In Song One, Anne Hathaway plays Franny, an academic whose research in North Africa is cut short by an emergency phone call from home: her younger brother Henry has been hit by a car and is in a coma.
Henry was an aspiring Brooklyn musician, a career development that had soured the siblings’ relationship. But as she and her mother (Mary Steenburgen) reconnect around his hospital bed, she also gains a greater appreciation for her brother’s commitment to music from the songs he left behind. She visits the clubs he frequented, and when the opportunity presents itself, she approaches her brother’s favorite singer, James Forrester (Johnny Flynn), with a recording of one of her brother’s songs.
Serene and guarded, James is suffering in his own way. A wave of early success has left him paralyzed creatively, but his connection with Franny and her family sparks a healing relationship for both of them.
Flynn was cast perfectly as James, a folksy musician from England who’s a star in Brooklyn’s hip rock-folk scene. Flynn has released four albums, including Country Mile in 2013, and he’d already performed in Brooklyn clubs like Pete’s Candy Store before ever being cast in Song One. “When I read the script, I was like, ‘Oh, in some ways, this is almost my experience of New York,'” says Flynn.
The film is written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, who met Hathaway on the set of The Devil Wears Prada, where she was director David Frankel’s assistant. Song One debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is the first film Hathaway has produced with her husband, Adam Shulman. Film Arcade is releasing the film in theaters and on-demand on Jan. 23.
EW: In very obvious ways, you’re playing a character who’s very similar to yourself, and some audiences might conflate the two together. How are you similar to or different than the character of James Forrester?
JOHNNY FLYNN: Well, there are some big differences, like I’m happily married with a son. And I didn’t take five years or whatever to write a second record. But up until a time in my life, I was kind of driving around in my car and just turning up in different towns and sometimes playing at friends’ parties and being a bit of a drifter. So there were some similarities there, but I don’t think I’ve been as lost and confused and sad as James is in the beginning of the movie. That’s where he meets Franny, and they kind of join each other in this little wormhole in their existence where they’re both in this unusual place and they both have expectations that other people have put on them. They find a safeness in each other that means that they want to be together. At that point in the lives, they can help each other. Which is what their story is all about in a way.
You were performing a play in London when you first met with Anne and the director, Kate Barker-Froyland. What do remember from that initial encounter?
It was hugely exciting because I was doing a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a production of Twelfth Night where I was playing Viola, so I was a guy, playing a girl, playing a guy, in full white-face makeup and long black wig. I had sent them some tapes of me reading the [Song One] scenes with some friends in London. They came over—Annie and Adam, her husband, were actually on their honeymoon—which was really exciting but quite nerve-wracking as well. I remember kind of peering out from backstage, and I could see them out there: “Oh, good, they’re laughing, that’s good. That was a good sign.”
I knew as soon as I met them that they were very sweet and down-to-earth, and they put me at ease. My background, as far as acting: I’ve done a couple of movies but mostly it’s been working with British stage actors and working on the stage over here. I remember thinking, “So what’s this going to be like really, doing scenes opposite an Oscar-winning American film actress?” But as I read one scene, I was like, “Oh, she’s brilliant.” And it was astonishing just how good Annie was from the very beginning. I figured I could learn a lot from her. And then they got in touch to say, Would I do it? I said yes, of course.
The film is set in Brooklyn, and those neighborhoods and clubs really seep into the film. Did you find Brooklyn to your liking?
I have some experience in hanging out there and playing music and shows and touring. And I did some Shakespeare at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007, and spent some time there, and I sort of fell in love with that unique atmosphere. Especially the music scene, the smaller clubs and places which are kind of referenced in the film. It was really nice to weave my memories of being in those places, like Pete’s Candy Store and the Bowery Ballroom, into the backstory for the character and my understanding of what the place is like.
Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice wrote the songs in the film. Was it easy to make them your own once the camera was rolling?
Once I got the part, I was being sent, you know, “We’ve got a new song for this, check it out.” So I would hear a first draft of a song and it was kind of strange for me, if I’m honest, because I’m a musician and write songs. Apart from singing traditional songs and learning Bob Dylan songs or whatever, I don’t usually sing other people’s music. But it was cool because the songs were an extension of the script, as far as the clues to who the character is. I had occasional suggestions, and they were very cool about humoring me with my ideas. We got to actually make the record that is referenced in the movie. We were going into a studio on the weekends, and from what I understand, the record is going to be released soon somehow.
In the film, James is creatively blocked and hasn’t been able to write a second record. And I’m morbidly fascinated by that common dilemma, when a musician or an author or filmmaker struggles after an initial success because, suddenly, they start writing what they think the audience wants rather than what worked for them in the first place. They start hearing and listening to other voices. Could you relate?
Yes, I could definitely relate to it. I’ve seen it. Most of my friends are musicians, and I spend months on tour with my pals who have that thing: they have a hit record or whatever, and they don’t know what to do next, because like you said, there’s all these voices clamoring for a repeat or even something totally different. They don’t know what they want. And it can get really messy.
The lucky thing is when that has been the case for me, which it definitely has been on a couple of occasions, I can turn to acting and be like, “Oh, nothing’s happening now. I’ll look for a play to do.” I find for me that working with somebody’s else’s language—like, say, doing a Shakespeare play—you get inspired.
In the movie, Anne’s character isn’t a groupie, but she does approach James with an unusual story. Have you had a lot of odd interactions with fans over the years?
Oh, yeah. There’s simply insane stuff that happens. I wouldn’t even like to say some of the weirdest stuff that’s happened. That whole side of things is very much part of life on the road, especially for someone like me. If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you probably don’t go out front and sell your own CDs, but I’ve done all that. And it’s quite nice. Especially if I’m touring America, I feel kind of duty-bound to go and meet people, and I’m really grateful that they’ve come out and helped with this project. I’m still surprised that anyone comes to my shows, but then you do get some strange requests… and advances. You get drunk hen parties and things like that, where it can get kind of messy. And if you’re lucky, you have a pal who comes and drags you out of a sticky situation. But, yeah, it can be pretty hairy.