The Beast Must Die star Billy Howle: 'Broken men are endlessly fascinating'
The actor tells RadioTimes.com about playing vulnerable and troubled characters, working with Helen McCrory, and what he's planning next.
In The Beast Must Die, Billy Howle is another broken man. His character DI Nigel Strangeways has run all the way to the Isle of Wight to escape the painful memories and flashbacks to a traumatic event in his policing past, but of course all the bad stuff still lives in his brain. And now he's drawn into an unsolved case involving a dead kid. Luckily, Howle has the perfect haunted eyes and restless energy for playing someone troubled and insular – eyes we've seen before in his portrayal of Caden in MotherFatherSon, among other shows.
Is he drawn to those broken characters in particular? "The short answer is yes, I am drawn to those people," he says. "I find them endlessly fascinating. But my argument would be that we're all a bit like that, actually. And I'm quite wary of people who are supremely confident, or, you know, they don't seem to have any sort of idiosyncrasies or whatever it might be. And that, to my mind, probably means they're hidden somewhere. And they've been repressed.
"So I would argue that most people are like that in some way. And we all have some level of trauma that we carry around. But also I suppose a lot of those characters land on my desk. So partially I'm to blame, partially casting directors are to blame!"
Haunted, broken men aren't his sole focus, however. You may recently have caught Howle in The Serpent, the BBC/Netflix drama about real-life serial killer Charles Sobhraj; he played Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who was a very different kind of investigator to Strangeways. (His Dutch accent, by the way, was broadly a hit.)
Before that, there were roles in The Seagull, On Chesil Beach, Outlaw King, and The Sense of an Ending. He was Leonard Vole in Sarah Phelps' BBC Agatha Christie adaptation, The Witness for the Prosecution; and he put in a brief (but important) appearance as Rey's father in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And before all of that, back in 2014, he was James in the E4 series Glue.
Howle, 31, was born in Staffordshire to a school teacher mum and a music professor dad. The family (which also includes his three brothers) moved around a lot, but they finally settled in Scarborough. After leaving school, young Billy went off to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – and he has been working pretty steadily ever since graduation.
Now, he plays the detective in BritBox's first original drama, The Beast Must Die. The five-parter stars Cush Jumbo as Frances, a mother whose young son was recently run over and killed on a remote stretch of road on the Isle of Wight; the original police investigation went nowhere. Frustrated and angry, Frances decides to take matters into her own hands by finding the killer herself. That journey takes her into the heart of rich, dysfunctional Rattrey family headed by Jared Harris, and also featuring the likes of Geraldine James, Maeve Dermody, and Mia Tomlinson.
Meanwhile, Howle's character Strangeways has just taken over at the Isle of Wight's police station after the sudden death of his predecessor. He spends a whole bunch of his time being angry and sad by himself, or lashing out at his therapist, having terse conversations with other people (not least Douggie McMeekin's junior cop character who seems to constantly get berated). Jared Harris may be a co-star, but Howle's character is too much of a lone wolf for them to share much screen-time.
"I mean, it's quite funny," says Howle, when I mention 'isolation'. "The word isolation was was bandied around a fair amount. We were on an island, we were isolated because of COVID. And then I was playing this character, is quite isolated and insular. I think I relate to that, quite well.
"The way Strangeways behaves is often how I'm thinking, but I choose not to behave, because I think he's actually saying the things that sometimes I wish I could say. He can't stand people being inept, when they're in a job with such a large responsibility as being a police officer entails. he can't stand the thought that those people are going to be inept at their job because other people's lives, or people's livelihoods, are at stake. And they're there to protect people. So there's no excuse, in his mind, for people to not be good at their job. And I can relate to that, unfortunately."
Not that Strangeways lets himself off the hook either: "He holds himself to account for anything, any kind of wrongdoing or misjudgement. And again, that can be – it can sort of crucify you. Again, I can relate to it quite closely. I mean, the beauty of acting and playing damaged characters like that is that it should be about exploration, and not getting it right. This whole thing that we're viewed in from quite a young age about getting things right, I think can be quite damaging, particularly in creative endeavours."
Creative endeavours are what seem to have sustained Howle over the last year. He got the job in The Beast Must Die about a week before the first lockdown, and (as depicted on his Instagram) when the world closed down he turned to photography and poetry-writing and puppet-making and painting (aside from the standard-issue sourdough and banana bread baking). After a long hiatus away from writing, he also wrote a screenplay.
"I have to be busy. I don't know what to do with idle time. I suppose, in essence, I try to not make it idle," he says. "So I do try to fill the space. But sometimes to my detriment, because my mind goes about a million miles an hour, and it's never focused on one thing really, it's sort of focused on about five at any time I'm the sort of person who starts a book – and I've got, like, six books on my bedside table, each of which I'm about a third of the way through. So it's quite chaotic."
In lockdown, he realised, "I have to learn how to do nothing. And it's one of the most difficult things I've ever had to try to learn." It seems fair to say that's a work in progress.
But then The Beast Must Die came back up into production, with four months of filming, and the world of TV and film began moving again. Right now, he's working on a new BBC drama called Chloe, a mystery thriller which also stars Erin Doherty (Princess Anne from The Crown), Poldark's Jack Farthing, and Gangs of London's Pippa Bennett-Warner.
It's a reunion for Howle and Bennett-Warner, who also worked together on MotherFatherSon – in which Howle starred as the disappointing, self-hating, playboy son of Max Finch (Richard Gere) and Kathryn (Helen McCrory). Bennet-Warner was Lauren, Max's aide. They were both floored when news broke in April 2021 that McCrory had died of cancer.
"Pippa was quite close with Helen," says Howle. "It was good that we were around each other, because we both have that in common that we'd worked with Helen. And both had a huge amount of love for Helen, too. I think it's a catastrophic loss for the industry. She was a force to be reckoned with. Someone that a lot of actors, male or female, aspired to be like in terms of their work ethic, in terms of the quality of their work, and their attention to detail, and her patience and time for other people.
"She played my mum. And what's funny is that the things that you are drawing on... I only had one thing to draw on and that was my relationship with my own mum. So when Helen died, it felt like a huge loss. Like, in some ways, starting to begin to imagine what it feels like to lose your mother.
"I mean, just – what a woman. Right? What a brilliant actor. What a woman."
Like all of Howle's acting jobs so far, MotherFatherSon was a standalone story. It finished with a full stop, as did The Serpent and the actor's big-screen roles. But The Beast Must Die could be different.
For one thing, it's loosely based on the novel by Nicholas Blake (real name Cecil Day-Lewis), and there are a whole load of other books in the Strangeways series. For another thing, Howle feels compelled by his character – as reimagined by screenwriter Gaby Chiappe – in a way he didn't quite expect.
"I really wrestled with him, with Strangeways – not just in terms of getting into character, but there's just parts of him that I found incredibly frustrating and stressful," Howle explains. "It was stressful to be him for however many months we were on the Isle of Wight.
"Having said that, at the end of the process, I sort of did feel slightly deflated, perhaps more so than [usual] – because it's quite common that I do feel a bit deflated at the end of a job. But that's more to do with the sort of social aspects of working with people. So I was wondering, why do I feel something sort of irresolute about this? And I was trying to put my finger on what it was, and I realised, you know: what the hell happens to him? I felt a great sense of care towards him... and I sort of thought, wow, is he still that lonely?
"And part of my job is sort of convincing myself that – well, no, I guess it's the whole job really, but convincing myself that I am this lonely figure and all that stuff. So it resonates. And it kind of leaves this residual feeling of irresolution and yeah, it's still with me now. And I'm still thinking, what happens to Strangeways next?"
Should BritBox choose to commission it, a second series would likely see Strangeways working on an entirely different case – perhaps even in an entirely different setting. But it's hard to guess much more than that, because we can't take many clues from the novels; this adaptation is so vastly different from that original 1938 story, which casts Strangeways as more of a gentleman detective.
"I read it once, out of curiosity," says Howle. "That sort of thing wouldn't be on my bedside table ever, really. So I picked it up, because I obviously wanted to see how the adaptation had been done, and where we were taking it, and how much had been derived from the original text. And quite cleverly, Gaby [Chiappe] has taken some of the sort of fundamentals from that story, and shifted it into a present day, in a time and a space that sort of feels timeless."
Howle is also up for one other comeback, if the opportunity ever arises: Rey's father in Star Wars. "I hadn't walked onto a set like that – it was like walking onto an alien planet, because that's exactly what it was. And of course, Jodie [Comer] is brilliant and a lot of fun to work with. I mean, I'd love to – fingers crossed, you know. Who knows, maybe they'll revive those characters at some point in the future."
As for his other ambitions, Howle has no grand plan. One day he hopes to play Hamlet; and there's that screenplay he'd love to make. But beyond that, he's happy to see where that takes him – whether it's more broken men, or more Nigel Strangeways, or something else entirely.