Six years ago, Luke Evans made his feature film debut in Clash of the Titans. Judging from his résumé, the Welsh actor hasn’t taken a break since. When we meet him in New York at the end of August, he’s in the middle of filming State Like Sleep with Katherine Waterston in Canada. He already has his next project lined up, which is due to start filming this month in Boston. “It hasn’t been announced yet,” he explains. “[But] it’s quite extraordinary and it’s a true story.” Then there are the three films we’re set to discuss: Bill Condon’s live-action Beauty and the Beast (he plays Gaston, the villain with “biceps to spare”); the indie Message from the King, which co-stars Chadwick Boseman and Alfred Molina and just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; and, of course, Universal’s adaptation of the best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train.
Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, and Edgar Ramirez, The Girl on the Train comes out on Friday across the U.S. Evans plays Scott, the passionate, confused husband of a missing woman. “It’s one of those holiday books everybody seems to still be reading,” says Evans. “The first thing people ask when they realize I’m in the film is, ‘Who are you?'” he continues. “More often than not, they guess the wrong character … I don’t know what that means about my reputation or what they think of me.”
EMMA BROWN: Do you have any siblings?
LUKE EVANS: I’m an only child. My mum and dad are six in each family. They’re both twins, and they only wanted one. I always say to them though that they’re lucky—it could have all gone wrong. [laughs] They put all their eggs in one basket. But I’m very, very close to my mum and dad. My mum is only nineteen years older than me, so she could be my older sister, which is really nice. I’ve got a load of cousins. My mum’s twin sister’s son, there’s only seven months between us, and we’re super close. He’s like my brother. We’re probably closer than our mothers are, actually.
BROWN: What did your parents think when you decided to become an actor?
EVANS: I think they were a little freaked out. I left home when I was quite young—at 16—so that was first thing to deal with. I think becoming an actor was not as scary because they’d [already] dealt with the fact that their only child had left the house. But they saw that I was good at it; I was winning singing and performance competitions and stuff. They could see that I was doing something that really made me happy. And winning a scholarship, I didn’t have any of their help to do that stuff. I did that off my own back. I think that when you see your child do something like that independently of you at such a young age—if it was me, like my mum and dad did, I’d just support them and be there for them. I was just lucky that I had gotten into this college and I was moving to the city I had always wanted to live in. It must be weird having one child though. They were very protective; you’re quite precious I guess to them because they only have one. But it all worked out.
BROWN: What did you want to be when you were five?
EVANS: I probably wanted to be a shopkeeper, because I like tills.
BROWN: Did you ever think about just becoming a singer?
EVANS: All the time. I think my dream would have been to be a solo artist. But it didn’t work out like that, and I also love to sing lots of musical stuff; I was really good at that, I’ve got a big voice. I dropped into musical theater and really enjoyed it and I sang for about nine years of my career. I left college two months before I graduated to play the juvenile lead in a new musical in the West End.
BROWN: That’s a good start.
EVANS: Yeah, it was a great start. I was very happy.
BROWN: You were in a play at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008, Small Change, and got nominated for the Evening Standard’s “Outstanding Newcomer Award.” Was that frustrating because you’d been onstage for eight years at that point?
EVANS: You just sort of have to bite your tongue and say, “Thank you very much, it’s nice to be acknowledged.” In a way, I was being acknowledged for the first time because I hadn’t done any straight plays, so that was a really amazing moment. Also it was the Donmar Warehouse, which is this sort of like Holy Grail of places.
BROWN: Yes. I can never get tickets.
EVANS: No, you can never get tickets; can never get seen by the casting director. And I managed to do all of that off my own back. My agent at the time couldn’t get me a meeting so I wrote a letter to the casting director and I said, “Listen, I’m a Welsh actor”—I said Welsh because the play that they were about to cast was about two Welsh boys and I thought, “This is my role, this has to be mine.” I said I was 28, I was in Rent, I was playing Roger down the road—”If you want some tickets or if I could see you for five minutes it’d be really nice to meet you.” And she called seven days later and said “Come in.” That’s sort of how it all started, really.
BROWN: Had you ever written a letter like that before?
EVANS: No, no. Never. But I would recommend anybody to do it. What have you got to lose? That’s what I felt; I was like, “Well, fuck it, if they don’t contact me back what have I lost?” But I didn’t lose anything, and I gained a wonderful experience and it opened so many doors for me. It allowed people to see me in a different light to this musical theater actor. That really was a big moment career-wise for me—huge moment.
BROWN: Is there a big divide on the West End—either you do musicals or you do serious plays, and there’s no crossover?
EVANS: Yeah. And I’m not saying every musical theater actor can do film or television, but a lot of them can. A lot of them are brilliant actors who absolutely don’t need to sing to prove their ability and don’t get the opportunity. It’s quite clear if you look at the actors in film right now, some of them came from theater but they didn’t come from musical theater. There’s still a bit of a stigma attached to it I would say. On Broadway and in the United States it’s very different—people crossover all the time into television. I think that we’ll get there [in London] in the end, but it has to start with who comes to see you in the musical and whether they can see beyond the dancing and the singing.
BROWN: So your first film audition came after you did Small Change?
EVANS: Well, I did Small Change and then I went back and did Piaf, which is a play with music and singing in it about Edith Piaf. During that time I auditioned for a role, I screen-tested for another film, and then I went to L.A. I had saved enough money to go to L.A. to do the meet and greets with all the casting directors and whoever would meet me, really. It was during that time that I had a callback for Apollo in Clash of the Titans. I was like “Great! I’m in L.A.! Perfect!” And they were like “Ah, but the callback is in London…” I got back on a plane and used the last bit of my savings and got a job. Really, it’s probably the smallest amount of screen time I’ve had in any movie I’ve ever done. But because it was such a big movie—it was Warner Brothers—it was a big deal. Sometimes it’s not about the size of your role, it’s about the machine that you’re part of. It opened a lot of doors and sort of set me on my way. That first year I did Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, Blitz, Tamara Drewe, and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll within the space of 12 months. They were all sort of small roles, apart from Tamara Drewe.
BROWN: Had you studied acting for the camera when you were school at all?
EVANS: No, I had no clue whatsoever. I’ve always been quite good at watching someone do something and then picking it up, so I turned that talent to watching people on the film set, and just saw how small everything was and how intimate the scenes could be. If you work with amazing actors, you’ve got a master class happening in front of you. But [also] it’s just acting at the end of the day. You’ve got to be in the moment and respond to what you’re feeling. I try to simplify it as much as possible. You can over complicate everything with techniques; when you’re in the moment, you have to feel that you are that character, that you’re feeling the pain or the happiness or whatever it is that they’re feeling in that moment. Usually the authenticity will manifest itself.
BROWN: Have you ever had played a character where you felt like, “I really connect with this character, this is me.”
EVANS: Yes. Quite a few times. I felt that with Bard the Bowman [in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug], although I’m not a father yet. I felt his human spirit. I understood it completely and what he was fighting for. He was willing to take on a dragon the size of the Empire State Building to save his people with one arrow. He was the most self-sacrificing man and I admired him. He was a fantastic character to play. Weirdly I felt the same for Vlad Tepes in Dracula, because we brought the human side to that character. He was fighting for his family and his child and for his people. He chose the wrong route but it was with a pure heart and a pure objective. Then there are other times you don’t have any connection to them and you have to really find a connection. There’s always a connection to be made whether you’re playing a psychopath or whatever. It doesn’t really matter; you’ve got to find this thing that you relate to with each character otherwise you’re missing something.
BROWN: How did you get cast as Gaston in Beauty in the Beast? What was the process like?
EVANS: I had to audition. They wanted to hear everybody. I can tell you huge names that were in the room before me and after me. I was like, “Fuck.” Everybody was being seen for these roles, and for Gaston especially. It’s a great role, and he has this big song—well, there are a few big songs. I went in and met Bill Condon and it was quite nice. Sometimes when you audition it’s quite a nerve wracking thing, you’re quite exposed and maybe have only had the script for a few days before. I remember going in and I knew the song and I knew that I could sing it really well—that’s what I’ve done my whole career up until this point. It was one of those moments where I could relax and thoroughly enjoy every minute of it, knowing that vocally I could do it. It was quite nice to see Mr. Condon’s face at the end of it smiling away. I was like, “Okay, well I think I’ve done something right in this room.” But I went back twice to try different things and it was great. It’s quite nice to audition sometimes. I’m in a fortunate position that sometimes you just get offered roles—they’re not necessarily the roles you take, but to get offered a film is amazing. I think the work you’ve done before that is why you get it. But when you audition for something you do feel a little bit more legit. It’s a validation that you are the right person for the job because they’ve chosen and they’ve seen you do something connected to that role. I loved every second of [the film]. It was thrilling. You just felt like you were on a big MGM set of a musical. It’s huge and it’s breathtaking, some of the stuff that we shot. I can’t wait to see the final cut.
BROWN: Do most people in the film world know that you come from a musical background?
EVANS: No. That’s the best bit. Obviously more and more people will find out, [but] I don’t think a lot of people know that I can sing. It’s not common knowledge.
BROWN: I wonder how many people go in who really can’t sing.
EVANS: I’m sure there’s plenty. [laughs] I’m sure it happens a lot. Not everybody’s a great singer, but people can get better at singing. There’s great singing teachers out there. It’s a muscle, you just have to train it.
BROWN: When you are offered roles, is there one film in particular that people mention: “I saw you in this and thought you’d be great.”
EVANS: High Rise is one of those films. Before that it was something else, but High Rise seems to be the one that everybody’s been like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that from you.” It was lovely to hear those things, because I did throw myself into that film physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was a real rollercoaster of a film for me. I was going through some personal drama at the time, so I think I just channeled all of that stress and tension and passion into Richard Wilder, this character, and it just hit the mark. Those roles don’t come up very often. And Ben Wheatley, who directed it, he’s just such a cool director. He’s very free and allows you to try things, pushes you really far. I felt complete liberty to try anything.
BROWN: Musicians often talk about how you can’t write a great song when you’re happy. Do you think it’s sort of the same with acting—you’re just better when you’ve got personal problems to channel?
EVANS: Maybe. I don’t know. I’m quite good at switching off and sometimes I forget who I am in a character. Sometimes you have to, like when I was playing Dracula I had to switch off from the reality and fall into this fantasy world. Otherwise I just couldn’t cope with what I was doing. It’s about switching off. It is about trying to flick a switch, which you have to do.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN OPENS ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2016. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST OPENS ON MARCH 17, 2017.