Billy Howle: ‘How many followers I have is becoming more pertinent in terms of decision-making’

The star of new BBC thriller The Serpent was ready to apologise to all Dutch people for his turn as real-life Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg – but there was no need. He tells Annabel Nugent what drew him to acting and why he has no interest in playing the fame game

Sunday 27 December 2020 08:00 GMT
Billy Howle
Billy Howle (Getty Images)

Billy Howle’s parents never said no to him growing up. “Which is a blessing and a curse really,” says the English star of On Chesil Beach and MotherFatherSon, “because the fallout is a lack of discipline, but the plus side is the scope I have in terms of aspiration. It’s as big as the world is, and that’s great but it’s also f***ing” – he apologises and tries again – “it’s also really daunting.” His was a childhood of intense contemplation, rumination and deliberation to the point of paralysis. “The best thing I can liken it to is wanting to devour the world. It’s all there for you and I just remember wanting to eat everything.”

That hunger continued into his acting career. After Howle’s breakthrough role on E4’s 2014 whodunit Glue came a string of glossy literary fare: as an aspiring photographer in The Sense of an Ending; as a murder defendant in the Agatha Christie BBC adaptation The Witness for the Prosecution; as one-half of Ian McEwan’s virginal newlyweds opposite Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach; and as a lovelorn playwright in the star-studded film adaptation of The Seagull. And with them, came a slowly mounting profile.

Howle is most at home with warring emotions. In his open-faced performance as Oswald in Richard Eyre’s 2014 Broadway adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, it was his light touch to a dark subject matter that had critics sitting up. Two years later, in The Witness for the Prosecution, it was the wretched humanity he brought to the villain. And in the handsome film adaptation of On Chesil Beach, it was his uneasy blend of defensiveness and meekness. His characters are never easy to like or dislike – he would never offer up something as simple as that.

Still, he doesn’t want to be famous. Nor does he want an online presence. “All that crap,” says the 31-year-old, is a “necessary evil in my job. I just do my own thing and try to ignore those more neurotic aspects.” Winter has offered the perfect excuse to go incognito – as Howle is now. Speaking over Zoom from his local cafe in Tufnell Park, the 31-year-old is bundled in a fleece, a beanie pulled down past his eyebrows and a red scarf cloaking his neck and identifiable cleft chin. The only giveaway is his eyes, which are blue and likely to dart away from any intrigued passerby.

He’s here to talk about The Serpent, a thriller series due on New Year's Day on BBC One. Howle plays Herman Knippenberg, the real-life Dutch diplomat responsible for the capture of Seventies serial killer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) and his girlfriend-cum-accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman). It was a cat-and-mouse game that spanned countries and decades – Howle wears prosthetics in the later episodes. He researched his part by speaking with Knippenberg himself, who at 76 is “very much alive and kicking” and living in Wellington, New Zealand. The pair spoke at length about his impending performance, not least the intimidating accent it demanded. “I was ready to apologise to all Dutch people,” the actor laughs. “But from what I’ve heard, it turned out not so bad.”

He plays the diplomat with a muted determination; he gets the job done and makes the least noise doing it. This sort of quiet tenacity seems to come naturally to Howle, who has a sort of coiled ambition about him. He doesn’t seem hell-bent on Hollywood domination like his peers do, but rather content to put in the work and let his career fall where it may.

Billy Howle in The Serpent
Billy Howle in The Serpent (BBC/Mammoth Screen)

Howle, who has modelled for Prada and was responsible for one of TV’s most talked-about sex scenes as Richard Gere’s cocaine-addled heir in the BBC psycho-thriller MotherFatherSon, began acting for the same reason that most young people do anything: because his older sibling did. “Sam did acting classes when I did dance so I would stand outside the door, waiting for him to finish,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I think I was slightly jealous.”

He recalls another formative moment in his childhood: playing Cinderella’s dog in a pantomime, when a (mis)fortunate handling of a plastic bone prompted the audience to roar with laughter. “I was too young to understand why they were laughing, but I liked it.” All Howle knew back then is that he loved making people feel something.

With Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach
With Saoirse Ronan in On Chesil Beach (Rex Features)

If Howle is determined to provoke a public reaction in his acting, he spends his personal life striving for the opposite. This preference for operating unobserved precludes him from ranking on at least one barometer of success: social media. “How many followers I have is becoming more pertinent in terms of actual decision-making within the industry,” he says. “Casting directors now look at your online presence, and that’s not something that’s ever come easily to me.” He has 7,331 on Instagram and 4,970 on Twitter. In the age of the Instagram confessional, Howle’s socials are comparatively dead. There are no selfies with his various co-stars, Saoirse Ronan, Richard Gere, Kim Cattrall, Elisabeth Moss or Florence Pugh. Instead, his feed comprises scenery pictures, a couple of casting announcements and a smattering of artsy photographs.

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“Social media is very much a show,” says Howle. “It’s performative and I guess I could play that game a little more but I’m not sure what the game is or why I’m playing it. It’s actually exhausting. I do that enough. It’s my job to be other people all the time. I’ve never thought that people ought to have any interest in my life.”

With Richard Gere in MotherFatherSon
With Richard Gere in MotherFatherSon (BBC)

But they do. Or certainly, a journalist prepping for an interview with him does. When I bring up a previous article in which Howle called himself “a bit broken and poetic”, he grows frustrated. “I always think about me saying that and I’m so annoyed that it was used as the tagline for the interview because it was a passing comment,” he grimaces. It isn’t the only time Howle bristles at the dredging up of a previous remark, no matter how innocuous. He seems slightly shocked to hear that I know about his house in Margate or a childhood audition he once had for Babe the Sheep-Pig. Being pinned to your words is another facet of fame with which Howle seems uneasy. He doesn’t read reviews, either. “Not unless they’re glowing,” he says with a laugh, aware of how that sounds.

Besides a brief stint on the Isle of Wight to film BritBox’s forthcoming thriller The Beast Must Die, Howle has spent the better part of the past six months alone. He picked up his saxophone again, polished off a screenplay that he hopes to one day direct (a story about loss through the eyes of a kid and his mum), wrote some poetry (“Whether it’s any good or not, I don’t know”) and watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1988 Polish series Dekalog. He also built a puppet with “a mouth operating thing”. He cheerfully sums up his lockdown as “eastern European movies and puppets”. It's not surprising that Howle has thrived in isolation; under the radar is where he is most comfortable.

The Serpent begins on BBC One on New Year's Day at 9pm

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