From her early cinematic start in 2006’s Miss Potter to her latest royal performance in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, Lucy Boynton’s path has been guided less by planning and more by instinct. Boynton talks with Rogue about her character Mary Austin and her complex relationship with Freddie Mercury, her love of Shirley Jackson stories, and overcoming her comedy fears.
A concert-loving friend of mine once proclaimed that it’s bad luck to listen to any recorded music from the artist or band you’re going to see live later that night. So when the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ blared on the radio at 9 am, just a couple of hours before I was supposed to interview Lucy Boynton from movie Bohemian Rhapsody, I immediately switched the station in fear of being cursed with bad Queen karma. My friend’s superstitious rule applied more to concerts, not necessarily rock biopics or interviews with actors starring in them, so maybe I was overreacting. But when the next station happened to be playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as well, I was certain the universe was out to get me.
That wasn’t the case, at least on this day. As a promotion ahead of Bohemian Rhapsody’s release, audio behemoth iHeartRadio organized a morning simulcast across their 650+ radio stations of Queen’s signature song, calling it the “biggest roadblock in history.” It’s uncertain many drivers and radio listeners actually banged their air drums to the operatic anthem from beginning to close, but the size and scope of iHeartRadio’s Queen-loving endeavor are reminiscent of the 1985 Live Aid Concert, a global music spectacle that was simulcasted to over a billion viewers across the world. But Bohemian Rhapsody shows us more than the creative triumphs and internal bickering of these legendary Live Aid performers. The film also delves into the relationship between Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, and Mary Austin, a former lover and friend whom Boynton had the pleasure of bringing to life on-screen.
“The thing that’s really stayed with me about her is the strength and resilience that is at the core of her,” Boynton says. “That, at such a young age, enabled her to be so awake to what a person can be and should be and that is, that kind of truer self and when she seeks that in someone like Freddy, she was so able to kind of, bring it out of him in a way and encourage it and he did the same for her. I think that strength and resilience was the thing that really enabled her to be as open-minded, open-hearted and pragmatic about their relationship as they were.”
The real-life relationship between Freddie Mercury and Mary Austin started as a romance, with Austin even accepting the Queen singer’s marriage proposal. When Mercury revealed his sexual attraction to men, the two ended their romantic relationship but remained close friends for years. It’s a story that many Queen fans and rock lovers are familiar with, making it crucial that Bohemian Rhapsody dug deeper to unearth something new.
“We were so familiar with Freddy as this king of performance, king of the stage. I think the more we project this king or godlike status onto him, which so many people do, you do end up kind of distancing yourself from the person at the center of that, the person behind it, and underneath it all,” she says. “I feel like this film is very much kind of a reset, a resetting into who he actually was. Starting from the genesis of the band, and who Freddie was when he [still went by his birth name] Farrokh Bulsara. I think Mary, is very much at the core of that. She was a very private person and still is, so I think there is so much about their relationship that people don’t know and aren’t aware of. It really sheds light on almost anything. You just the sense of the dynamics between them, and dynamics between Freddie and the band as well. They have this playful energy through all the light and dark... it’s very different insight into that.”
“I think that the kind of empathy and undefinable nature of their relationship confuses people, and I hope the film shows that that’s kind of the point,” she continues. “You don’t need to explain or define your relationship, your love, or yourself, to anyone else to benefit their understanding. You can just be you, and as long as you treat everyone else with that same respect, you can just go on in that direction.”
Boynton is more than familiar with complex characters who find themselves in unconventional personal relationships. She gave an edgy turn as Raphina in Sing Street, a frizzy-haired aspiring model with tangled romantic ties, and played the stunning Countess Elena Andrenyi in Murder on the Orient Express, who shared an unspoken past with other train passengers. But Bohemian Rhapsody is arguably the largest project yet to fall onto Boynton’s slate, one that she said brought some initial added pressure and expectations.
“At the beginning of this process, absolutely, because Freddie is so sacred and so special in such a personal way to so many, such a mass of humans, that you really want to maintain that and have respect for that. However, because we had Brian May and Roger Taylor there, as frequently as we did, it was incredibly reassuring, knowing they were watching and signing off on everything that happened,” Boyton explains.
“You do have these expectations to meet, but then the scale of this production kind of made sense for this story,” she continues. “I mean, it just, it was very obviously conducive to the environment that you’re working in, in the sense that the lighting and the stage was an exact replica...down to the most tiny detail.”
Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t the first time where Boynton has portrayed the love interest of another creative genius. In 2017’s Rebel in the Rye, she took on the role of Claire Douglas, the wife of famed novelist J.D. Salinger, but notes that those two roles contrasted in terms of romantic relationships.
“I actually didn’t think about drawing a comparison between those two people. I think Claire Douglas and J.D. Salinger, it’s interesting they had a very tumultuous relationship, and again it is that difficult thing, I suppose, of being someone’s home, who such a mass of people, such a mass audience, want so much from... the huge pressure, and a huge weight to withstand, yeah, that is the similarity between them, but I think the way that they both dealt with that was very different in these cases.
“I feel like Claire Douglas and J.D. Salinger’s story was less love-filled, dare I say, than Mary and Freddie. It was so, it felt like a kind of subtraction was their relationship started to disintegrate, whereas with Freddie and Mary, it was no matter what they were going through and how difficult it absolutely got, it was always this love for one another... really driving it. So to have that constantly intact was a very powerful thing.”
While many actors infuse their characters with a spark of themselves, Boynton says that she’s been impacted more by her characters than what she has put into them.
“I don’t know, I believe there must be kind of ties with myself and them. You do obviously the first quick look with trying to build on these characters and people is to yourself, how you can relate or empathize. But I don’t know, I think I take more from them than I put of myself into them. I walk away from these projects feeling, after Raphina, trying to retain such strength that she was forced to adopt, but I try and take that and apply it in my own world and I guess it was Mary, that strength and resilience, that really enabled her to be such a boulder and rock to someone...Not in any kind of exact translation, but yeah, I think I take more from them and bring more of them into my life.”
As for a particular character or story Boynton wants to portray, she’s following instinct more than a pre-planned route.
“There’s no real planned trajectory to my career at the moment. I’m not, I don’t have a thought formula that I want to follow. It’s very instinctive, the decisions I make, and so it usually comes from a script that...stays with me, or a book I read that really stays with me and kind of puts me in a different head space.
“The thing that I usually go back to are the kind of Shirley Jackson characters and what, I will never tire, I think of going back into those kind of dark, darker spaces. Especially in the Shirley Jackson way,
I didn’t love horror films. But when that kind of helped me see the absence of light, I love that. But at the moment, not I’m not sure. I think, like I said anything that’s a further departure from myself and anything in a different period of time, most attracts me.”
That big departure may be The Politician, a TV series from Ryan Murphy set to premiere in 2019 and perhaps the biggest, if not only, comedy project Boynton’s done to date.
“I’m absolutely terrified. Yeah, it’s ended up being more comedic than I initially recognized and realized. So that was a bit of a shock. But it’s so much fun and comedy is something that absolutely terrifies me, so it has been a new adventure. But it’s really gratifying being able to do that, go in a completely different direction and take a risk. I’m not exactly sure at how it’ll turn out but fingers crossed. And I’m so lucky to be able to do it in the same hands as Ryan Murphy and that empire. I think his work is of such astounding quality that you always feel safe, knowing that you can take this bold risk here or do something very different and off beat here.”
Until then, Boynton is appreciating her current crowning moment with Queen.
“It’s such a pivotal entity in British culture and musical history, popular culture, worldwide. But to have any kind of relation to it, or relationship, personal relationship with that well it’s incredibly special thing to have. And so now I’m surrounded by their music and I’m hearing it in a shop or a bar or a restaurant or something, on the radio ....to have some familiarity and closeness with that is a feeling that hasn’t dilated in any way since.”
Photographer: Aaron Feaver
Stylist: Philippe Uter
Makeup: Jo Baker at Forward Artists using Nars
Hair: Clyde Haygood at Foorward Artists using Oribe
Writer: Justin Sedgwick