NATURAL ROMEO ; At the age of 21, Douglas Booth looks set to be one of the country's biggest exports with four big movies already in the can. The actor talks to SUSAN GRIFFIN about tackling Shakespeare and reeling from first love
SO often are actresses judged for their looks that it's easy to forget it happens to their male counterparts too. Take Douglas Booth, the 21-year-old whose features have already graced Burberry's promotional campaigns.
One of things you get most is, 'You're too good-looking to play this part,' says Booth, whose long limbs nervously occupy a chair. He is beautiful, all high cheekbones, feline eyes and pouty mouth but he acknowledges his genetic luck with a shrug, rather than any sense of cockiness.
I'm not going to moan about anything but it's often seen as a hindrance, something you've got to fight against. I'm sure it's helped in other ways though.
The Burberry campaign came about when the company's creative director Christopher Bailey spotted him playing an arrogant youth in Julian Fellowes's 2009 movie From Time To Time.
Fellowes remembered the young actor when casting Romeo in a new telling of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, which he has adapted and co-produced. In the time since we worked together he's found a tenderness, a sympathy and a strength that informed his Romeo and made him, quite simply, heart-breaking, says Fellowes.
In turn, Booth reveals that the writer's take on the classic tale of the two feuding families and their ill-fated offspring has opened the Bard up to him.
To be honest, I never fell in love with Shakespeare the way I did when I read Julian's script, says the London-born actor who beat more than 300 other hopefuls to win the part.
But just as Fellowes has found himself embroiled in controversy over Downton Abbey's historical inaccuracies, Shakespeare enthusiasts will no doubt be enraged over his decision to tamper with the dialogue.
I think 80% of it is the real Shakespeare and 20% is Julian's adaptation, says Booth. But I think he's made it appealing to modern audiences and what will make me happy is if this creates a bridge for people to not feel threatened by Shakespeare.
Back in 1996, Baz Luhrmann directed Romeo + Juliet in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes played the star-crossed lovers. While that was lauded for its contemporary interpretation, Fellowes's version marks the first time since Franco Zeffirelli's classic 1968 film that the action has played out in a traditional setting.
The costumes totally immerse you in the world and we were also in these beautiful locations where it was meant to be set, says Booth, who doesn't believe teenagers have changed so much since the 16th Century.
To prove his point, he brought a newspaper clipping to his screen test with the Oscar-nominated actress Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Juliet.
It was about a teenager who was cleaning his shotgun. His girlfriend was there, they were both 15 and the gun went off and killed her. He was so full of grief he instantly turned the gun on himself, says Booth.
I wanted to show that Romeo and Juliet's tragic ending isn't out of the ordinary, like a totally mythical, unrealistic thing. Young people today are prepared to kill themselves for love, especially if they're blinded by first love.
Recalling his own experience, Booth, says: I was 14 and I dated the same girl for about three years. It's crazy, you don't know what's going on. You have all these feelings going around your body, so it was very important to draw on that.
While Booth has yet to climb any balconies, he has flown all over the world for love.
Not many 21-year-olds can afford such grand gestures, but as one of the country's rising stars, Booth's life is far from average.
My friends can't really contemplate some of the pressures I have in my job. They don't understand it and nor should they at a young age. But it's what you sign up for and you have to be strong enough, he says.
You can't believe your own hype. You have to think, 'This is Douglas, the public figure' and, 'This is the normal bloke with friends and family'. You can't merge the two or it's going to be destructive.
The son of an English father and half-Spanish, half-Dutch mother, the dyslexic Booth struggled academically at school.
I was never particularly confident as a child but I discovered drama was something that made me happy.
Unfortunately for Booth, he had to wait a while to shine on stage as the same children were always cast in the school play. The kids who always did academically well, says Booth. You know, 'If you get top grades, you'll be able to do it'. So I rarely got an opportunity when I was young.
Then, aged 12, he got his moment when he was cast as Agamemnon in a school musical.
I thought, 'This is fun, I can do this!' says Booth, who then joined the National Youth Theatre and studied at the Guildhall every Saturday throughout his teenage years. I did as much extra- curricular drama as I could, then got an agent and started working properly.
Following From Time To Time, Booth was cast as Boy George in the TV drama Worried About The Boy. Though the singer himself wasn't involved in casting, he did act as a consultant and Booth got to talk to him about his early years, as well as wear some of his original outfits.
There were these amazing leather jackets that he made when he was 17. They belonged to museums, had to be locked in a safe at night and I was blessed to be wearing them, says the actor. It's definitely one of my favourite jobs. I like challenges - and that was a real challenge.
He's since starred in The Pillars Of The Earth as this snivelling little terrified prince who gets slaughtered three scenes in, appeared alongside Matt Smith in Christopher And His Kind, played Pip in the 2011 TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and co-starred with Miley Cyrus in the teen rom-com LOL.
Following Romeo And Juliet, there are numerous movies to promote next year, such as sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending with Channing Tatum, the big-screen version of the play Posh, and Darren Aronofsky's epic Noah, in which Russell Crowe plays the title character and Booth's father.
He was still singing Les Mis songs [on set,] laughs Booth. I think it was still fading out of his system. But Russell's very sociable. He's always, 'Come back to my trailer mate, have a drink'.
After a well-deserved holiday, Booth's going to take some time to evaluate his next step. Of all the people whose career he'd like to follow, it's a fellow Romeo.
When Leonard DiCaprio started, he was this huge heart-throb but he was like, 'Right, I'm not going to settle for being that. I'm going to have a very varied and interesting career that I'll create and carve out', he says. That's a very respectful path and one I'd like to emulate. ? Romeo And Juliet is in cinemas now.
'Young people today are prepared to kill themselves for love, especially if they're blinded by first love'
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