Johnny Flynn on His Role in ‘Emma.’ and Indulging the Female Gaze

Before channeling iconic rocker David Bowie in the upcoming biopic “Stardust,” actor and musician Johnny Flynn found himself transported to the Regency era to bring to life another beloved, albeit fictional, British figure, Mr. Knightley, the gallant love interest of the heroine of Jane Austen’s 1815 “Emma.” Directed by Autumn de Wilde, “Emma.” is a stylish and even sexy adaptation, with Anya Taylor-Joy giving an incandescent performance as the title character, a clever and privileged 20-year-old woman who has a penchant for mixing herself up in other people’s love lives, for better or worse.

As George Knightley, the 37-year-old brother of Emma’s sister’s husband, Flynn often serves as the voice of reason, imploring Emma to pull back on her meddling and correcting her when she hurts someone’s feelings. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have an undeniable chemistry, and as the story progresses it becomes more and more apparent that he is destined to play more than a brotherly role in her life.

Flynn recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss his journey in making “Emma.,” his personal connection to the novel, what was special about working with de Wilde, and putting his body on display in the name of equality.

What drew you to the role of Mr. Kightley? Were you a fan of the novel?

I was, actually. I loved the book from studying it at A-Level, which is the exams you take when you’re 16, 17, 18 [in the United Kingdom]. I had an English teacher who was a particular kind of mentor to me. He was sort of the reason I got into literature and poetry, and therefore acting, because he was teaching us Shakespeare and directing us in his plays. It was his favorite novel, so, through him, I loved the book. But I had to revisit it; I had forgotten all about it when this came around.

Mr. Knightley is fiercely independent, yet he really cares about the people around him. How do you relate to him?

I like him for lots of reasons, but mostly his kindness spoke to me, and his sense of the world. He’s born into this position of being the high ace in the village, but you get the sense that he would rather be out in the fields with his farmers or walking through the woods. He has an earthy quality to him, which I love, his humility, his moral compass. 

I also feel like he’s probably an ideal man as drawn by a woman. He serves that purpose of being almost like a lesson to men, because he was written by a woman in a time that men ruled everything, and women didn’t have any physical agency, but he allows Emma to retain her autonomy, and he treats her as an equal, and I think that’s a powerful statement on the part of Jane Austen.

We see a lot of Mr. Knightley correcting and guiding Emma. Have you ever been in a similar relationship in which you’ve played that role? Or have you had a Mr. Knightley in your own life?

My wife and I have known each other for a long time. We met when we were 16, so there’s some echos of that relationship, although there’s the big age gap between Knightley and Emma. They’ve sorta grown up together, which is why they’re hiding in plain sight with each other. 

I suppose I’ve had some younger friends who have looked up to me. It’s not a position that I find easy, because I suppose I’m always trying to find a level of equality with people, so I don’t feel easy in that mental position. But I’ve definitely chosen mentors for myself, mostly older role models whom I’ve worked with, people like Mark Rylance, with whom I’ve done a number of plays. He became a friend and mentor to me over the few years while I was working with him, and he’s still a figure in my life. That English teacher who I mentioned, he’s still somebody I look up to.

Before filming, did you view any of the previous adaptations of “Emma,” or were you too afraid that they would influence your own performance?

I didn’t seek them out. I have seen the “Emma” film with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam years ago, but I couldn’t remember anything about it. I think it’s probably unhelpful as an actor if you watch other versions of the story you’re telling once you’re doing your [version], because you don’t want to end up comparing yourself to what you could bring to it, you want to be singular to your approach to your character, so I think it’s important not to watch the other ones.

How did you like portraying a man in a female space and working with a woman director in a female-driven film?

I love working for female directors when I get the chance. You can’t generalize about what it’s like to work for a man and what it’s like to for a woman, but I can talk about what it’s like to work with Autumn. There’s a sense of intuition and support and flow and confidence that she gives to actors and believes in them. She brings an enormous amount of trust to that relationship, and you’re so empowered with your ideas. You’re not just a warm prop. Your ideas are valued, and you’re really seen and heard and witnessed. And not to generalize, but with male directors there’s an overt sense of, “Okay, you go here, and now you do that,” and they got it all worked out. That wasn’t really the case with Autumn. Also, her being a first-time director, she was learning as well… And she became such a close friend, and still is, and I hope she becomes a lifelong collaborator, which is rare. You rarely come out feeling like that with, well, with everybody, the whole gang of actors, and a lot of the crew. You just felt like that was family. 

This is such a visually striking film, which probably comes from Autumn’s background as a photographer. When you’re first introduced in the beginning, you’re dressing and we see you undressed. Was that something that you had to be talked into? Or were you onboard from the start?

This is Autumn’s skill as well; she’s very persuasive. One day, well into the filming process — that scene was shot several months into making the movie, even though it’s the first time you see my character — she talked me through it as an idea, and I loved the idea, which was that she was indulging the female gaze, for once. She was saying women’s bodies have been objectified for decades, and in art, for hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. So she wanted to bring some equality to that, and also to introduce my character in a way that immediately renders him very vulnerable. Because of his morality and his openness, I thought that was a really nice way to meet him. Even though it’s not in the book, it was a cool statement.

What was your favorite scene?

I loved filming the proposal scene with Anya for various reasons, not in the least because she got a real nose bleed on cue in the moment in the script where it said that she should. It’s quite often that you come away from a scene going, “Ohhh, I didn’t do that right, I wish I’d done this and that.” And I remember feeling, almost for the first time ever in my career, “Okay, that was actually alright.” And that was such an important scene to get right, and there were a lot of new things that happened in the moment that I was pleased with afterwards. And when I watched it, I felt like, “Yeah, that was what we shot. That was what it felt like.” And I liked being inside the tree. We shot it in this horse chestnut tree, and it was in full blossom and the bees were buzzing around. It just felt elemental. I loved it.

You’re playing David Bowie in the upcoming “Stardust” biopic. What else is next for you? 

Yeah, I’m playing David Bowie. We shot that and it’s coming out. And I am doing this adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with Andrew Scott in September. It should be cool. 

Emma.” opens Feb. 21 in select theaters, expanding March 6 nationwide.