I recently had the pleasure of meeting with director Toby MacDonald to discuss his feature film debut, Old Boys. We talked toxic masculinity, Timothee Chalamet, and the positive shift that’s happening within our current canon of leading men.
Old Boys is a more modern retelling of the classic Cyrano De Bergerac narrative set within the walls of Caldermount, a fictional public boys school. The time period is sometime during the 1980s — a time when these institutions were on the cusp of a decline in financing and status.
I asked Toby why he brought these two elements together. “I have always loved that story… and I always thought the ironies and feeling of unrequited love would work really well in a teenage [context]”. He went on to highlight that these institutions have now come to be associated with repression and this was something that he wanted to highlight in the setting. “We tried to subtly push a prison feeling through it all; the Alcatraz vibe, the fire alarms, having to line up arms width apart”.
The setting means the cast is predominantly male, bar Agnes (Pauline Etienne), the central female figure who makes up one third of the central ‘Cyrano’ love triangle, with Amberson and Winchester. Agnes stands out amongst the sea of pubescent teenage boys at Caldermount, making her casting an important piece of the puzzle. “She’s the only girl and there is something kind of ‘fable-ish’ about that notion. We didn’t want a fantasy figure coming into the school. We just wanted her to be a real girl and we managed to find Pauline. She has an intelligence that is really terrific”.
The film operates at a primarily comedic level, but it doesn’t take much digging to realise it is presenting a challenge to toxic masculinity, a subject that is garnering worthy attention recently, particularly within the film industry. I raised this with Toby and whether he felt these tumultuous political times impact on his responsibility as a filmmaker. “I subscribe to the notion of smuggling messages in films. I think they resonate with audiences much more than the hammer and blow [approach]” — in relation to the topic of toxic masculinity specifically. Toby highlights the casting of Alex Lawther as his leading man; “Alex as a romantic lead, he’s a very contemporary type of actor portraying a very contemporary type of masculinity as well”.
Lawther plays opposite Jonah Hauer-King’s handsome-but-dim Winchester. “Oddly, Winchester was the hardest part to cast as he read off the page like a sort of quite heightened character in terms of a big, thick, posh boy, but somehow when Jonah played it, there was a tenderness that was really unexpected”.
It was our consensus on these actors heart-warming yet poignant dynamic that led Toby to his closing thoughts; “There’s an interesting thing going on with leading men… we did have a period where all these actors were brooding hunks, [but now] there are lots of these boys coming through, [like] Timothee Chalamet, that are really fine actors and able to carry a far more emotionally intricate story”.
Old Boys is on general release in selected cinemas from 22nd February and will be screened at HOME Manchester from 8th March.