‘When I sing, there’s no mask’: Luke Evans on his new album, Nicole Kidman duets and James Bond

Luke Evans: ‘In a film I’m not playing myself, I’m playing someone else’s story’ (Edward Cooke)
Luke Evans: ‘In a film I’m not playing myself, I’m playing someone else’s story’ (Edward Cooke)

In a decade’s worth of guns-blazing, dragon-slaying action films, Luke Evans has always been the quiet man. The Welsh actor delivered a calm, assured antagonist to the testosterone-loaded noise of the Fast & Furious franchise. While other gods and mortals fought monsters and each other in 2010’s pulpy box-office smash Clash of the Titans, he turned heads as the softly spoken Apollo. And in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy The Hobbit, he was reluctant hero Bard the Bowman, muttering about dwarves bringing chaos to his formerly peaceful life.

More recently, though, Evans has been speaking up – or rather, singing. The 43-year-old launched his career in musicals such as Rent and Miss Saigon, but it’s arguably Beauty and the BeastDisney’s live-action 2017 remake, in which he starred as a strutting, hubristic Gaston – that first brought his vocal talents to global attention. His co-star Emma Watson admitted she was “terrified” at the prospect of singing on screen, but Evans – who was taught by the same music teacher as his childhood friend Charlotte Church – seemed right at home being “everyone’s favourite guy”. Now he’s returning to music, his first love, in the form of his second studio album, A Song for You.

“In a film I’m not playing myself, I’m always playing someone else’s story,” he tells me, in his lilting Valleys accent. “When I sing, there’s no mask to put on. It’s quite a raw, vulnerable place to be.” We’re speaking over video call; Evans is at his hotel in Manchester, shooting a new movie. There’s a gentle empathy about him, the kind you often find in people who were bullied as children (Evans has spoken in the past of being tormented while growing up in the tiny former coal-mining town of Aberbargoed, Caerphilly). Hollywood hasn’t gone to his head, either. The man on my screen – handsome, strong of moustache, relaxed after a gym session – is warm and (mostly) unguarded. He seems delighted at the opportunity to talk about something different.

Quiet empathy: Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Quiet empathy: Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, A Song for You mostly comprises covers, but it still feels like a deeply personal work. There’s a faithful interpretation of Bonnie Raitt’s exquisite 1991 single “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, and a sweeping, cinematic romanticism to his cover of “Over the Rainbow”, originally performed by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps the most moving performance on the album is “Calon Lân”, a traditional Welsh hymn turned rugby anthem. It begins with a single piercing violin note, as fine as a spider’s thread, before Evans comes in with his rousing tenor: “Nid wy’n gofyn bywyd moethus/ Aur y byd na’i berlau mân/ Gofyn wyf am galon hapus/ Calon onest, calon lân.” (“I don’t ask for a life of luxury/ The gold of the world or its fine pearls/ I ask for a happy heart/ An honest heart, a clean heart.”)

“It’s such a powerful song, and it’s part of our culture,” Evans says. “It’s sung in church; it’s sung at weddings, at rugby matches... you learn it in school. It’s such a beautiful message.” When he came up with the idea to include it, the initial reaction from his team was a little uncertain. “But my label [BMG] were so supportive, so this is my homage to my Welsh heritage and how proud I am of my country,” he says. He played it to his dialect coach just the other day: “He had goosebumps!”

Film fans will find much to love about the record, thanks in part to the soundtrack covers but also to the presence of another Hollywood actor, Nicole Kidman. She and Evans met in Australia on the set of Hulu miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers; they ended up singing together when Kidman threw a wrap party at the Sydney home she shares with her husband, country music star Keith Urban. “They’re in love, really in love,” Evans says of the couple. “It’s glorious to be around them – they’re such kind, salt-of-the-earth people.” When he approached Kidman with the idea of a duet, he suggested Christina Aguilera’s Grammy-nominated “Say Something”. The Big Little Lies star recorded her part at Urban’s studio in Nashville, and her diaphanous vocals work wonderfully with Evans’s lower register, intertwining over sparse piano notes and swooning strings.

He deliberately didn’t ask Kidman to duet on his cover of “Come What May” – the song she performed with Ewan McGregor in Baz Lurhman’s 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! – thinking it’d be hard to top the original. Instead, he enlisted his long-time friend Church, whom he met in Cardiff about a year before moving to London on a dance and theatre scholarship. “We’ve been around each other’s lives for almost 20 years, so it’s amazing to do full circles,” he says. “We’ve been through so much separately and together.”

Luke Evans: ‘I like that feeling that there’s something bigger than us, when two people meet’ (Ed Cooke)
Luke Evans: ‘I like that feeling that there’s something bigger than us, when two people meet’ (Ed Cooke)

In between the covers are two original tracks, written with Grammy-winning songwriter Amy Wadge (who has written for Ed Sheeran, Kacey Musgraves and Camila Cabello). “One is very sad, full of regret and missed opportunity, and the other is about the beginnings of something, when you meet someone and it’s not in your control, you’ve been chosen to fall in love,” Evans explains. He was charmed by the idea of love being this unstoppable force: “You’re on the journey, you’ve been chosen to do this. I like that feeling that there’s something bigger than us, when two people meet.”

I wonder if he’s nervous about the fans who might hunt for clues hidden in the lyrics of those original songs. Evans came out as gay early on in his career, when he was 22, but since then has divulged little about his personal life. “I don’t think so... You’re influenced by so many things when it comes to writing,” he says. “People can interpret what they want to.” He takes inspiration from Adele’s songwriting: “There are songs she’s written that helped me understand my own feelings and process past relationships. A true artist just opens up their heart, and she’s done that the loudest, digging into the journey she went on. It’s a brave thing.”

He hopes listeners will find something to relate to in his own songs. “Relationships are difficult at the best of times, so when it ends you don’t always get the chance to say these things,” he says of “Busy Breaking Yours”. “You can be in a relationship and, as hard as you want to make it work, you do all the wrong things, you f*** it up.” He’s more optimistic on “Horizons Blue”, about the experience of falling in love with someone and “noticing all the tiny nuances: the marks on their face, the shape of their lips, and then the experiences that they go through. I liked it, being an absolute utter romantic, basically,” he says. He pauses. “It’s not exactly my life, but you pull on things from your own life – that’s where the best stories and the best songs come from.”

That reticence when it comes to his personal life reminds me of a 2016 interview with Ben Whishaw, who suggested that actors being too open was “completely shooting yourself in the foot. I don’t want to watch the [film or TV show] with a cloud of what I’ve read about people in the way,” he told The Guardian. Yet when I relay Whishaw’s point, Evans seems to think I’m asking why he doesn’t talk about being gay, and – for the first and only time in the interview – comes off a bit prickly. “I just don’t think it’s anyone’s real business to talk to me about my personal life,” he says. “They don’t do it to straight actors, so why should they to gay actors? It shouldn’t be a thing... I don’t talk about it because it’s nobody’s damn business!”

I just don’t think it’s anyone’s real business to talk to me about my personal life

Luke Evans

There’s an odd misconception that permeates media coverage about Evans, this idea that he’s somehow “hidden” his sexuality throughout his career. In fact, he’s been defending himself against those accusations since at least 2002: “I knew I was going to have to do interviews with gay magazines; I knew this was going to happen,” he said at the time. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to be open. It’s who I am. And if people don’t like it, then I don’t want their jobs.” Even now, there’s a sense that film fans “forget” that he’s gay, which might be linked to stereotyping: “I’ve been told I give off a very ‘masculine’ vibe,” he said in an interview with The Guardian last year.

His rugged quality – the furrowed brow and intense gaze – likely encouraged Whishaw, who played inventor Q to Daniel Craig’s 007, to tip Evans as a contender for the next James Bond. Certainly, he fits Ian Fleming’s vision of Bond: six foot, dark hair, slim, muscular build. Evans said in September that he’d “jump” at the chance to play cinema’s most famous spy, commenting: “I don’t know what the current temperature is with audiences, whether they care enough to worry about what James Bond does in the bedroom.” Was he talking about the character’s sexuality, or his?

“Both, I suppose,” he says. “[My sexuality] hasn’t had any impact on any of the roles I’ve played, my slate is so diverse, so varied in such a brilliant way. I’ve played everything and no one seems to have a problem with that.” Also, he points out, Bond has changed. “We’re not in the Roger Moore [era] where he sleeps with five women per film, that’s not really what he’s about any more. That was the point I was making [in September]. I think people are more interested in the spectacle, the story.” He’s a fan of Craig’s, crediting him with turning round what was already a much-loved franchise. “It’s huge. What are they gonna do next?! They’re so fantastic, I love the movies and whoever gets the role will have very big shoes to fill.”

Included among Evans’s future projects is Netflix’s animated remake of childhood classic Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, also starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Jonathan Pryce. He’s tying in his performance as the miserly grouch with a muted take on George Michael’s “Last Christmas” (“I wanted people to see it in a different way, but also remember how f***ing fabulous the original was”). He’s also written a “semi-Christmassy kind of song”, which he’s keeping to himself for another year. “It’s a saturated market,” he points out with a laugh. “But I’ve written something that’s really happy and inclusive and thematic, and it’ll show its head at some point.”

The next 12 months are his busiest yet: besides A Song for You, there’s an Apple TV series in November, and he’ll be shooting two more movies. He’s also hoping to do a few live shows. “We have a wonderful job as performers, because our job is to help people go on journeys and help them escape, leave their own life for a moment, whether it’s a three-minute song or a two-hour movie,” he says. “I feel very lucky to be one of those people who gets to do that for a living, I have to say.”

‘A Song for You’ is out on 4 November