In a booth at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, COVID is on the table. As an interviewer, the topic can feel simultaneously intrusive and reductive to bring up, whether it’s the current state of the pandemic or those dark months of 2020, but it’s a subject that can’t be avoided, especially as actors are still promoting projects created under dire public-health conditions. “I don’t think we’ll ever be done with this topic,” says Lucy Boynton, gripping a mug of tea and sporting freshly dyed red hair. “I still feel the need to ask everyone I meet, like, ‘Are you OK?’ I feel like I don’t even know how to compute all this time that has gone by.”
Boynton is in L.A. for the premiere of her new movie, Netflix’s The Pale Blue Eye, which was shot during 2021’s initial omicron surge. It’s a grisly origin story of sorts for Edgar Allan Poe; the budding young poet is a cadet at West Point military academy, where he falls in love with a seemingly fragile young woman (Boynton) during the hunt for a campus serial killer. The film, which debuts on the streamer Jan. 6, is the latest in a string of period pieces for the actress, but a harrowing, witchcraft-y third act offers a major departure — especially for those who know her best from Bohemian Rhapsody or The Politician.
“I’ve been gravitating toward darker roles,” she explains. “Those characters are usually people who are underestimated, with plot twists that reveal them to be more complex than anyone could have imagined, and I just love sinking my teeth into that kind of thing.”
The cast — Harry Melling plays Poe, Christian Bale stars as a troubled detective assigned to the murder case, and Gillian Anderson is Boynton’s mother — was in isolation for the entire shoot, filming outdoors during a New England winter. Deep cold created a sense of camaraderie, and the actress says the lack of outside distractions felt conducive to creativity: “There’s something that feels almost selfish about getting to completely indulge in the work, to benefit from getting lost in the material.”
This spring, another of the Boynton’s pandemic-era projects will finally come to light: She co-stars as Marie Antoinette (yes, that means more corsets) in Chevalier, Searchlight’s biopic of Joseph Bologne, a prodigious Black violinist and composer in 1700s France who is all but unknown in the present day. The film asks big questions about the bias of history’s authors, challenging viewers to ask themselves why certain stories are told (Marie Antoinette, Boynton points out, “has been villainized in a way that is specifically reserved for women”). The role came about as the pandemic was pushing workers to reassess their priorities, and Boynton herself was finding her voice professionally. “I wasn’t in the rhythm of being in a professional environment anymore, so my awareness of a hierarchy had diluted, and I found myself talking very confidently and boldly to my directors, and I never would have done that a year prior,” says Boynton, who also stars in two upcoming U.K. miniseries The Ipcress File (which returns for season 2 this year) and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (streaming on BritBox). “It shocked me at first, but what was I holding back on before? It’s been exciting to see myself having a stronger opinion.”
As soon as the press cycle for The Pale Blue Eye is over, Boynton will spend a few months in London, the city that still feels most like home, reconnecting with friends and family after a long string of nonstop work. She filmed the UK miniseries The Ipcress File and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? right before reporting to set for Chevalier, and began to understand how easy it is to become addicted to business. “You feel like you’ve earned your tiredness, which is a terrible repercussion of this Capitalist system,” she says. “But there’s a privilege in loving what you do, so I was happy to be exhausted.” Many young actresses are consumed with fears about losing momentum in the business, but Boynton — who was raised by two journalist parents — seems to have a patience for the frenetic rhythm of a freelance career. “My fears are less about will I work again and more about will anything ever live up to this experience again? Will I get to do something I care this passionately about again?” Luckily for her, history continues to repeat itself.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.