Scotland on Screen: Jack Lowden on Benediction

From that infamous Irn-Bru ad to his current role in spy thriller Slow Horses, Jack Lowden has always been a sparky and compelling screen presence. We speak to him about his finest performance yet, as tortured war poet Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 May 2022
  • Benediction

It’s not often we get to speak to a rising movie star who we regularly see buying milk at the "Big Tesco" in Leith, Edinburgh. But that’s the case with Jack Lowden. The 31-year-old, who grew up in the village of Oxton in the Scottish Borders, has quickly become a familiar face of British stage and screen. In his short career, he's been in high demand in two genres: war films (Dunkirk and ‘71 – his big break was in National Theatre of Scotland’s celebrated Black Watch), and biographical films, where he’s played people like Morrissey (England Is Mine), Tony Benn (A United Kingdom) and Lord Darnley (Mary Queen of Scots). His new film, Benediction, fits roughly into both categories: with great tenderness and wit he plays the first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

“It's not a conscious decision,” Lowden says when we ask about his propensity for playing real people. “I'm still getting to that point where I can be picky about my roles, but I do seem to play a lot of them. And I've also played a lot of people who I don't look anything like. When I’m offered those I’m always like, ‘oh shit, you want me?’”

While he might sometimes be miffed as to why he’s offered certain roles, he does seem to relish them. “It's quite scary playing someone real, but it’s also great because there's a bit of a blueprint. So it's not all completely up to you. And also you have an excuse to do all of this research. For [Benediction] I visited [Sassoon's] grave out in the West Country, and it was really moving to stand in front of him and think, ‘God, you were a real bloke, you weren't just these scenes.’”

Lowden is speaking to us in a bougie Glasgow hotel ahead of Benediction’s Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival. It’s a town he knows well, having studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, although some of his memories are murkier than others. “I've been walking around, trying to remember again where the Buff Club is. I have fond memories of all those nights when I was a student, getting kicked out of there at the end and then walking down those lanes.”

Also hazy is the moment he decided he wanted to be an actor. “There isn't a particularly romantic story about it,” he says. “But the major thing is the fact that my brother is a ballet dancer, he's in the Royal Swedish Ballet, and he wanted to do that since he was a kid. He's younger than me, but I went along with him, and didn't really get on that well at the dancing; I wasn't very good. I was encouraged instead to narrate the ballet shows. So I did that, and fell in love with being on stage.”

While there wasn’t a Eureka moment when he realised he wanted to act, he has a clear memory of when he started to think of himself as an actor. “It's quite funny, I was talking about that the other day. I went to drama school, and I did Black Watch, which was just my favourite play and a great start, but it wasn't until I did an Ibsen in London [Ghosts in 2014]. I had to do an English accent, and I remember getting the part and going back from the train after the audition, and thinking, ‘I'm a real actor now, because I can do an accent.’ Which is of course nonsense, but admittedly accents are all I do now.”

It was certainly good training for playing Sassoon. Peter Capaldi appears as the poet in his bitter dotage but the majority of Benediction focuses on Lowden as the young Sasson. It’s a complex role. This is a man who survived the horrors of war, was decorated for his courage, and condemned his country’s treatment of his fellow soldiers. After the war, meanwhile, he became a star of London’s literary scene and embarked on a string of passionate affairs with men, only to retreat into marriage and religion in his older age.

Like most people in the UK, Lowden studied Sassoon’s poetry at school, but it’s his prose that the actor found most useful when researching the role. “His poetry is great, but his diaries, to me, are far better,” says Lowden. “His diaries are of being on the front line in the trenches, and they're so heartbreaking. But he's incredibly sarcastic and cynical and very pettily jealous, and vain as anything, but he admits this. Instantly I liked him.”

Lowden was also helped immensely by his exacting director, Terence Davies. “Terence is incredibly specific. He's acted the whole film out before you turn up, because I think he definitely would have been an actor if he’d had the chance.” Lowden also reckoned that Davies saw so much of himself in Sassoon’s story that the film was essentially a self-portrait. “It was fairly evident fairly quickly that I was playing [Davies] as well. So more than any director I've ever worked with, Terence felt every single moment. He had a strong opinion on every line, which at first is a bit against your instincts as an actor, because you feel that you're there to give your slant on it. But once you get into that, it's quite a cool experience; you're really working on someone's vision. It's also wonderful to know that you're in the hands of somebody who knows exactly what they want. The opposite is not fun.”

Film: Benediction (2021), Kindred (2020), Capone (2020), Fighting with My Family (2019), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), Calibre (2018), Dunkirk (2017), England Is Mine (2017), Tommy’s Honour (2016), A United Kingdom (2016), Denial (2016), ‘71 (2014)

TV: Slow Horses (2022), Small Axe (2020), War & Peace (2016), The Tunnel (2013)

Stage: Measure for Measure (2018), Electra (2014), Ghosts (2014), Chariots of Fire (2012), Black Watch (2010)

I: @jack.lowden

Benediction is released 20 May by Vertigo