Callum Turner: ‘People had a hang-up about my modelling, not my working-class background’

Turner stars as Olympic rower Joe Rantz in George Clooney’s feel-good sports film ‘The Boys in the Boat’ (Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock)
Turner stars as Olympic rower Joe Rantz in George Clooney’s feel-good sports film ‘The Boys in the Boat’ (Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock)

Back when the British actor Callum Turner was working as a model in Japan, he earned himself a nickname. “Maguro man,” Turner says, with a hint of pride. Excuse me? “It means tuna man! I had this one sushi place I went to everyday, I’d walk in and the chef would say, ‘maguro man’, because all I’d have for lunch is six pieces of tuna.” The diet wasn’t born out of a love of raw fish, but of occupational necessity. “I had to lose loads of weight,” Turner says. His natural waist is a trim 34 inches; designers wanted 28. “It was hard, but I did it. I can be very militant with my mind.” Turns out the insouciant air of his best characters, embodied by his bad boy lothario Anatole in War & Peace, belies an inner steel.

Even before the success of that Tolstoy adaptation, the 33-year-old was a familiar face on British telly. There was ITV’s Leaving (2012), a Mrs Robinson-esque drama in which he played Helen McCrory’s younger lover, and the E4 whodunit Glue (2014). Later, Turner was excellent as a soldier in crisis in the wildly popular conspiracy series The Capture (2019). But it was his role as Eddie Redmayne’s brother in the Harry Potter-Fantastic Beasts franchise that awakened international audiences to Turner’s charms. “Halfway through the audition, I just grabbed Eddie and kissed him right on his face,” Turner recalls. “It was a bold move,” he laughs. “Got to make them notice ya.” He was hard to ignore too as the seductive Frank Churchill in Autumn de Wilde’s deliciously frothy Emma adaptation.

Admittedly, Turner’s star power dims a little relative to his colleague and new pal, the most A-list of A-listers, who’s exiting the London hotel suite just as I walk in. “Did you see George?” Turner asks me. That’s George Clooney to you and me. “He’s got such a great energy. Everyone wants to work for him because of who he is as a person and as a director.” It was the latter that made Turner, who cites Clooney’s 2011 political thriller Ides of March as one of his favourite films, say yes to The Boys in the Boat, which is what we’re here to talk about today. The fact Clooney turned out to be a nice guy was a bonus.

Was he nervous? “No, I don’t get nervous around famous people, but I do get nervous around people,” says Turner. “I wanted him to like me, and I wanted Grant [Heslov, the producer] to like me because I’m human!” They all got on great. “George and Grant treated me like a little brother,” he says, beaming a little. “They would rip the s*** out of me all the time but in the most beautiful way.”

Released in cinemas this week, The Boys in the Boat tells the true story of the University of Washington’s junior varsity crew who, against all odds, paddled their way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where they took home gold. Turner plays Joe Rantz, an impoverished college student who takes up rowing only because it means a free bunk and a part-time job. Growing up with his mum on a council estate in Chelsea, of which he has very fond memories, Turner knows what it feels like to be on the outside. To get to school, he had to walk through the Boltons, the third-most expensive street in the UK. “Definitely, I felt like an outsider growing up,” he says. “I don’t any more because I’ve done a lot of work on that but as a child for sure.”

Also like Rantz, Turner had never stepped foot in a rowing boat before filming began. “None of us had,” he says, referring to his cast mates. “We were bricking it, but we were driven. We did four hours a day for five months, so it was very intense.” By the end of filming, Turner’s makeshift crew managed 46 strokes per minute – the same pace that the real-life crew had accomplished in Germany almost nine decades ago. No doubt it was the same determination that helped him drop six waist sizes back in Japan.

Turner keeps his modelling days in the rear-view mirror. “I loved the travelling aspect, but I couldn’t have pursued it,” he says now. When I ask if Turner ever felt hard done by being a working-class actor in an elitist industry, he demurs. “I don’t know about that necessarily,” Turner says. “It was the modelling that people had a hang-up over. It wasn’t about where I was from.” His comments remind me of another big name in the model-to-actor pipeline, Jamie Dornan, who similarly said his time in the industry impeded his ability to get work as an actor.

Turner as Joe Rantz in ‘The Boys in the Boat’, the story of the US Olympic rowing team who won gold in Berlin in 1936 (Laurie Sparham)
Turner as Joe Rantz in ‘The Boys in the Boat’, the story of the US Olympic rowing team who won gold in Berlin in 1936 (Laurie Sparham)

“I think the thing about being working class and having no money is that you actually have to have another job,” says Turner on his former career. “I worked three jobs; I worked in two different shops, and I worked in a bar just to pay my rent.” Four days a week were spent working, with the other three devoted to acting: watching films, going to the theatre, taking courses, reading screenplays, plays, and interviews with actors he admired. “I commit,” he says.

Many a party has been missed on account of dialogue to be memorised or characters to be studied. Turner spent Christmas Day learning lines for Masters of the Air, the hotly anticipated action drama in which he’s one in a veritable who’s who of young actors – also Austin Butler, Barry Keoghan, Ncuti Gatwa – playing the so-called Bloody Hundredth, the storied bomb unit of the US army air force in the Second World War.

Turner has a face from the past. Casting directors certainly see it: putting his sky-high cheekbones to use in films and shows like Victor Frankenstein, Queen and Country, Ripper Street and The Borgias, as well as the aforementioned War & Peace, Emma, The Boys in the Boat, and Masters of the Air – a collection of titles that spans the 15th to the 20th century. There’s the occasional modern-day credit but history keeps beckoning. Turner laughs when I bring it up. “If George was making a movie about people going to the moon in the future, I would’ve wanted to do it,” he insists. “This is just how it’s happened. I guess I’ve got the right period hair – maybe I’ve got to shave it all off.”

I guess I’ve got the right period hair – maybe I’ve got to shave it all off

Like most actors, Turner is a film fan. After realising his dreams of becoming a footballer (he used to play semi-professionally) weren’t going to happen, he put his all into acting. More than once, he cuts off answers about himself to enthuse over specific scenes in Kramer vs Kramer and Joaquin Phoenix’s We Own the Night. He’s picked up tips and tricks from the greats, among them Jeff Bridges (“Did you see The Old Man? The guy’s got a six pack in his seventies! He’s a sexy guy!”), with whom he starred in the critically derided 2017 romance-drama The Only Living Boy in New York.

Turner‘s face from the past makes him the perfect choice for period pieces (Focus Features)
Turner‘s face from the past makes him the perfect choice for period pieces (Focus Features)

“He and I had this wonderful time together and then the movie came out and it wasn’t received well by the critics,” recalls Turner. “And he said to me, ‘Sometimes you do a movie, you meet people, try to have a nice time, try to do good work and then maybe make a friend – like me and you – and then if the movie comes out a year later and it’s good, bonus. If not, that’s OK.’” Turner needed to hear exactly that at that point in time. “Jeff put my mind at ease. It was this big American movie, and we were all disappointed, but it was my experience with him that made it OK,” he says. Turner never reads reviews, but “it’s nice when people like the thing you’ve made”.

Robert Pattinson is another one he admires. “He can finance a whole movie just by being in it, which is ultimately the goal,” says Turner – who has one other, far less conventional benchmark for success. “When I left Japan, I was 19 years old and I made a deal with myself that I would not return unless it was first for work,” says Turner. “I know it’s crazy, but it’s the way I operate. I’m very superstitious. I always put my left sock on my right foot.” I tell him I put my socks inside out for similar reasons. Turner smiles, “Whatever keeps us safe in the world, you know?”

‘The Boys in the Boat’ is out in UK cinemas now