The Insider: Olly Alexander
on ‘god help the girl,’ slapping people, underage drinking + years & years.
There are those who try their luck in the music and film industry and there are those who succeed. 24-year-old Olly Alexander, as you may have guessed, is the latter. For those who aren't already acquainted, Alexander is the frontman of British electro-pop band Years & Years, whose few songs are in a steady, constant rotation over at NYLON HQ. And while the music videos for "Real" and "Take Shelter" are entrancing enough to watch on a loop, don't forget to schedule in some time to see Alexander star as James in Stuart Murdoch's debut film, God Help The Girl. Although, in all honesty, you might want to pencil in some extra time because you'll want to watch it again and again—it's that good.
We caught up with Alexander and talked about his new role, underaged drinking, Years & Years, and how to get the girl.
So I think we should start by addressing the slapping scene at the beginning of the film.
I know. Yeah, we need to talk about it.
So, was that improvised?
No, it was a scripted slap. It was a scripted slap. But I do feel like, I am quite proud of that slap. Because I haven’t slapped that many people in my life. I actually had to have a fight coordinator teach me how to slap. The thing is, right, stunt coordinators on movies are really intense and even for something that is as small as a slap, you need to have like two hours rehearsal for. They put like really big crash mats around in case you fall over and hurt yourself. So I feel like it was a lot of work that went into this one tiny slap. But I’m proud of it. I think it was pretty girly, but I’m fine with that.
So have you been in many fights yourself?
Yeah, a lot. Loads. Yeah, pretty much a fight a day. That’s why I’m so tough and bulky.
And have you ever kind of broke out the slap after all of your training?
That’s my killer move. I work up to it and sort of, you know, warm up with a couple of, kind of like, punches and then I finish with a slap.
Awesome. Glad to hear it. So, have you always been a massive fan of Belle and Sebastian?
I was a fan of Belle and Sebastian. I didn’t really know a lot of their music—I only knew the kind of bigger songs because I had a friend, when I was younger, who was really into them. But I have always really respected Belle and Sebastian for what they are, what they do. Yeah, they’re just great. Stuart is a brilliant songwriter and they just do what they do so well that’s so kind of like true to their own kind of thing. You know? If that makes sense.
Yeah, totally. And do you remember the first time that you listened to them?
Yes, I do, actually. I think I was around fourteen and I got really wasted at a friend’s house. We were drinking, I think, her parent’s wine. And loads of us were around and we were all being naughty and getting drunk. And she put on “Cuckoo” cause she really loves Belle and Sebastian and that was the first song of theirs I heard. Yeah, just like underage drinking. You can just write about that.
Where did you grow up?
Well, I moved around quite a lot so I was born in Yorkshire and then I moved to Blackpool, which is like North England. Blackpool is a hilarious place. It’s kind of like the Las Vegas of the UK. It’s by the sea and there’s a lot of casinos and resorts. My dad worked at this theme park there called The Pleasure Beach. And the reason we moved around a lot was because my dad works at theme parks and we’d move near whatever theme park he was working at. So I was basically a glorified carnie. And yeah, so I lived in Blackpool for a while and then I moved to Gloucester, which is like South West England, which is just at the bottom of Wales, because I went to school in Wales. And then yeah, so I moved around a lot, basically.
So, what drew you to the film? And more specifically, your role in it?
Well, I feel like the film had been floating around—I had heard about the film years before I auditioned for it because it had been casting for quite a while. And it kept looking like it was going to go and then falling through, so I had heard about other people auditioning for it. So I was like “Oh shit, I wanna audition for this film, it sounds really cool," cause everyone just, there was just—I don’t know, you don’t often get a script, like hear about a project, where it’s like, “Oh, this band, they’re trying to make a film. And it’s going to be a musical. But it’s kind of going to be a bit weird musical.” It just seemed really cool. Management said I was too young and I wasn’t right for it. And then a couple years later, they were getting desperate and hadn’t found an actor yet and I finally got to audition.
I feel like you always want to work with people who kind of are like artists and that is so true. Stuart just made a movie he wanted to make, you know? It’s funded, it’s not like studio backed, it’s just his vision. And I think that’s cool. I just wanted to be a part of it.
And then the role, I mean I would’ve done anything probably. I would’ve played, you know, any part. Like Eve. I would’ve been a great Eve. But yeah, it was a no brainer really. Of course I wanted to be in it.
So what’s going on with Years & Years?
Quite a lot. Like, a lot. It feels really busy. Which is good. We just played in Poland, actually. It was crazy. It was so, almost the biggest show we’ve ever played. In Poland. Which is nuts. But we just, sort of, just had a single come out, but it’s not released in the US, which is annoying. But we will be releasing stuff here soon. It's called "Take Shelter" and Emily Browning is, in fact, in the video for it. [Watch the video below.] Yeah, thanks Emily. And we’re just gonna have another single in a couple months. But we’re just kind of working on getting the album finished. And then we’re going on tour. UK and Europe in a month or two. Just playing with Clean Bandit and then Sam Smith.
Do you think that your own musical aspirations and such really helped you with your role?
I mean, yeah. Stuart told me the reason why I got the part was because when all the people, the audition had to read a bit of the script and also perform a song. And apparently, everyone had been playing guitar and doing covers of Bob Dylan or David Bowie or whoever. And I wrote a song on my little keyboard and sang it. It was a song about a camping holiday I went on when I was ten years old. And he said, "That’s something James would’ve done.” And it definitely helped because I feel very relaxed in the music and band environment. And also I totally get the whole frustrated musician thing. Because that’s been my life that I’m tied to, so I guess it did help in that way. But I’m not really as cynical or pretentious as James.
Did you find James pretentious?
Yeah, so pretentious. I think he’s just he’s one of those people who is so opinionated, but it’s kind of to hide. You know those people who are really opinionated, but it’s because they’re kind of insecure and they really just want to be liked by people, but they were kind of maybe bullied or weird at school so they’ve kind of got these rigid opinions about stuff? I feel like he’s one of those people. But, yeah. He’s a little bit of a music snob, as well, which I am not. I like a lot of trashy music, as well as good music.
What kind of music do you find yourself listening to?
I listen to a lot of kind of weird dance music and electronic music and a lot of new music because I get really obsessed with kind of finding new acts. Like, I don’t know if you know, FKA twigs? And Jungle. And Kalala, she’s American. And Tink—she’s really good. But then I also listen to like Beyonce and Jeff Buckley. And it’s a bit like, I love them both.
So you're very open-minded, musically.
Yeah, you gotta embrace all forms of culture, you know? Like high culture and low culture. Although I did watch the new Nicki Minaj video ["Anaconda"] and I don’t know how I feel about it. You know, I feel like, it felt like I was watching something illegal. Like I shouldn’t have been watching it.
Like it should’ve been wrapped in plastic wrap?
Yeah, it should’ve came with a disclaimer and a warning. Like I feel a bit dirty after watching it. I felt a bit like, “Oh, I shouldn’t have watched that.” But then I wanted to watch it again.
So obviously James is very timid when it comes to Eve and kind of making his move. And when he does, she’s she tells him he should have done it a while back. What are your tips for getting the girl?
Getting the girl. Oh, man. I wish I had good advice. I mean, I definitely think, don’t wait. Don’t get friend zoned cause that happens if you wait too long. You just become too friendly and then she doesn’t want to start seeing you as a boyfriend cause you’ve taken too long. I guess, my tip would be, be confident and don’t wear such tight-fitting clothes, maybe?
Do you think James wore tight-fitting clothes?
Yes! I was watched the movie and I was like, “Oh my god, who is that horribly skinny person?” And I felt like, maybe it was mainly because all of his clothes were too tight. Too small.
So, wear baggy clothes?
Yeah, wear really baggy clothes.
What was your most impressionable on-set memory?
There’s a bit in the film where I have to dance with Cassie and it’s a bit where Emily is kind of sad and I take her and I’m like, “Get out there!” And we go to this music hall and then she gets up on stage and starts to sing and all these dancers start dancing. So there’s old people dancing and everyone starts to come in and Hannah’s character comes and joins and does a little dance. And anyway, I remember filming that day and for the first time all the dancers did their routine and I came and “Dance rehearsal, go.” And all the dancers came on and did their routine. And me, Hannah, and Emily, we were just standing there and our jaws hitting the floor being like, “This is amazing.” And I realized that being in a film where your job is to show up and just be a part of all of this singing and dancing is the funnest thing ever. It kind of just felt like, "I can’t believe I get paid to do this." That was it.
Oh, actually, no, I have a better story I wanna tell.
The dog in the film, right, is called “Captain” and the dog had to be a boy. Anyway, towards the end of the shoot, we had caught on to the fact that Captain was most definitely not a boy because he had really big breasts and Captain was swelling by day by day. We were like, “Captain is definitely not a dude and Captain is pregnant.” Anyway, but the dog trainer was totally denying this fact. She’s like, "Oh, no no no.” Cause Captain was like such a bad actor dog, as well.
Hannah Murray: Are you telling the Captain story? The one where she gave birth?
Yeah, yeah. But we all knew that the dog was a female and definitely pregnant. And then one day on set, she gave, the dog gave birth.
Murray: I was on set when she gave birth. It was the craziest thing. I remember I texted all of you guys like "The dog gave birth!" It was insane. We were doing like a tiny little second unit thing and I remember they just did a take of it, the dog running down the road and then they were gonna go again. And then they were like, "Oh no, no.” And [the dog trainer] got like a duvet out of her car and laid it out on the street and the dog gave birth.
She knew. She knew. But she pretended she didn’t.
Murray: I remember Nicole, our makeup artist, who was amazing—we were both looking over open-mouth in shock. It was the craziest thing ever.
But then the dog trainer was like, “Oh, give her fifteen minutes and she’ll be fine.”
Murray: Well she had four in there. She was like “she won’t have another one for half an hour so we can do another take if you want.” And we were like, “No, we’re fine. She can, you know.”
The pushiest stage mum.
Murray: We filmed a scene with the puppies. I don’t think it’s in the movie.
We had to change the gender because for half the film, Captain was a boy. And then we had to be like, “Oh, where’d...she gone?” to just—
Murray: Do you remember those ones? I think, I don’t think it’s in, but Stuart was like, we were doing a scene and we’d finished and walking down the street. We had finished the scripted dialogue and Stuart was like, “Uhh, guys, talk about how the dog’s pregnant.” And you were like, “She’s getting really fat.” And I was like, “Yeah, she’s pregnant.”
Gold. Dialogue gold. I don't know why it didn't get in the movie. Yeah so, that was it. It was pretty wild.
God Help The Girl hits theaters this Friday. If you haven't already, check out our interview with Emily Browning. Then stay tuned for more Insider interviews with Hannah Murray, and Stuart Murdoch.