You’ve heard of Method actors. Lucy Boynton is a Method dresser. At a pre-Oscars dinner last February, in the midst of Bohemian Rhapsody’s awards-season sweep, she paired a tweed Chanel dress with a white beret, dramatic turquoise eye shadow, and just a pinch of bloodlust. “My makeup artist Jo Baker and I talk about which character we want to be tonight,” Boynton says. “For this Chanel look, we decided it was ‘serial-killer housewife.’ It’s very much about, How do you want to feel tonight? How do you want to look?”
When I meet the 25-year-old British actress on a warm summer afternoon in New York, where she is based temporarily for work, she doesn’t look as if she’s about to dump a vial of arsenic into her ex-husband’s Chablis. Rather, she possesses the precociousness of a character from a British children’s book. She has asked me to meet her at midtown’s historic Morgan Library; if she were to push open one of the bookshelves and lead me into Narnia, I wouldn’t be surprised. “This is exquisite. When can I move in?” she gasps, gazing at the rows of triple-tiered inlaid-walnut bookshelves lining the walls. I’m yammering away at full volume, yet Boynton never raises her voice above a deferential hush. “Imagine having a wedding here,” she whispers to our eager tour guide, who says that while they don’t technically do weddings, they could probably pull some strings for her. “Perfect,” she says, “because I want to have a wedding here, but I don’t want anyone else to.”
While most 20-something actresses slouch around in athleisure, Boynton looks like she could step behind a glass display case and become one of the Morgan’s exhibits (e.g., “Evolution of the Posh British Schoolgirl in the Popular Imagination”). Boynton is wearing red patent Mary Janes, tortoiseshell cat’s-eye glasses, a Dior shoulder bag, and a long white shirtdress. She resembles the granddaughter of a Hitchcock heroine as drawn by Tim Burton — all spindly legs and bright, inquisitive eyes. There used to be a button shaped like a creepy eyeball on the collar, she says, but it fell off. She describes a recent trip to a vintage store with her co-star turned boyfriend, Rami Malek. “I held up a dress and he said, ‘Why are you always trying to dress like a 12-year-old ghost?’ ” she says, pressing the tip of her nose so close to a framed Maurice Sendak illustration that it threatens to leave a smudge. “I was one of those kids who never wanted to grow up.”
Boynton began her career as a child actress in a series of films plucked from a prep-school syllabus. Her first role was as a young Beatrix Potter in Miss Potter, which she followed with adaptations of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. After a hiatus from acting to finish high school — her parents, both journalists, insisted on it — she continued on this period-film route, embodying a New Wave bad girl in Sing Street and brushing up on her Agatha Christie for 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. But her biggest role came last year, playing Freddie Mercury’s fiancée, Mary Austin, in Bohemian Rhapsody. This September, Boynton will take a break from British period films to join the Ryan Murphy–verse in his new Netflix show The Politician, about a student-council election at a prestigious California high school.
While Boynton is hardly a household name, mention her in certain fashion circles and the response is fervorous. “Lucy Boynton is every designer’s dream to work with,” says Saks fashion director Roopal Patel. “She seems plucked from heaven,” gushes New York ironic-prairie-dress designer Batsheva Hay. For Bohemian Rhapsody, Boynton and her stylist Leith Clark riffed on the film to design a series of inventive, ’70s-inspired red-carpet outfits; that, coupled with tabloid attention — she and Malek are pictured in the Daily Mail every time they’re seen in public — helped elevate her status. Now, as Clark puts it, “when we reach out to a brand with an idea, nobody says no.” She doesn’t need a track record, because she looks the part of the oldest showbiz archetype: the white, young, thin, enigmatic Hollywood blonde. (Her natural hair color? “I honestly don’t remember at this point,” she says, laughing.) While the fashion world has praised diversity in recent years, women who look like Boynton remain the default canvas on which many designers envisage displaying their clothes.
Her breakout fashion moment was at the 2019 Golden Globes, where she sparkled like a disco ball in metallic-gold Celine. Instantly, Boynton became one of the first avatars of the brand’s sexy new era, which began after Hedi Slimane took over from Phoebe Philo (and dropped the accent from its name). “I’m a post-accent girl! I’ve only ever worn Celine post-accent,” Boynton says. At the time, Philo devotees clutched their cashmere cowl necks in horror. What kind of woman would actually want to wear these sparkly little things? These were clothes for dolls, not real women! Indeed, doll is a word people love to use to describe Boynton. “She represents that celebrity who wants to play doll,” says Lorenzo Marquez of the fashion blog Tom & Lorenzo. Another equally fraught word Boynton tends to inspire: muse. “She’s a quintessential Miu Miu muse!” says a spokesperson for the fashion house. Terms like this tend to strip women of their agency, yet Boynton doesn’t seem to view it that way. She wears couture gowns as if they were suits of armor. “When they first sent me a picture of the Celine dress, I said, ‘No, it doesn’t feel like me,’ ” she explains. “And then I realized, when I tried it on, it didn’t feel like me in the best way. It was the first instance that I realized I could feel like some other version of Lucy that I would never dress like day-to-day. It made me feel protected.”
Boynton is wholly uninterested in letting fans feel as if they “know” her (or even in having people recognize her from role to role), which puts her in an uneasy position when it comes to her mounting celebrity. “When I sent my mom a picture of me in my full Mary Austin makeup and costume on the set of Bohemian Rhapsody, she replied, ‘Who is that?’ So if my own mother can’t recognize me from role to role, I feel pretty safe,” she says over a carafe of dry white wine in the Morgan’s atrium.
It’s this elusive, chameleonic quality that has made her so popular in the fashion world. It also might serve as a clever way to shield herself in an industry known for chewing up young women and spitting them out. Yet in the age of the 24/7 Instagram confessional, audiences demand a certain level of intimacy with the stars they worship. Boynton’s taciturnity is deeply ingrained; she’s the kind of person who is hesitant about opening up even to close friends, let alone the whole world. “I have a lot of respect, and a lot of questions, for those people who don’t seem to have any protective layer and who are absolutely themselves in every scenario,” she continues. “When you are so exposed, the way that you are in the publicity side of our work, I don’t know how you protect yourself if you don’t keep something for yourself.”
But if you’re looking to sneak into Hollywood without making a lot of noise, you should probably avoid dating another celebrity. Especially if that celebrity happens to play your onscreen love interest in the most talked-about film of the year. When Boynton started dating Malek, he was already a famous actor and had been anointed “the internet’s boyfriend” by his online fans — i.e., the male celebrity whom every social-media user decided to have a crush on at the same time. Suddenly, everyone was itching to speculate about the mystery woman standing by the Best Actor front-runner’s side. “I had an interview recently where I was asked such crude and candid questions about my relationship,” Boynton tells me, pink splotches blooming like flowers across her face. “It kind of forced me to pull way back.”
Boynton and Malek met at Abbey Road Studios just before Bohemian Rhapsody started shooting. It was an intense day, and Boynton was dealing with her anxiety as she always does — by reading in a corner. (During filming, it was Anna Karenina; she showed up to her shoot with the Cut toting a hardbound copy of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier.) She recalls how Malek came over to her and made a plan for the scene, and she instantly realized what a key ally he would be. “Rami felt so much the leader of that set,” she says. “The cast became so close going through that, as you always do when going through a particularly stressful experience, to put it politely.” (It’s difficult to imagine her putting anything impolitely.)
After being dogged by rumors of on-set chaos, director Bryan Singer was fired weeks before the end of shooting, allegedly for refusing to show up to work. Three days later, news broke that a man had filed a lawsuit accusing Singer of rape; soon after, other men came forward with allegations of sexual assault. “It was a shock,” says Boynton, despite the existence of similar allegations dating back 20 years. (Singer has denied all such claims.) Previously, she’d had a “stupid philosophy” not to Google people she was collaborating with and instead focus on their body of work, so that she’d come to the job without preconceived notions about them. Now she plans to be “as informed as I possibly can” going forward. So she wouldn’t work with Woody Allen? “No!” she says firmly.
Bohemian Rhapsody ended up winning four Oscars, yet a lot of critics hated it. They panned it as trite and poorly edited, with a paint-by-numbers script that treated Mercury’s sexuality with kid gloves. Boynton bristles when I bring up this last point. “If the reason you don’t like it is because you didn’t get the intrusive, seedy version, well, I don’t want to be a part of a story that takes advantage of the fact that [Mercury] isn’t around and can’t stand up for [himself] or draw barriers,” she says. The idea that superstars should have control over how they are represented, even posthumously, seems surprisingly naïve. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking from an actress who feels ambivalent about her own rising profile.
Since Bohemian Rhapsody, Boynton has made some changes. “On that set, I neglected my book much more than I usually would and got much more involved, and I want to do that going forward,” she says. “That was one thing that I learned from Rami. I was always just trying to keep out of everyone’s way, and I’ve realized maybe that’s not the best.”
After Malek was named Best Actor at the Oscars, he kissed Boynton passionately. Then he kissed her again. And again. “Lucy Boynton, you’re the heart of this film,” he said in his acceptance speech. “You have captured my heart.” At the time, she felt weirdly calm, which she attributes to the handful of CBD candies she ate before the ceremony. Then, she says, “I blacked out.” Despite her reticence about celebrity coupledom, Boynton can’t help but look back fondly on this unwitting rom-com moment, which became one of the Oscars’ viral clips. “Him winning for his performance was like winning for the tip of the iceberg of everything he had done,” she says, blushing. “You kind of forget that there are hundreds of other people in the room.”
In The Politician, Boynton plays Astrid, a coiffed prep-school princess who runs for class president against an aspiring statesman played by Ben Platt. “Usually, my characters are quietly seething or eternally pleasant,” she adds. “Astrid walks into a room and she’s not afraid to have her opinion heard. It has helped me get more confident.”
Astrid is a character who is constantly being judged on her looks. Yet in Murphy and his co-creators’ hands, the part is winkingly camp: She’s not just a pretty girl but a commentary on what it means to be pretty in a world that values appearance above all else. I ask Boynton when she was first aware that she was going to be offered roles for which being beautiful was a prerequisite. “Never!” she gasps, evincing a rare lack of self-awareness. “I have only seen that with Astrid because she’s a bit of a mean girl, and I’ve grown up seeing those girls fit a certain description.”
“She’s part of a culture where she is a top dog because she’s rich and smart and beautiful and tough, but it doesn’t make her fulfilled,” says co-creator Brad Falchuk (whose wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, plays Platt’s character’s mom). After Boynton auditioned, Falchuk says, he instantly knew whom to cast as her parents: “It was like the light came above — I knew we needed Dylan McDermott and January Jones.” Boynton is a huge Mad Men fan, and she was intimidated when she heard she would be playing Jones’s daughter.
“One of the more difficult days on set was when [January] turns me around in the mirror and has to give me this speech about ‘Imagine you’re not as pretty as you think you are.’ Our director was like, ‘Imagine she’s this really beautiful woman who you feel so inferior to.’ And I was like, Umm, I don’t have to pretend!”
Recently, Boynton left the world of Queen behind and began paying tribute to Astrid, showing up to The Politician press events in an array of bow-like pink dresses and girlish florals. “I think it can be difficult for actors that love acting who then all of a sudden have to promote something, and it’s that confusing thing of Am I being myself right now? It’s not the part they signed up for,” says her stylist Leith Clark. “I think the clothes make her get excited about where she’s going.”
For some women in Hollywood, “Who are you wearing?” is practically an offensive phrase. A few years ago, celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Amy Poehler even promoted the #askhermore initiative to encourage journalists to pose more-substantive questions. I ask Boynton if she ever finds the focus on her clothes demeaning. “Maybe when you’re on a red carpet and they’re yelling at you to stand a certain way, because I don’t hear men getting that,” she says. But mostly she finds it liberating. “We have a sense of humor about it all. Yes, it gets photographed, but it’s very much our thing,” she says, referring to her close-knit team. “It’s not for anyone else but us.”
*This article appears in the August 19, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
More From the fall 2019 fashion issue
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