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Johnny Flynn: 'I had to pull some sort of crazy Ziggy magic out of my bum'

Tom Butler
·Senior Editor
·12-min read

Watch: The trailer for Stardust

“I just knew that I had to pull some sort of crazy Ziggy magic out of my bum for this one day.”

Actor-musician Johnny Flynn is in the unenviable position of being the first actor to play David Bowie on screen in a movie since the iconic rocker died in 2016, aged 69, and he’s telling Yahoo about the first time he donned the red wig to play Bowie’s iconic alter ego.

In Stardust – available on digital download from Friday 15 January – Emma star Flynn plays the Let’s Dance singer at the tender age of 24. It’s 1971, and although Bowie has had a taste of success in 1969 with his top five hit Space Oddity, his subsequent releases have failed to make an impact, commercially and critically.

In a last-ditch attempt at cracking America, his record label send him on a promotional tour of the States, with Bowie chaperoned by his US publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), where the seeds are sown for the creation of his game-changing alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

Read more: Johnny Flynn defends controversial Bowie movie

The film charts his transformation from an uncertain musician grasping for his own identity to bona-fide alien rock god, culminating in his debut performance as Ziggy at Friars Aylesbury in 1972. Flynn expertly navigates both periods, giving an understated and believable performance as Bowie.

He admits though that playing Bowie in his Ziggy phase – with his screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo – was infinitely more daunting than the long-haired, dress-wearing pre-fame David Jones.

“The couple of days as Ziggy, especially the day doing the gig, was really daunting to have that on the horizon,” Flynn tells Yahoo.

A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)
A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)

“Even though it’s the first Ziggy gig and he’s trying something out, and we’re trying to conjure the magic of that first landing for him at Friars, Aylesbury, it was… I just knew that I had to pull some sort of crazy Ziggy magic out of my bum for this one day.”

“We just went for it... That was all we could do. We looked so outrageous and it was so fun that we had to just go for it.”

Along with Bowie’s transformation into the best-selling Ziggy Stardust, the film covers his relationship with his older half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered with schizophrenia and was institutionalised for much of his life, his marriage to Angie Bowie (Jena Malone), and his road trip across America.

We spoke to Johnny Flynn and Stardust’s writer-director Gabriel Range about the film.

This isn’t a biopic, but what was it about this specific chapter in Bowie’s life that made it a compelling story that you wanted to tell?

A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)
A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)

Gabriel Range: I think when you get an artist as famous as David Bowie, it’s very easy to forget that there was a time before that fame, a time when things were not easy, when he was still very much searching for his entity as a musician and as a performer.

So this first trip to America just seemed like a great framing device to explore what was going on in his life at the time. Like most people, I was a huge Bowie fan growing up, and more recently I’d read all the biographies that had been written about him, and the thing that would always strike me was - given just how famous he was - how little people knew about that family life, about that background. Particularly about his half-brother Terry and that spectre of mental illness in his family. So that was one reason, I just thought that was fascinating.

David Bowie at his home, Haddon Hall, at Beckenham, Kent, 20th April 1971. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
David Bowie at his home, Haddon Hall, at Beckenham, Kent, 20th April 1971. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

In that sense, when you consider that so much of his career was defined by that succession of alter egos – Ziggy, then Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and so on – I think you can trace all of that back to this period.

In the sense that, it was a time when he realised that in order to punch through, that just singing about those things was not going to work commercially. He needed a character to perform. By creating this fictional alien rock god, he was able to convert this potential and dream of fame and fortune into a reality.

Johnny, I think you give a fantastic performance - it would have been very easy to have fallen into a ‘Phil Cornwell in Stella Street’ trap - what sort of things did you watch or research to nail the performance?

Johnny Flynn: It’s really true, what you just said, there is that very quick, pastiche-y impression of Bowie that people hold on to, and I think – as Gabriel said – the focus of the film is the Bowie that we didn’t know about, that your average Bowie fan didn’t know.

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There’s a lot, if you dig a bit, not the ones on the surface, because we have all these pictures of him being a rock god after he’d found all of his success, after Ziggy landed.

A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)
A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)

When you go back to 1971 and before, the few interviews and recordings of gigs that there are, you can recognise the timbre of his voice and the shape of his face, but he’s really kind of a different person. The character, the archetypes that he was drawing on at this point, that he’s smashed together, and put together as a new thing in 1972, 1973… all these different shades of different things before this point, and hadn’t found something that he could really assuredly be completely, as himself… if that makes sense?

So he sounds quite uncertain in radio interviews from this period, there are a couple of actual audio clips of him on this tour, because he did a few radio interviews, and there was a great BBC doc that came out just before we went into production called Finding Fame, which is the five years up until Ziggy, and people talking about him, the various collaborators that he’d been working with on The Man Who Sold The World (released in 1970) with, talking about him.

He was always witty and sweet and funny but also quite frail and self-deprecating. There’s a brilliant clip of him performing at Glastonbury in 1971 and he’s so down on himself, he’s saying ‘I’ve spent three years going round gigs and no-one’s turning up’ this sort of thing.

LONDON - NOVEMBER 1969:  Musician David Bowie plays an acoustic Espana 12-string guitar to promote the release of his album "Space Oddity" in November 1969 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Musician David Bowie plays an acoustic Espana 12-string guitar to promote the release of his album "Space Oddity" in November 1969 in London, England. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As Gabriel said… I feel like, I was born in 1983 and a lot of my heroes were born 30, 40 years before me including Bowie and I think as I grew up as a teenager, Dylan, Bowie, Tom Waits, these sorts of people, you just think they sort of landed as these complete gods with everyone knowing who they were. But actually it’s really great, particularly for people of my generation and younger to look back, to disassemble the creation of those people. They each have these really unique stories, and a uniqueness that made them brilliant from the start, but when you take away the fame and the notoriety sometimes you uncover stories of trauma, desperation, vulnerability, and that’s what we were trying to do. To demystify somebody. Not to disrespect him or his legacy, but say ‘look, it’s amazing, we all start from somewhere’.

So I was purposefully steering away from those cliched impressions, or any kind of impression of him, I wanted to channel an essence of who he was at that time.

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But I read all the books, I read all the biographies I could hold of, because sometimes stories are much more helpful than footage of him at this time, because the only bits and pictures you can find of him are on chat shows or in performance, but actually I wanted to know who he was in the hospital bed next to Terry when he’d had a breakdown. Or who he was on his own in a room, or in a mental ward, or these things. So it was a lot of imagination.

Did you undergo any physical transformation for the role?

A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)
A still from Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range, and available on digital platforms from 15 January. (Vertigo)

Johnny Flynn: Yeah, we did. We tried… it was quite funny, wasn’t it Gabriel? We went sort of too far, and we were like ‘oh no, we don’t need to do that much’. The truth is i’m never going to have Bowie’s bone structure. I lost two stone which was a lot for me, I worked hard at that, but I’m still never going to look like this waif, you know?

And so, for me it was about, it was an acting job, and [it was about] really becoming the spirit of him. We found that less was more. We had a contact lens for the eye, pupil thing, and my hair wasn’t quite long enough so we had a wig. And teeth.

The teeth were pretty good, we had them for the top and the bottom, and in the end I just used to wear the top piece because my bottom teeth are all f***ed up anyway.

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 16: Johnny Flynn attends the photocall of the movie "Stardust" during the 15th Rome Film Festival on October 16, 2020 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Stefania M. D'Alessandro/Getty Images for RFF)
Johnny Flynn attends the photocall of the movie "Stardust" during the 15th Rome Film Festival on October 16, 2020 (Stefania M. D'Alessandro/Getty Images for RFF)

My background is in theatre and I’ve always found that less is more in certain situations like that, because if you give the audience… the more perfect the impression and the makeup and stuff like that, the more people would start to pick holes in the differences between Bowie and I.

And actually, if I can do a good job of saying ‘look it’s an actor playing Bowie, we all know that, we’re never going to convince you that i’m David Bowie, but we can take you on an imaginative journey, that this is a story and I am being him in the situation’. That was the idea.

Gabriel Range: Just to add to that, it was so much more important to me that – I was so thrilled to work with Johnny because he could connect emotionally with that experience as a musician, of setting out to play on a tour, playing to half empty rooms, all that sort of thing, rather than it being someone who had a perfect physical resemblance. As Johnny says, Bowie was so extraordinary looking, no-one would quite have that anyway.

David Bowie (1947-2016) performs live on stage with his backing group The Spiders From Mars on the first night of the Ziggy Stardust Tour at Borough Assembly Hall in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire on 29th January 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
David Bowie (1947-2016) performs live on stage with his backing group The Spiders From Mars on the first night of the Ziggy Stardust Tour at Borough Assembly Hall in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire on 29th January 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

I think the other thing to go back to, the previous question, the other remarkable thing at this point in his musical career, was that he was really flailing around trying to figure out who he was, in a sense that, if you look at the music he was covering in that time, on one hand you’ve got these crooning Jacques Brel’s chansons and then you’ve got the Anthony Newley cheeky chappy, cockney thing.

Read more: David Bowie rejected Danny Boyle’s ‘wonderful’ biopic

Sometimes in some of the interviews from this time, he’s really playing up that ‘i’m a cockney’ sort of thing, then in other interviews he’s a very well spoken English guy, so that was what was also fun to play with in the film. In that time you could see him really trying to figure out how to present himself to the world.

We see Bowie as Ziggy at the end - how did that compare to being Bowie, pre his transformation?

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust (Vertigo)
Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust (Vertigo)

Johnny Flynn: The couple of days as Ziggy, especially the day doing the gig, was really daunting to have that on the horizon. Usually in a story, you’re resting in one period of a character, and this was this huge leap. And because of everything we just said, he was such a different person by then. Even though it’s the first Ziggy gig and he’s trying something out, and we’re trying to conjure the magic of that first landing for him at Friars, Aylesbury, it was… I just knew that I had to pull some sort of crazy Ziggy magic out of my bum for this one day.

We just went for it. The band was so great and cool and sweet, the guys that did that, Aaron Poole as Mick Ronson. They were all wearing crazy outfits and just going for it. That was all we could do. We looked so outrageous and it was so fun that we had to just go for it.

David Bowie and Mick Ronson perform on stage as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars at Earls Court on 12th May 1973 in London. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
David Bowie and Mick Ronson perform on stage as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars at Earls Court on 12th May 1973 in London. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Jena Malone was there just dancing furiously, and we had 400 or so drunk Torontonians, as it had been advertised for filming in the local newspaper, so we had all these people to rock up to, so that really helped. And I just convinced myself I was Ziggy for a few hours.

But it was definitely scary beforehand, because the other Bowie I was being was often much more demure, which is a safer space.

Even though he was wearing these outrageous clothes sometimes, Ziggy had to be something else completely.

Stardust will be released on digital platforms from 15 January, 2021.

Watch: Stardust director Gabriel Range explains why he focused on David Bowie's days before Ziggy