Amid the praise for Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game, opening Friday, expect to hear about another performance, that of 19-year-old newcomer Alex Lawther.
He plays the teenage version of Cumberbatch’s brilliant mathematician and puzzle solver, Alan Turing, who eventually cracked the Nazi’s Enigma message encryption code, hastening the end of the Second World War. Tragically, Turing was hounded to an early death for being gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime.
Director Morten Tyldum said he “got goosebumps” when he saw Lawther’s audition, calling his performance “extraordinary” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
It’s praise that caught Lawther off guard when he spoke with the Toronto Star from Paris recently.
“That’s lovely. He’s such a lovely Norwegian teddy bear,” said Lawther, who had no idea he’d been lauded at The Imitation Game TIFF news conference for his few brief, yet incredibly moving scenes in the film.
One of these reveals a heartbreaking turn of events for the 16-year-old Turing and is crucial to the story.
Tyldum said casting the young Turing was “one of the most daunting things to do. We had to find somebody who could be Benedict Cumberbatch at age 16. I knew that if I didn’t hit that the movie would collapse because you need to believe that is the young Alan Turing and there are some extraordinary moments there.”
Lawther, who has only been acting for three years, admitted “it was daunting initially,” to share a role with Cumberbatch.
“Benedict and I didn’t spend much time together prior to shooting,” Lawther said, explaining he was working at a boy’s school in Dorset and Cumberbatch was often at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, Churchill’s actual secret intelligence headquarters.
They did share the same vocal coach to work on Turing’s unique vocal tics and stammers.
Lawther also had to learn about Turing. He hadn’t studied him in school, “which is tragic in its own right,” so he started reading as much as he could about the great mathematician and his life.
“It’s incredible, wonderful, sad journeys at the same time,” he said. “I became a bit obsessed with everything to do with Alan in autumn last year.”
If Lawther was daunted by working on such a big film, one being mentioned as a sure bet for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, he also had to deal with jitters before the film’s London opening night.
“I received a lovely text from Benedict right before the London premiere,” he said. “I was a bit nervous about the red carpet thing and he sent me a message: ‘Be yourself, have fun with the friends you meet on the job. Smile and be yourself.’ ”
Lawther, born and raised in Hampshire on England’s south coast, knew from a young age he wanted to be an actor. But since nobody in his family was in the business, “it seemed a bit silly to have an inspiration such as this,” and he wasn’t sure how to go about it.
“I didn’t think I ever knew how one managed to be so lucky as to work in this industry,” he said. “It was a dream I was a little bit embarrassed by.”
He won a newcomer award for his theatre debut at age 16 in London’s West End and moved on to films, starring alongside Asa Butterfield and Sally Hawkins in math Olympiad-themed dramedy X+Y, which was also at TIFF.
When he chatted with the Star, Lawther had just wrapped on British indie drama Departure with Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply), someone, Lawther says “I have admired for ages, ever since I was little.”
In March he begins work on an “exciting” project he’s not allowed to talk about yet. “It’s so boring,” to have to keep the secret, he added wistfully.
Departure was shot in the south of France, allowing him to have a few days off to explore Paris which, like most things Lawther talks about, seems to genuinely delight him.
As for what lies ahead, he said he’d love to work with Canadian director Xavier Dolan; Lawther mistakenly thought he was French.
“I love him,” he said. “I’ve watched everything he’s made and he’s very inspiring. He’s so young and his voice is so strong and also of the moment.”
But for now, “my dream really is just to keep working in film and in theatre.”