This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Alex Lawther seems like a really nice guy. He’s liable to call you "mate" several times in a conversation, and can say "sorry" with a tone that’ll make even the most stereotypical Canadian melt. It’s slightly confusing when contrasted with his character James, an angsty teenage psychopath on the Netflix mini-series The End of the F**king World.
From the title alone, I’d forgive you for feeling there’s more than a little bit of that Fight Club/90s Tarantino DNA in this Gen-Z series. But look deeper, and it becomes easy to spot the very non-traditional love story here. You've got James, of course, and a girl named Alyssa (possible sociopath, definitely poorly parented) who find themselves on a road trip in a stolen car following a meet cute. Sure, one may want to kill the other. And one may want to still decide if a human connection is a real possibility. But in the end, there’s something very relatable here through their growth over eight 20-minute episodes.
I decided to reach out to Lawther, partly because I wanted to know if he’s anything like the very odd James character that he plays, and if he’s made a deeper sense of the strange/unorthodox boy meets girl story that’s frankly, pretty damn good.
VICE: One of the things that I personally loved about the show is that it explained itself. The title alone kind of screams shock value. But these characters aren’t twisted for the sake of being twisted. Their weird actions are explained. When it comes to James, elaborate on what attracted you to this personality.
Alex Lawther: I think at first, I found James so far from anything I recognized within myself—very cold, closed, and violent. I’d like to think that I’m not any of those things [laughs]. But then, as a double whammy, on reading further episodes of Charlie Covell’s script, I saw someone that was somehow the opposite of those things. Beneath him was a far more fascinating character. It also doesn’t hurt that I found it all so funny, moving, and I loved how simple the story was with two lost and lonely kids just trying to make sense of an adult world. Being able to sum up that kind of story so simply was really appealing. Even though it was really weird, bizarre, and so fucking confusing [laughs]. Ultimately, there’s a real simple relationship that runs between the craziness of James and Alyssa.
And when it comes to James. He’s apparently a self-proclaimed psychopath, but on the other hand, he kind of isn’t. How do you accurately portray a kind-of psychopath exactly?
I had to work out what a psychopath actually meant to James... on a very basic level. I mean, the label psychopath is in the very first line he says in the script, so it’s pretty much my job to find out what he’s trying to do by proclaiming himself as one. I can’t be sure of the answer, and I hope people come away with different interpretations, but my view is that it was a term he used to understand who he was. In general, he found his own self and life very confusing. By being a psychopath, it seemed simpler than having to accept that he was very sad and fragile. It was easier to imagine that he didn’t fit into anything rather than accept that maybe he felt a bit too much of everything. Hiding behind a tougher outer image as a teenager feels cooler, and safer compared to admitting perhaps that you’re the very opposite.
Yeah, and in many ways, beyond the craziness, these characters are still just teenagers. Their inner monologues don’t always represent who they actually are. They don’t understand themselves fully.
Yeah, that’s so true. How often have we found ourselves saying things out loud in front of a group of people, and then later thinking, why did I say that? I really don’t believe that at all (laughs). Or even still, finding yourself filling some space that isn’t you. It ultimately comes down to the need for connections. James and Alyssa are both so desperate to connect. Right from the beginning even. And even behind the bravado, rather than admit that quite embarrassing fact that they’re desperate as we all can end up being, one instead decides to kill animals and pretend as if he doesn’t feel anything. The conclusion that it’s cooler to deal pain and physical pain in a really fucked up way.
How do you personally relate to all of that?
I don’t think that the main longing for another is something that ever goes away. I mean sure, I'm only 22. During teenager times, the feelings of longing is perhaps at its most strong and profound because everything feels multiplied by ten. The title of the show comes from the feeling of being that age. That everything really is the first time that you’ve experienced anything. Some moments make you feel like you’re on top of the world, or in a place that really feels like the end of the fucking world. The stakes are just that much higher all the time. That longing comes with a part of being on this planet I suppose.
I can’t speak directly as an actor, but at times it feels like choosing roles is a struggle between quality vs opportunity. You seem to have a soft spot for the unorthodox, Black Mirror, Freak Show, and also this. Where’s that dedication to these roles coming from?
My immediate answer is good writing, which is a boring answer [laughs], I know. But it’s an honest one. Now that isn’t to say that for it to be good, it has to involve some outsider or outcast sort of character. But I really enjoyed the characters that I’ve had the opportunity to play in a sense. If I’m being honest, yes, I’ve always been into the underdog instead of the golden boy or guy with the easy life. It doesn’t seem that dramatic from a storied perspective to play someone that has it easy or is incredibly normal. I’ve been thinking about that by the way... I don’t even know what that looks like. Someone very... normal. What does that even mean? [laughs]. Until I figure that out, I’m going to continue to have a soft spot for the unorthodox, and so far, they’ve all been crazy fun.
Not just unorthodox though, some involve some pretty dark subject matter. Is this a preference as well?
You know, I’m not sure about the darkness part. What I find myself doing conversely is looking for the levity in my roles. Sure, I love the darkness in The End of the F***king World, but what really struck out to me was the strange humor. One of the things I’ll always remember from my time with Black Mirror is the sense of all the tongue and cheek, and very, very dark sense of comedy there too.
I still remember when Jerome Flynn's character, Hector, was at a gas station, and Hector bumps into a lady with a child that goes to his child’s school, and the awkwardness and tension stands out as a scene that I still remember [laughs]. So the darkness definitely isn’t a conscious thing. But it goes hand in hand with the outsider thing. There just seems to be more immediate material to explore there compared to the typical colored story.
It’s one thing to be into that sort of thing, but it’s another to be in sync with another person that may or may not share that. What came down to that chemistry that you and Jessica Barden shared on set?
We’re actually two very different people. I can be quite quiet, but you can always rely on Jessica to be the funniest person in the room and have the best conversation. Something about that just works. It’s a sort of mutual respect that we have for each other [laughs]. Or at least I hope she respects me. When you’re faced with someone that’s so different from you, in that way, you end up being a bit fascinated by them. That definitely helped with the strange sort of curiousness that James and Alyssa had for each other at the very beginning. We spent 12 weeks every day together, and there’s a sibling-ness that developed which definitely supported whatever strange kind of love that grew between those two.
If you had to change the title of this show given that initial shock value, what would you change it to?
[Laughs] I hesitate to change it. Honestly, I’d refer reviewers toward the end of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, where he basically says "no, it’s not the end of the fucking world, they’re just fucking teenagers," or something along those lines. It’s important that we as viewers know from the outside that we’re going to be following this story with the stakes, and the sense of urgency that you have when you’re that age. Everything feels like it’s the end but it’s not, and hopefully, we as the audience can have the distance to see that. Of course, there’s also hope that those who watch this can take on the nostalgia of a time when everything did seem so important, scary, and wild to us all. Hopefully, not on James or Alyssa levels of extreme, but to each their own [laughs].
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