“The Boys in the Boat” Star Callum Turner on Going With the Flow
Callum Turner plays Joe Rantz in The Boys in the Boat, based on the real-life story of the University of Washington rowing team that won a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. George Clooney directed the film, adapted by Mark L. Smith from Daniel James Brown’s best-seller of the same title, and it’s a classic underdog story. Coach Al Ulbrickson, played by Joel Edgerton, took a big risk by taking the junior varsity team to the Olympics instead of the far more experienced varsity rowers. The Ivy League teams, made up of young men from wealthy families, were considered to be far better prospects than the Washington team, which included poor kids, some of whom were homeless, who began rowing because it was the only way to stay in school. The Boys in the Boat is the kind of irresistible David vs. Goliath tale that filmmakers have been flocking to since the medium was invented.
In an interview, Turner talked about the training he and the other actors had to undergo to portray world-class athletes, the exhilaration of finding a way to achieve the coordinated precision of a rowing team, and the advice he got from Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.
The rowing scenes look so beautiful. What was it like to be out on the water as the sun was coming up?
We shot mostly in Oxfordshire, near Swindon. I’m from central London, and being in the countryside is peaceful, elegant, relaxed, and calming. I’m so used to the hustle and bustle of central London and the city, and I’m only just acquiring a taste of country life. So, being up there was wonderful.
What was the set like?
George Clooney had his dog, and I had my dog. It was a harmonious set. The dogs would go for walks with each other, and we’d get videos from Nick, the driver, of them running through the river and having a really picturesque experience. Ours was a little tougher. I’d say the dogs had more fun than we did. We were making a movie and rowing, too. I kept joking that making the movie was a side hustle and that rowing was my primary job.
We hear the word “swing” used about rowing in the film. How would you define it?
Swing is the thing that you aim to achieve in the boat. It’s when the boat glides across the water, and it feels like it’s levitating. It’s when all eight of you are in sync, completely in tune. And it is the poetry of motion that George Pocock talks about and Coach Al Ulbrickson talks about, what you aim for. And you don’t always get it. Even on an hour row or two-hour row, you don’t get that sometimes. When it happens, it happens, and you have to enjoy it when you’re in the moment. We got it a few times. There’s something really elegant and spiritual about rowing that I, even whilst doing it, didn’t understand.
Was it harder to get into the swing of things on the boat than you expected?
Reading the book a couple of times before shooting, I thought, yeah, I get it. I understand teamwork. I understand being fit. I didn’t. Even whilst I was doing it, I was so in it and so present in trying to achieve the rows per minute and do a good job for the film that I didn’t understand. What your lungs have to do to stay in the boat and keep up with your teammates and what your mind has to do to remain concentrated and stay with your teammates. Because it’s all about your teammates, and losing your identity to become one is excruciatingly difficult. It was only in hindsight when I reread the book, and it was like a light bulb moment after light bulb moment. Only through rereading the book did I understand how incredible the experience was and how beautiful rowing is.
Is the awareness of the other people on the team anything like performing with other actors?
There are elements that are the same, but I think in terms of teamwork and awareness and concentration, it blows it out of the water because it is about losing your identity, whereas acting is about throwing your paint onto the canvas for the director. In rowing, you just really lose yourself. You have to. You’re so present whilst you’re doing it. Responsible in a different way. In other sports, you can have a star player that can score a goal or score a point in basketball or two points in basketball. With this, there’s none of that. It’s six and a half minutes of grueling pain.
You all must have worked very hard to be able to row at that level.
We were coached by Terry O’Neill, who won gold in Atlanta. I went to Mexico to lose weight and be as fit as possible before we started this boot camp because I knew this was going to be difficult. And I turned up, and I was still so unfit in comparison to what I had to achieve. Luckily, everyone else was, too. It’s funny; art imitates life a lot in this experience. We became a team, we got ready for it, even to the point where, you know, in the end of the film, with the photo finish, they say, “Did we do it? Who won, who lost?” We had a moment, the second to last day, when we achieved 45 strokes per minute, which was a target we set ourselves in February, the second or third day we started. And on the fourth day, I realized, no, that’s impossible, why would we say that, that’s ridiculous. The further along the process we went, the harder it felt to achieve.
But you achieved it.
What’s so beautiful, is we did it together. There’s no individual. It’s a team. It’s a pure team. And from thinking we were never going to be able to achieve it to achieving it — there was a euphoria in the boat that I hadn’t felt before.
What does George Clooney know as an actor that helps him be a good director?
A shorthand. He knows cutting the fat, getting to the point, and not beating around the bush. On Masters of the Air, I like to try as much as possible because my character my character is such a big, expressive person, completely different. The boundaries were wider, so I had to try everything before honing in on something. What we did on this was the idea that Joe’s grounded, he’s connected to the earth, he’s true, he’s from the countryside, he’s a lumberjack. His life has been so hard that the walls are up, the curtains are closed, and the doors are locked. It’s like Fort Knox inside of his brain. That basically just pulled the boundaries in. It allowed us to play within a certain space, which was freer, actually, because we knew where we were and that you could do different variations of a smaller thing. And that was George. He and I talked about that, and he just brought those boundaries in.
And George knows his stuff, inside and out.
He’s a cinephile. He loves not only the industry, but he loves movies and he loves actors. And we were able to just lean into people like Spencer Tracy. I knew Spencer Tracy a little bit, but then I went on a deeper dive. And I brought the idea of Gary Cooper in High Noon, especially. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is another favorite of mine. That stoicism, that masculinity of the time, was then a shorthand that we were able to build through our love of cinema and actors. And as a man, I learned a lot. George is a great leader of people. He really does it in a pure form. And there’s no ego or bullshit. It’s all pretty straightforward. To watch someone lead and be authentic to themselves, that’s always inspiring.
What made that team so special?
I think the chemistry made them special. They were all incredible individual rowers. And the fact that these guys had nothing is the thing that Ulbrickson saw. They were hungry, and they had holes in their shoes, and they were homeless, and they were on the edge. And I think that edge gave them the thing to drive on and beat everyone. They didn’t lose a race, these guys. I think these guys had a lot to aim for. And they learned to trust each other.
What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?
I’m very lucky because I got acting advice from Daniel Day-Lewis. We became buddies through BAFTA. We spent a lot of time talking and being competitive with each other about films we’ve watched. He texts me saying, “I’ve watched these four obscure French films from the 50s. And I’m like, “Ah!” So, I go and watch them. I say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen those. And I’ve seen this obscure Romanian movie. It’s a documentary. I’ll send you the DVD if you like.” He told me, “Dance to the rhythm of your own beat. Find your rhythm and dance to it.” And that is actually the greatest bit of advice I’ve ever been given. Because there’s no right and there’s no wrong. If you want to be in musicals, that’s your thing. If you want to be in a soap opera, that’s your thing. There’s no right or wrong. Don’t judge anyone else. Just concentrate on yourself and follow your heart.
The Boys in the Boat is in select theaters now.
Featured image: (l-r.) Bruce Herbelin-Earle stars as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz and Jack Mulhern as Don Hume in director George Clooney’s THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. An Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham. © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.