The Clothes Make the Man. Johnny Flynn Makes The Outfit

Androgyny, gangsters, Bowie and more

Johnny Flynn (left) stars as "Francis" and Mark Rylance (right) stars as "Leonard" in director Graham Moore's THE OUTFIT,
Johnny Flynn (left) stars as “Francis” and Mark Rylance (right) stars as “Leonard” in director Graham Moore’s THE OUTFIT, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Actor, singer and musician Johnny Flynn has, in his still young cinematic career, cut a wide, gorgeous swatch across an array of bedazzling, bespoke suited roles.

There were television series such as 2018’s Thackery-fest, Vanity Fair, and films such as 2020’s Emma (the Jane Austen marvel based on her caustically humorous 1815 novel of the same name) and that same year’s sadly ignored Stardust, where Flynn played a flaxen blond, Veronica Lake-like pre-Ziggy-era David Bowie.

In his newest film which opened on March 18, The Outfit, Flynn plays Francis, a nefarious, side-talking Chicago gunman going up against Mark Rylance’s old world from London’s world-famous Savile Row. Along with roughing up Rylance in a McGuffin of a scheme gone weird, Flynn/Francis gets through the moody noir The Outfit in an array of sharp, post-Depression era suits with wide fedoras.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Flynn and a preponderance of his characters – up to and including his next big roles as the dashing Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat and the lissome Dickie Greenleaf in Showtime’s adaptation of the Ripley novels – is not only swayed by his choices in sartorial splendor. Flynn’s film and television career is deeply informed by the manner of how he smartly dresses, and why he smartly dresses, for each part. Francis would be nothing but a two-bit killer if he didn’t look so slick, and act the part based on the position a nice, hand-made suit presents him.

To go with Flynn’s finely appointed frippery in The Outfit, among other roles, is the fact that he moves like an androgyne with his feminine qualities as heightened as his masculine ones.

Philadelphia Weekly’s A.D. Amorosi spoke with Johnny Flynn on the day before The Outfit got kitted out, to discuss androgyny, gangsters, Bowie and more.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Not just because you played David Bowie and Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley. Not just because you’ll play Dickie Greenleaf. And not just because you wear couture Zac Posen stuff well. There is something in all of your roles that seem to be aware of the humanity of sexual duality, the gender-flux of the feminine and the masculine. I‘m curious to know is this who you are as a person or is this part of the exercise of acting.
Johnny Flynn: A large part of that is who I am. Exploring gender and sexuality as an actor, all of these signals, however, is always fascinating. When you look at a character you have to consider not only all of who are they, but what the fullness of their experiences are. And one’s sensuality and sexuality are a great part of that experience. In that respect, I’m definitely thinking of David Bowie, and the male/female-ness of it all. Oddly enough, when I had last worked with Mark Rylance it was as a woman. He and I appeared in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s productions of Richard III, where I played Lady Anne, opposite Mark wooing me. I also played as Viola/Cesario in the Globe’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with Rylance as well.

PW/A.D. Amorosi:
Considering the male/female, why do you choose the films you do, to play in?
Johnny Flynn: I think that I’m picky about choosing my parts, especially if there  are two things happening at the same time within the character. it doesn’t have to be obvious. Every idea of who a character is doesn’t have to fall off the page. In the case of, say, The Outfit, I read the script and its mysteries are not obvious even when you think they might be. Often, too it is about the people around the film, like Mark.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Because there is that shorthand between you, something innately telegraphed.
Johnny Flynn: Yes. Also, a lot of my choices now – especially now- are guided by the fact that time is short for us humans. Not that I would do abosultely any role, but look at what is happening with our world. It feels to me as if we’re in a pressure pot. Time is speeding up. I’m having a birthday this week. And I have children. And it’s not as if I’m feeling particularly old, but I am feeling the responsibilities of adulthood. I want to tell the right stories. I want to tell meaningful stories. I want to tell entertaining stories.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Entertainingly and meaningfully, another very transformative aspect of the roles that you play is that they are all very much guided by its costumes. I don’t want to take away your agency here. But from David Bowie’s Mr. Fish gear to what you do, bathed in Zac Posen gear, you can sense your feeling for good costuming. How do you choose the clothing? How does the clothing choose you? These outfits seem like totems.
Johnny Flynn: I appreciate that you picked up on something about me. Yes, I am a person who is very much guided by articles of clothing or the outside physical elements of who the character is. I rely quite heavily on clothes actually. It influences the internal. Who they are align themselves with what the where is crucial? In the case of David Bowie, the lines were drawn as much by the design of his clothes and make up as it was his music. The clothes changed with his songs, his styles. With Francis in The Outfit, the lines of his clothing – the wide shoulders, the weight of the material – as soon as I tried them on, I immediately thought of the suits that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra wore.
PW/A.D. Amorosi: Are you referring to Sinatra and Brando being in Guys and Dolls?
Johnny Flynn: Oh. Yes. Exactly. I played Sky Masterson in my first school musical play growing up. Those two were part of my life through my dad, they were heroes of mine. Sinatra in particular and how he negotiated his characters in films such as The Man with the Golden Arm, Manchurian Candidate and From Here to Eternity. Sinatra was masterful. Brando too. When I put on the suits in The Outfit, the cut, the weight of the material, the double breasted-ness… there was a power from the shoulders on down. So much of the suit made you play towards it as it does make you play against it. The clothes make the man, but you make the clothes sing.

PW/A.D. Amorosi: And again, it sounds as if you’re playing against the stereotype, and using the masculine and feminine to find the snake-i-ness of Francis all kitted out in gangster haute couture.
Johnny Flynn: It’s funny. Thinking of Francis, and the other actors with whom I shared dressing rooms in The Outfit. When you do this, you’re chatting, preparing for a scene, and you start to see how another actor operates when they suit up. How the line of their suit affects their character, how they project who they are through their clothes. I try and use ever tool and every sign that I can as an actor to tell the story.  Sometimes watching how someone else fits in, and operates while in their clothes… that second skin is as valuable as any actorly exercise you can name.
    • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

      A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia-based journalist who, along with Philadelphia Weekly, writes for numerous local, national and international publications including Variety and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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