Douglas Booth is trying to dissuade a dog from having sex with his leg. “No humping, Barry – I knew you when you were a puppy!” Booth has evidence, too: video footage of the young actor in a vest, cradling the photographer’s whippet on a previous shoot, found its way on to the internet two years ago, its Athena poster cuteness delighting teenage girls around the world. It’s probably for the best that this sequel isn’t being filmed.
Booth is used to inappropriate attention, however. Most film actors have attractive qualities, but Booth’s beauty, particularly on camera, borders on the superfluous: those intelligent, almond eyes, fierce cheekbones, the squarest, most masculine jaw, hair that… He wouldn’t want me to go on, being in that category of performers who wants to get away from their looks – and perhaps with reason. Some judged him too handsome for the BBC’s 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations, griping that it made no sense for Pip to outshine Estella. “Articles always end up being about my appearance,” Booth grumbles. “I had a conversation with Jude Law: he told me people’s obsession with looks goes away after a while.”
Booth’s favourite performers are actors’ actors, people such as Sam Rockwell and Joaquin Phoenix. “You don’t know what they’ll do next,” he says. “I’m interested in surprise. The ‘boy next door’ parts I get offered, I don’t find interesting.” To get around this, he will play with a character’s physicality. “With Pip, a lot came from the costume. He starts as a country boy but, as money changes him, the collars get higher, his neck more constricted.” Booth was startlingly good as Boy George in the 2010 BBC drama Worried About The Boy, filmed “when I was 17 and looked like a girl”. He captured the brittle posturing of the 80s icon, from defiantly androgynous teen to vulnerable, drug-addicted adult. He shaved his eyebrows for the role, and spent five hours a day in makeup.
Last year, he lost weight to play Titus, spoilt scion of a near-immortal alien dynasty in Jupiter Ascending, by the Wachowskis, makers of The Matrix trilogy. “I wanted to look sculptural, genetically assembled,” he explains. It’s not a great film, but Booth says it was a calculated choice: “I only want to work with interesting film-makers.” For the same reason, he played Shem, son of Russell Crowe’s Noah, in Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, and jumped at the chance to work with Danish director Lone Scherfig (a member of the Dogme 95 movement) in The Riot Club. “I turned down one of the big young adult franchises. I know the guy who took the part is buying his Hollywood mansion in the hills now, that he has secure work for three years. But you have to work yourself into a place where you’re respected.”
Booth has a serious, old-fashioned side; before acting, he yearned to be a jazz musician (Louis Armstrong is a hero). Even his name makes him sound like an early 20th-century British prime minister. It’s hard to believe he is only 22, an age when many actors are still in drama school. Does he feel young? “Emma Watson said I was a 90-year-old trapped in a young body. I’ve always felt like an old soul.” He and Watson, his Noah co-star, have become friends since meeting on Booth’s first modelling job, for Burberry.
Last year, he won GQ magazine’s Most Stylish Man award, and in his acceptance speech said, “to be truly stylish, you have to be kind and courteous”. Which is sadly untrue, but shows you what a nice man he is. Does he consider himself fashionable? “Well, I do like Burberry, and a Dunhill tux I wore to the Baftas. I don’t think you have to spend crazy money to look good, though.” For today’s shoot, he is modelling Topman Lux. “I like it, because it’s stuff that won’t fall out of fashion two weeks after you buy it.”
Booth flies to Los Angeles six or seven times a year, but “I’d never go if I wasn’t invited. It can be a depressing place – every Uber driver is an actor or a producer trying to make it. My friends there are mostly teachers, musicians, people running charities. It gives me a less disconnected perspective.” He talks about flying in for the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue, a photoshoot with Bruce Weber on the Fox Studios backlot. “Weber walked an elephant through the makeup area. There were horses, bodybuilders dressed up as gladiators.”
Raised in Greenwich, London, and later Kent, Booth’s liberal childhood encouraged him to pursue whatever he wanted. He joined the National Youth Theatre at 14, and was signed by the Curtis Brown agency at 15. His mother and sister are artists, his father a former managing director at CitiGroup. What does Booth make of the current debate about arts being the preserve of the rich? “I think it’s overstated and boring. My grandparents were immigrants from Holland and Spain. My family were butchers for generations. I’ve supported myself since I was 16. My friends at drama school and beyond aren’t all rich kids.”
Still, Booth does give good posh. He was a charismatic, aristocratic Harry in The Riot Club, a film that explored the vandalism and violent misogyny of a fictionalised Bullingdon Club. Aside from Scherfig, what drew him to that part? “I’m interested in that switch, beneath the veneer of civility. The people that run our country, they kill you with charm, but as soon as things aren’t going their way… I wanted to access that darkness.”
He says he is drawn most to work he doesn’t fully understand. “The stuff that hits you emotionally first, and then you have to spend time figuring it out.” He has severe dyslexia, which in a way feeds the seriousness of his approach to work. “My friends read scripts quicker than you would watch a film. My mind works differently. I can’t skim. I have to process every detail, reread every line, which takes all day. It’s laborious, but ultimately more detailed.”
I tell him there’s one thing that confuses me: on an otherwise impeccable CV, how to explain LOL, the featherweight teen romcom he filmed with Miley Cyrus, a film that required him to be bashful and super-cute, but little more? “I didn’t necessarily want to do it. I was doing interesting work in Ireland, filming Christopher And His Kind [a BBC drama about Christopher Isherwood in 30s Berlin]. The American producers couldn’t understand why this 17-year-old kid who hadn’t done a big movie wouldn’t. I got persuaded, anyhow. And I wouldn’t change it.”
One reason he wouldn’t change it is the unlikely friendship he forged with Cyrus. “I know she’s doing the pop stuff at the moment, but when you’re at her house, and she’s just playing piano, she’s got this amazing country-soul voice.” Does he think she should demand more of herself? “She’s making unimaginable amounts of money – she’s fine,” he smiles. Spending time with Cyrus also gave him an insight into what it is to be globally famous. “In Paris we were chased by 40 paparazzi on mopeds. It was a wakeup call. I thought, ‘This isn’t an enjoyable way to live.’”
Booth has been romantically linked to Cyrus, while I’ve read elsewhere that he had been “bewildered by Taylor Swift’s romantic advances”. Is any of this true? “If she had been advancing, I probably would have been bewildered. Taylor, Miley, Emma, Cara Delevingne – those girls are my friends. As soon as you go to lunch with a mate, you’re dating. It’s ludicrous.” As if on cue, Barry starts up on Booth’s leg again. “No shagging! Settle down or go away.”
Booth is vegetarian, and I ask why. “We don’t think about what has to happen for us to eat meat that’s cheaper than vegetables. They put nice farms and tractors on the pictures, but the truth is abattoirs and battery cages. I love meat, but I’ve vowed I won’t eat it until the world can consume it responsibly.”
He is back in serious mode. “I’m also building a relationship with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. There are over 53 million displaced or stateless people worldwide. People hear ‘refugee’ and think ‘illegal immigrant’ – it’s a much harder sell than, say, charities for children. But I’m at the stage where I can start to be of help, and I’d like to be.”
Booth’s next role will be nice Mr Bingley in an adaptation of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, followed, he hopes, by a project he can’t yet discuss but that will push him the way he likes. “It’s very out there, and different to me. I just need to convince the director I can do it.”
He recalls advice given to him by his friend Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones. “He told me, ‘Douglas, take all the roles you think you’re not good enough to do. Then work hard.’” There’s another friend, and fellow Burberry model, he looks to as an example: Eddie Redmayne and Booth played opposite each other in an early job, The Pillars Of The Earth, and as sibling rivals in Jupiter Ascending.
“Eddie is 10 years older than me. He’s inspiring. You do think, ‘Will I have learned enough in a decade? Will I be lucky enough to land a script that puts me in a similar position?’ I’m still figuring out how to relax in front of the camera, how to be fearless. But I’m young in my career.”
Does Booth look forward to a time when his appearance doesn’t get much of a mention? He pauses to rub his beard, but the answer that comes out is emphatic: “Yes.”