Billy Howle is a busy man. Since breaking into the business in 2014, the 32-year-old British actor just keeps working. Following roles in Dunkirk, On Chesil Beach, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Howle co-stars alongside Naomi Watts in Infinite Storm. Based on a true story, Howle plays a young man stranded on the side of a mountain while Watts plays the woman attempting to rescue him.
I spoke to Mr. Howle about the film and the filming process. We also discussed his working relationship with Watts, and how you have to be a pretty good mountain climber to act like you’re bad at mountain climbing.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity
Ben Miller: Tell me what the filming process was like. How immersive was it, was it a real thing with you on the side of a mountain or was it more of movie magic?
Billy Howle: I think, as with a lot of films unless you are very, very fortunate and have the luxury of time and sort of inexhaustive amounts of money…of course there is some sort of movie magic involved. Listen, there is this sort of illusionary practice in that a good magician never reveals his secrets. But, yes the real secret is we were in a studio because it was unavoidable.
But, primarily, we were on the side of a mountain in Slovenia contending with real weather systems, contending with real storms, minus 20 weather; crazy cold. So yeah we just sort of did it. In that sense it was very immersive. And a lot of the physical stuff, we really did that. Like falling into the water, or tumbling down the hill through the forest.
Naomi [Watts] and I…it’s almost like we started competing with each other. “You will? Well then I’m definitely going to do it.” So we did. We had sort of this one-upmanship thing. Still safe – the stunt guy was incredible…but yeah. We threw ourselves into it; for want for a better phrase.
Ben: I’m really interested in this kind of character you play because there is not much known about him. There is literally nothing known about him – even his real name. She calls him John, but that’s just what he goes with. How did you develop it with a character that is never really descriptive?
Howle: Yeah, it’s an interesting one because I therefore had all of this creative license, I had real scope. In a sense, you could see that as a gift. But, as with most people, when you walk down a supermarket aisle and there’s a 1,000 different type of potato chips…which potato chips do I buy? A lot of that is why people get stuck in their ways.
It’s sort of the same way – you get stuck in a trend and that’s the safest options because I know what those potato chips taste like. And I didn’t want to do that. Underpinning that was the idea that John is a real person and the likelihood is that John is still around. And I really hope so. There is a world where he may or may not be listening, or see this film. What an incredible thing.
And I totally understand why he would want to hold on to that anonymity considering what has happened to him. Some of it I had to surmise, I had to suppose that John has been through an ordeal – not just in the immediate sense of the jeopardy of being stuck on the side of a mountain wearing shorts and trainers. But there is something in John’s past to do with his mental health to do with loss and grief that has led him to this moment to be on the side of a mountain.
“I wanted to do John’s story justice, whatever John’s story is.”
That was really what I was interested in and of course I was interested in telling the real John’s story, but had to use a bit of creative license and we had to try to understand why a person would find themselves in that position. I wanted to do John’s story justice, whatever John’s story is. But I also didn’t want to make it vague; I wanted it to be nuanced and detailed. It’s difficult for an actor to play ambiguity, you can’t play 10 things at once, I had to choose something otherwise it would be incredibly alienating for anyone watching what I’ve done.
Ben: The first 20 minutes of the film is Naomi [Watts] going up the mountain and the entire time you say, “This lady knows exactly what she is doing as the character.” Whenever you show up, it’s obvious the character isn’t much of a climber/hiker. You know you don’t need to be a good mountain climber – what was your preparation on the physical side of things?
Howle: In order to do anything, or make it appear as though you are doing anything badly on screen, you have to be pretty good at it. In order to play the drums and do that in an efficacious way, you have to learn to play the drums first. That’s always really stuck with me.
I didn’t want to go in completely ill-prepared because there is a world where that actually could be dangerous. Even though we’re surrounded by people who know what they are doing, we were on the side of a mountain. All the things that apply to people who are hiking definitely apply to film crews.
In terms of the physical preparation, I had a few conversations with Malgo [director Malgorzata Szumowska] beforehand and we did discuss that we think John should appear malnourished so I lost quite a lot of weight in a short space of time for the role. And I think it does read during the whole undressing scene. We wanted to give the impression that John wasn’t looking after himself. But it’s a fine balance.
I was expending a lot of energy and running on a deficit. It’s insane what a lot of those things do physiologically and psychologically to a person. The film is very much about our relationship to the elements; our relationship to nature. I wanted to chart that throughout the story as to not make it repetitive or tedious.
Ben: You’ve worked with some pretty awesome actresses. What’s it like with Naomi Watts? It’s not a chemistry-driven movie, but what was your working relationship like in developing the characters and then trudging down the side of a mountain?
Howle: The film at times can feel like an endurance test. Naomi is such a generous actor and performer and person. There was a lot of levity and a lot of humor needed. Sort of laughing in the face of adversity. I have a tendency to employ some gallows humor or lowest ebbs. We needed to laugh, so we did.
We were this great family, the whole unit – we were all sort of were living out of each others pockets. It felt like a family – which was great. We needed that camaraderie to get us through and tell this quite painful story.
I couldn’t sing Naomi’s praises high enough, really. Both on and off screen, so was just brilliant. I would jump at the chance to repeat the whole process.
Ben: I was looking at everything you’ve been doing. I frankly don’t know how you have time to talk to me with all the stuff you’re doing. How do you try to balance how much you want work or are you just a terror for getting in there and doing it?
Howle: It’s funny because…I was watching Call My Agent. Some of the actors on there are never not working. I sort of look at them in this sort of enviable way. Then I have to pinch myself and go, “Billy, you’re actually working all the time. You don’t have a life outside of this.”
I’m in this funny position where…it’s great now because I kind of have the luxury to stop and [take] that trip to Mexico when I was 18, maybe I might go now. Just not think about acting and do something else creative for a while.
“I was watching Call My Agent. Some of the actors on there are never not working. I sort of look at them in this sort of enviable way. Then I have to pinch myself and go, ‘Billy, you’re actually working all the time. You don’t have a life outside of this.'”
I’m thinking about that more and more seriously, maybe sitting down and putting pen to paper maybe, and doing something else for a while. But, I know it’s always going to be there. It’s not going anywhere. I’ve created a good concrete foundation
Ben: For our readers, can you give a few film recommendations that someone could go seek out?
Howle: Fritz Lang’s M and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s probably not obscure to some people, but those are the two that come to mind straight away