10 Roles That Define The Mysterious Actor Joe Alwyn

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A collage of Joe Alwyn

Warning: mention of sexual assault and rape (#5)

I have a very unscientific metric for leading men I like to call the "Greg Kinnear Line." If you (an actor) make it to the Greg Kinnear Line, it means you can play both the guy who gets the girl (Baby Mama), the guy who doesn't get the girl (You've Got Mail), and the guy who sometimes does both (Sabrina). After watching Hulu's latest Sally Rooney TV series Conversations With Friends, I can't help but think Joe Alwyn — a proven master of playing both boyishly charming and sinisterly evil — is coming to take his place on The Line.

Many continue to regard Joe Alwyn primarily as the boyfriend of Taylor Swift — and that's perfectly understandable. As a Swiftie myself, I can attest to how challenging it can be to experience his performances outside of this prism. The creators don't exactly make it easy on us, either, casting Alwyn as the beautiful semi-successful actor husband to his more famous, mystifying, successful blonde writer wife. Sound familiar?

With the recent release of Conversations With Friends and now the buzzy Claire Denis film The Stars at Noon (also starring Margaret Qualley) hot off of its Cannes premiere, the timing feels right to take a look back at some of the enigmatic actor's roles through the years. And I can't think of a better place to start than 2016, the year Swift and Alwyn allegedly met for the first time. ("Flashback when you met me / Your buzzcut and my hair bleached," she sings in "Dress.")

So, let's take a look at everything that happened between Met Gala buzzcut up to our Sally Rooney/Cannes moment, shall we?

Photo-Illustration: Kathy Hoang; Everett Collection: Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight, Glen Wilson / Focus Features, Parisa Taghizadeh / Netflix, Mary Cybulski / TriStar, Enda Bowe / Hulu

1.Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Joe Alwyn, dressed as a soldier, salutes

This Ang Lee-directed war drama is what started it all! Alwyn, a then-unknown fresh out of drama school, auditioned to play the titular role of the American soldier suffering from PTSD and, against all odds, secured the part. Lee filmed at a frame rate of 120 frames per second (the industry norm is 24 frames per second), to get the film to look as "authentic" as possible. This ended up being both a blessing and a curse for Alwyn, with the frame rate becoming the talking point of the film. In hindsight, we can see that this deceptively quiet performance was a pretty excellent showcase for Alwyn, though, proving that he could be tough, thoughtful, romantic, and bashful all at the same time. He also proved that he had incredible chemistry with Kristen Stewart...to the extent that, when he put his hand on her cheek, I had to pause to double-check that she was, in fact, supposed to be playing his sister, not a romantic partner.

Also neither here nor there: While rewatching the film, it finally clicked what Taylor Swift was talking about in "Delicate" when she sang, "Oh damn, never seen that color blue." His eyes are, indeed, a very cool shade of blue.

If you like: War stories that center on the soldiers and not the war, ultra-high-def films, Steve Martin being delightfully over the top, Kristen Stewart. Rent it on Prime Video.

Tristar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

2.The Sense of an Ending (2017)

Joe Alwyn, wearing glasses and a prep school uniform, sits next to a boy dressed the same

Alwyn plays a school friend to the main character. The film’s timeline shifts between present and past while telling the story of a first love's euphoria and pain. Alwyn's part is tricky because while he doesn't appear onscreen for that much of the film, his presence looms large anyway, making him impossible to forget (this will be a theme for Alwyn parts). Onscreen, we see him in a prep school uniform precociously talking and arguing about suicide and philosophy. Alwyn brings a much needed level of intelligence and suave to the role. For Downton Abbey fans, both Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode appear in the film, although tragically in different timelines. A minor character says, "I've never watched Downton Abbey," a hilarious throwaway line when the man who hears it is playing Lady Mary's father. If you like: Atonement (but a lighter version), Downton Abbey cameos. Rent it on Prime Video.

CBS Films

3.Operation Finale (2018)

Joe Alwyn and Haley Lu Richardson stand outside, looking seriously at each other

Operation Finale is Alwyn’s first go at playing pure evil. I assume when the casting directors were looking to cast the role of Klaus, son of Adolf Eichmann, Nazi SS officer who organized Adolf Hitler's "final solution" of the Jewish people, and saw Alwyn's headshot, they thought, yes, he's perfect. And Alwyn is. Here, his blonde hair and blue eyes are weaponized. His character is the perfect Aryan boy and proud of it. He falls for Sylvia (played beautifully by Haley Lu Richardson), who is secretly Jewish, which leads to his father being captured and tried for war crimes. Regarding Klaus, Alwyn said, "I wanted to make him someone that could have otherwise been a decent good person that falls down this path." Alwyn later makes it perfectly clear that he does not think Klaus is a good person. It's interesting to see how Alwyn embodies this Nazi. It would have been easy to turn Klaus into a one-dimensional monster, but having him at times be kind makes the nightmare reality that much worse.If you like: Cat and mouse thrillers, Rolf's scenes in The Sound of Music but not "16 Going on 17," Oscar Isaac's face.Rent it on Prime Video.

Valeria Florini / MGM / Sourtesy Everett Collection

4.The Favourite (2018)

Joe Alwyn, dressed in 18th-century clothes, wig, and hat, stands outside in front of a brown horse

This is my plea: LET JOE BE FUNNY! He's got it in him. I know he does! His second appearance in The Favourite is on horseback in a white billowed shirt, his blonde hair flowing. He looks like he stepped out of the Love Story music video. He's momentarily a stand-in for Prince Charming. He flirts with Emma Stone. He does a ridiculous dance with Rachel Weisz. He holds his own with Olivia Colman (Colman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne). Out of every film on this list, I believe The Favourite best uses Alwyn's star power — he's gorgeous and very good at being an absolute goof. The Favourite is my personal favorite Alwyn performance, and it feels like he's just beginning to flex his comedy muscles. For as dark as he'll later transform, I want the inverse in a funny performance.

If you like: Historical fiction, the greatest actors of multiple generations yelling and loving each other, The Great, fabulous wigs. Rent it on Prime Video.

Atsushi Nishijima / Fox Searchlight / Everett Collection

5.Boy Erased (2018)

Joe Alwyn and Lucas Hedges run on a college campus.

In a movie with many hard-to-watch scenes, Alwyn's central scene is the hardest. We meet Henry (Alwyn) through the film's protagonist Jared (Lucas Hedges). They both arrive at college and quickly become friends. We know that Jared, raised in a conservative Christian household, is questioning his sexuality but has never been romantic with a man. From glances, we gather that Jared is attracted to Henry. Henry seems perfect; he is tall and athletic and takes Jared to church. At first, there's a subtle gentleness to Alwyn's performance. Then, one night, while Henry's roommate is away, the two hang out in Jared's room, and they both decide Henry should crash in the roommate's bed. Neither one can sleep, and they start to talk. It's innocent and delicate, you hope they'll have a first kiss, a romantic moment, but it goes from heaven to hell within seconds. Henry brutally rapes Jared as he squirms and pleads to get away. The scene is filmed in one shot. As a viewer, you're desperate for the camera to move off of them. Seconds later, Henry is hysterical, begging for forgiveness, admitting that he's done this before. Henry is so scared that Jared will tell authorities what happened that he calls Jared's parents, claiming to be a school counselor, and outs Jared to his family. This sets the story in motion, forcing Jared into conversion therapy. Alwyn's performance is haunting and stays with you long after the film's end. Boy Erased is based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir of the same name. If you like: Essential stories based on memoirs, Nicole Kidman Acting with a capital A in a wig! Rent it on Prime Video.

Focus Features

6.Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Joe Alwyn escorts Margot Robbie (as Queen Elizabeth I) through an English Court in the 16th century

He's just like a great boyfriend in Mary Queen of Scots! How many girlfriends have we seen on film tossed aside while the heroic man does whatever heroic men do? So many! In Mary Queen of Scots, they flip the script. The women have the power (well, mostly — there are some problems with that too). Joe plays Dudley, the himbo boy toy of Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Because of love, power, and greed, Elizabeth offers him to Mary (Saoirse Ronan) as a token of peace, an eligible bachelor to marry. This plan does not work, but because of his love for Elizabeth, Dudley goes along with it, again a beautiful but simple boyfriend. There are many genuinely evil men in this film, but Dudley is just along for the ride. He loves Elizabeth, smallpox and all. In real life, Dudley's wife mysteriously died falling down a staircase, and is rumored to have done so so that he could then be free to marry Queen Elizabeth I. I want that HBO limited series: The Staircase II: 2 Stair 2 Case.If you like: Historical fiction, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, The Crown, but if it was in the 16th Century. Watch it on Peacock.

Liam Daniel / Focus Features/ Courtesy Everett Collect

7.Harriet (2019)

Joe Alwyn stands outside in front of a river; he wears a cowboy hat and has his hand on a gun holster

In Harriet, we see pure evil Alwyn. Any ounce of humanity he had in Operation Finale is gone. Alwyn plays Harriet Tubman's (Cynthia Erivo) horrendous enslaver. At times, you think maybe he will do the right thing, but nothing about him is redeeming. He is a monster. And as an actor, Alwyn nails it. It's scary how good he is at playing vicious. I am so hesitant to use the word chemistry because that makes it seem like there is love, or even friendship, between them, and there is not. But as actors, Erivo and Alwyn have chemistry, and I am curious to see what the pair would be like under better circumstances. Go with me for a second here… We know that Alwyn is musical (he is Grammy winner William Bowery). So, could Joe play Fiyero, the beautiful (check), aloof (check), himbo (check), musical (I'm giving him a check) leading man to Erivo's Elphaba in Wicked? I want to see their "As Long as You're Mine."If you like: Historical fiction, more to a story you may think you already know, powerful acting that will stay with you. Rent it on Prime Video.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

8.The Souvenir: Part II (2021)

Joe Alwyn sits at a table in a pub, across the table is a woman

The Souvenir and The Souvenir: Part II would have absolutely killed it on Tumblr in 2014. It would have had the girlies eating it up, with beautiful dreamy cinematography and characters asking each other over and over how they feel, with one-liners about who you should be in the world. The Souvenir: Part II primarily focuses on a mother-daughter relationship played by real-life mother and daughter Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). Julie is in film school making a semi-autobiographical film (much of it having to do with the plot of The Souvenir). Alwyn only has a brief cameo in the film as Julie's editor. But he questions her motifs and beliefs in her film, much like a therapist would. It's not Alwyn's most impressive work, but it's a friendly reminder of what we already know about him. He can play charming and intelligent, and I want to see him do more. If you like: The Worst Person in the World, Lorde's album Melodrama, Tumblr.Rent it on Prime Video.


9.The Last Letter From Your Lover (2021)

Joe Alwyn stands in front of a big book shelf wearing a suit

First, I have to praise Shailene Woodley's performance. She's so good in this movie! Alwyn plays Woodley's husband in 1960s London. She describes him to her future lover as the man her parents were happy she married. He had the right job and came from the right family. But he lies to her under the guise of "protecting her." He controls her, from regulating her alcohol intake to matters of life or death. Alwyn does precisely what the job requires of him. You see how he can charm the world and understand why her friends would think she was so lucky to marry him. It's a great combination of Alwyn's charm and his ability to play evil. And there's so much kissing in the rain — we love it! Joining Woodley and Alwyn is an impressive cast of Felicity Jones, Callum Turner, Ncuti Gatwa, and Nabhaan Rizwan. If you like: Letters to Juliet, Julie & Julia, when Taylor Swift gets mad and sings about 2 a.m. Watch it on Netflix.

Parisa Taghizadeh / Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection

10.Conversations With Friends (2022)

Joe Alwyn sits on the ground outside; a young woman sits next to him

Let me say, straight-up, that while they share many similarities, Normal People and Conversations With Friends are two different books with different characters! I believe that much of the show's criticism is that people expected Nick and Frances's chemistry to be the same as the chemistry between Connell and Marianne in Normal People.

In a scene much discussed by fans for the book-to-TV adaption, right after sleeping together for the first time, Nick (Alwyn) says to Frances (Alison Oliver), "I thought you were attracted to my personality." To which Francis replies, "Do you even have one?" (I agree that Frances should have been more confident in this scene, but moving on.) Nick is supposed to be a little boring! In the book, he writes beautiful emails but hardly speaks. In Episode 4, while arguing about Nick, Bobbi (Sasha Lane) says to Frances, "We only know him because he's married to someone interesting." There are so many winks to who Nick is and who Joe Alwyn is that I found it to be a fascinating parallel. You can't hear that line and not immediately think of Swift. Who is the man when separated from the woman who makes him interesting?

I've now watched everything Joe Alwyn has done, and I still feel unsure of the answer. With a less talented actor, I wouldn't care, but Alwyn has shown glimmers of brilliance, and if the right writer-director can bottle up his charm, beauty, and depravity, it'll be a knockout. I'm looking at you, The Stars at Noon.

If you like: Longing glances, beautiful shots of beautiful people on the Croatian coast, Normal People, Ireland, communism (JK, kind of).Watch it on Hulu.

Enda Bowe / Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, which routes the caller to their nearest sexual assault service provider. You can also search for your local center here.

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