Ben Barnes is not convinced that Keanu Reeves deserves the praise he’s getting for his “age-appropriate girlfriend”. “I thought it was interesting that she is actually nine years younger than him,” he says of the 55-year-old's relationship with artist Alexandra Grant, 46, which became public knowledge last week. “So we’re just applauding him for having a girlfriend with grey hair, which I’m not sure is as helpful as people would hope. Hopefully, we’ll get to a point in our society where we don’t have to acknowledge this. Why is it surprising that a man in his fifties should have a girlfriend with grey hair?”
There’s a reason that age differences in straight relationships are on his mind. In new BBC drama Gold Digger, which begins tonight, the star of The Chronicles of Narnia and Westworld plays a man who becomes romantically entangled with a wealthy woman 26 years his senior (Julia Ormond). “The weight of the story,” says Barnes, 38, “comes from our society’s prejudice against age gaps in relationships.”
Written and created by Marnie Dickens (who was behind the BBC drama Thirteen), the six-part series is a gripping domestic noir that riffs on the age-gap dynamic we're so used to seeing onscreen. There are intricate plot twists and big revelations, as well as a definite frisson in watching the tables turned. Would the show be as interesting, I wonder, if the series was hinged on the “scandal” of an older man dating a woman decades his junior? “I don’t think it would have been made,” replies Barnes, frankly.
Sexuality and desire among older women is one of the main themes of Gold Digger. Rarely, says Barnes, do we get to see the “full, rich, emotional, sensual, sexual life of a woman in their sixties” in drama. Which is why Dickens’s script stood out for him. “Therein lies the problem in terms of how often we see [older women’s sex lives] in the media,” he says, “because I did note it. And it’s not like your sex drive just turns off as you get older. It doesn’t diminish, necessarily.”
Barnes hopes the drama will inspire “water-cooler discussions” among viewers who will check their prejudices against couples with a big age difference. “Men are lauded in society for nabbing a younger, more attractive partner,” he says, “and as I’ve thought about it a lot it seems to reflect a historical judgement of women in society. No matter which way the age gap is, the woman is always blamed. If it’s an older man, people ask, ‘What power or wealth is this woman after?’ And if it’s an older woman, she’s apparently a cougar.”
Given how often Hollywood pairs older male characters with love interests a fraction of their age, this could be a case of life imitating art. Barnes recalls watching a “big action film” in the cinema last year, and seeing a “completely gratuitous” kiss between the fifty-something leading man and a woman in her twenties. The kiss was not contextualised or justified in the narrative of the movie at all, he says. “It must be confusing for young men watching to look at.”
Barnes is earnest and composed when unpicking societal norms – something he learnt “at the dinner table” growing up in southwest London with his psychotherapist mother and psychiatry professor father – but he dissolves into laughter when I bring up a time in his life he’d rather forget: his short-lived stint in the boy band Hyrise.
“Thin ice, Ellie, thin ice,” he warns. “I was asked to be in that band that shall remain nameless, even though you’ve already named it,” he sighs in mock-exasperation. “I was only in it for about two weeks out of my 38 years on the planet, and we only had one song, which I thought was crap.” The band tried out for Eurovision in 2004, but Barnes bowed out early. “I had to ring up and quit,” he says, “because I was like, ‘This is not authentically me.’ I put it to bed.” Hyrise, alas, were not selected to represent the UK.
Fifteen years later, having played musicians in the films Killing Bono (2011) and Jackie & Ryan (2014), Barnes is tentatively putting his off-screen musical self out there again. His Instagram is peppered with videos of him singing covers and playing piano, eyes firmly closed as he belts out the words of John Mayer and Elton John. “Recently I just thought, ‘Well, why not be a bit braver about it?’” he says. “Every Christmas, I would put out a post of myself singing a Christmas song and then I thought, ‘Why not just do it on a random Tuesday?’”
“I’m just trying to show people what I love,” says Barnes, sounding uncannily like his “free-loving” character in Gold Digger. “That’s all.”
Gold Digger begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday 12 November, after which all episodes will be available on iPlayer