As the new David Bowie biopic Stardust is released, the actor and musician Johnny Flynn discusses taking on the role he initially regarded as a “poisoned chalice”
Before Ziggy Stardust and glam rock, before his shape-shifting ascension to space-alien pop god, David Bowie was just a kid from Bromley, immersed in mime, avant-garde theatre and acoustic folk. His 1969 hit, Space Oddity, was a beguiling combination of these practices but, despite becoming the unofficial soundtrack to that year’s Apollo landing, it failed to thrust Bowie’s career into orbit. The single’s initial glow faded amid a string of dud follow-ups and it was another three years before Bowie’s career took off in earnest, a period during which he struggled for an audience as much as he did for a sense of self.
At least, that’s the story told in Stardust, a part-fictionalised account of this surprisingly fragile period of Bowie’s quest for stardom, with the actor and musician Johnny Flynn (Beast, Emma) cast in its leading role. Unlike recent cradle-to-grave musical biopics, Stardust confines itself to the months following the release of Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, in 1970, and his US promotional tour the following year. Forgoing the grander picture and his later hits (the film did not receive permission from the Bowie Estate to use any Bowie music), Stardust offers a keyhole perspective on the period responsible for launching the cultural icon.
The three-week US tour might have been the catalyst for all that followed, but things don’t get off to a good start in Stardust. No sooner has he touched down stateside, Bowie is told he lacks the necessary visa to perform. His superstar aspirations are further dashed when Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), the Mercury Records publicist organising the tour, greets Bowie at the airport and shows him to his ride ... in the back of his waiting parent’s car. What unfolds feels at times like a road movie, with Oberman chauffeuring Bowie between disastrous morning radio slots and tumbleweed performances to bored vacuum cleaner salesmen. As much as Bowie struggles to sell his music, the admission of his half-brother (Terry Burns) to a psychiatric institute triggers a decline in his own mental health, threatening to unravel the whole thing.
When the project was first mooted in 2017, Flynn was initially doubtful, concerned about the script and a role he regarded as a “poisoned chalice”. However, director Gabriel Range was determined to cast a musician for the part, and his enthusiasm and vision eventually won him over. Flynn, who combines acting with frontman duties for folk outfit Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit, knew that in Range’s hands, “It would just be like any other story that’s worth telling,” and one that resonated with his own experience of trying to make it as an insecure young musician.
Despite being cherry-picked, Flynn insisted on a series of screen tests with Range to satisfy any lingering doubts and flesh out Bowie’s androgynous look. “We wanted to see if it would work, if it would be believable, or whether we would be thwarted by the fact it’s hard to make anybody look like David Bowie,” says Flynn, who is some 12 years older than Bowie was at the time and, by his own admission, lacks the requisite bone structure.
Refusing to let this hinder him, Flynn treated the role like any other and his conversations with Range proved hugely supportive. “Gabriel wanted a musician, somebody who could really go for it in terms of the soul and the spirit, as opposed to somebody who was just going to do an impersonation,” says Flynn. “He’s much more interested in the soulful channelling of David in the circumstances, rather than a waxwork impression.”
Flynn lost just over two stone for the role and experimented with various wigs, contact lenses and false teeth in preparation. More crucial however, was locating Bowie’s fraught emotional state and complex assimilation of characters that is at the heart of Range’s screenplay (co-written with Christopher Bell). “I read every book I could read, I watched every interview, I listened to the records constantly, I listened to his guitar and his voice and I worked with a vocal coach,” recalls Flynn. “But ultimately, it’s an actor playing David Bowie so, at a certain point, you have to trust that the audience is interested in this story rather than the one they already know.”
Trying to establish who Bowie was, Flynn realised, became impossible without wider reference to his formative heroes, all of whom demanded individual attention. America was home to Bowie’s idols and the tour was his chance to soak up all that he could: visiting Warhol, The Velvet Underground, writing songs like Song for Bob Dylan and the Lou Reed-inspired Queen Bitch. The role therefore demanded a surreal double filter, in which Flynn found himself playing Bowie playing his idols. As he explains: “I was watching Anthony Newley sing or Lindsey Kemp mime or listening to Lou Reed. When you hear David Bowie sing Waiting for the Man at the BBC in 1971, he’s not trying to be himself, he’s trying to be Lou Reed.”
That said, Bowie’s US reception in Stardust rarely goes beyond tepid. To American audiences he is an indecipherable dandy, the latest naff British export, yet the film culminates with Bowie’s triumphant 1973 performance as Ziggy Stardust at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. So, what clicked? “I do believe that something about being in America and being a Brit in America freed him into celebrating more about himself, rather than drowning in the sea of his own cultural identity back in England,” says Flynn, who speaks from first-hand experience. “I went to Seattle in 2007,” he explains, “and I’ve never felt more English. In a way, that allowed me to tell these stories about where I was from.”
As for Flynn, America was Bowie’s emancipation, the spark that radically altered his perception of stardom and offered a blueprint to forge his own. In one of Stardust’s epiphanous moments (that is also entirely true), Bowie mistakenly believes he has met his idol, Lou Reed, backstage at a Velvet Underground gig. The man behind the shades is in fact Doug Yule, who stood in for Reed after the singer quit the band, but it makes no difference to Bowie, who discovers the secret to being a star is acting like one.
Stardust will be released on digital platforms from January 15.