historical record, though Gideon exists somewhere between composite character and fictitious creation. That posed a challenge for Alwyn as he began the process of finding his way into Gideon.
"It was tricky. I mean, he's obviously a horrible person," he said. "And a horrible family. And they stood for something that is impossible to connect with today. For any good human being, it's impossible. The idea of slavery is repulsive and abhorrent, and so trying to find a way in is hard."
Instead, Alwyn searched for any relatable human qualities he could latch onto. Harriet posits that Araminta "Minty" Ross -- the child who would grow to become Harriet Tubman -- and Gideon Brodess would have been born around the same time, and Gideon might have even considered Minty a friend during their childhood. "Then, suddenly, a line would have been drawn and he would've been taught to hate or told to hate," Alwyn explained.
Their ties are further knotted when Gideon's father dies and he becomes Harriet's enslaver. "Whatever feeling it is he has for her that we touch on throughout the film -- whether it's love that's buried there, or whatever it is -- I don't think there was a language to understand that for himself. So I tried to hold onto some kind of confusion as a human being. Or to an obligation and loyalty to a family, even if that family is completely horrible."
He had the fortune of navigating it all alongside Erivo, with whom he shares the majority of his scenes. Erivo signed on to the project before anyone else and had spent years with it, in addition to the research and physical training she did before filming. Ahead of production, Alwyn and Erivo met with their director for a week's worth of rehearsals, during which they walked through the duo's most difficult scenes.
"It wasn't the kind of film where it would have been helpful to play mind games and go and sit in the corner and not talk to each other," he chuckled. "Because of the nature of it, you want to be in a safe space with each other and give each other a kind of understanding and a reassurance and permission to do whatever you need to do in order to service the scene, service the story in the way that we're trying to tell it."
And that story, he decided, was not strictly about a historical figure and what she was able to achieve in her lifetime. Harriet speaks to what has come to pass, now as much as ever: "If you're scrolling through Twitter or you go on the news, you're inundated with stories of division and prejudice and racism and families being torn apart," he said. "That's something that the film touches on, and Harriet is -- as much as any figure I can think of -- someone who fought and overcame those hurdles and is a shining light against all of those things."
With Harriet playing in theaters, Alwyn's next projects are already lined up: He's playing Bob Cratchit in FX's dark reimagining of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, opposite Guy Pearce's Ebenezer Scrooge. Then there is an adaptation of Jojo Moyes' best-selling novel, The Last Letter From Your Lover. And then? "I'd love to do a big war movie," he grinned. "Like a World War movie or something. That'd be cool."
And there are more awards season events ahead, too -- the Governors Awards being only the beginning of the race to the Oscars -- which means future opportunities to proclaim his love of Zorro. Alwyn didn't do it the first time. "I was just like, 'Hello!'" But it's bound to happen sooner or later." As I leave the hotel that day, who should stroll past me inside but Antonio Banderas himself? Perhaps it will be sooner.