“In 10 years, I’d love to live near the sea, in a warmer climate. I could see myself with three dogs … and it’d be great to share them with someone else.”
For someone with such idyllic goals, Welsh actor Luke Evans’ career has been anything but tranquil. Not only has his cinematic output been sizeable – 22 films in seven years – but he has made a speciality of particularly intense roles: villains, antiheroes, and action associates. And this week, with the long-awaited release of Beauty and the Beast, Evans is both adding to his roster of villains and branching into musical bravado. Anticipation is high to see how our childhood favourites of animation are going to translate to a live action cinematic retelling, especially when it comes to everyone’s favourite dastardly Disney dude. Whether Evans’ expectorating is especially good remains to be seen, but his past performances indicate that he could be one of the most memorable aspects of the newest live action remake.
Luke Evans began as a West End star, gracing the stage in shows such as Rent, Miss Saigon, and Taboo; during the latter’s production, he came out to the media to avoid any unnecessary confusion and revelations later down the line. He says it has not hurt his career, and happily his near-constant work since then supports this assertion. In the theatrical sense, Gaston is a return to Evans’ artistic roots, and, for any who have spent far longer than healthy on YouTube listening to his honeyed voice, a very welcome one.
Film adaptations of Greek mythologies (and a small role as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s lackey in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood) got Evans started in film in his early 30s: first as Apollo in Clash of the Titans, and then as Zeus in Immortals. Neither film found critical success, but this did not hamper Evans’ burgeoning bankability – even if he had nothing much to do in either, aside from looking beautifully heroic. The 2011 adaptation of The Three Musketeers followed which, whatever your opinion on period novel adaptations and the accuracy of such, is a fun film – and Evans is appropriately swashbuckling.
Many received their introductions to Evans through Peter Jackson’s second Middle-earth trilogy with his role in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. While the films may not have lived up to the magic of The Lord of the Rings, this was the fault of the rushed production, padded story, and poor CGI, rather than the A-list talent enlisted. Evans is no exception; as Bard the Bowman, he conveys the character’s innate honour, nobility, and courage – essential Tolkien fantasy traits – in a sympathetic fashion, even while dealing with a shoddier script than Aragon had. He even manages to inject humanity into two of the adaptation’s many clunky filler plotlines: Bard’s family devotion and his revolutionary stance against the corrupt Master of Laketown.
Evans joined another lucrative franchise in 2013, with Fast and Furious 6. When the plot needed to unite street racers and cops into an epic team of vehicles and muscles, Evans played the requisite arch-villain with aplomb. His acting takes a backseat to explosions and tank-stealing, but he is chilling enough that seeing him blasted simultaneously through a windshield and out of a plane is very satisfying. The next year, Evans added another questionable fantasy film to his roster with Dracula Untold. To his immense credit, he does an admirable job with the shoddy material and turns in a solid performance, even as the film falls to groan-inducing antics from taking itself seriously.
One of Evans’ most captivating performances – possibly his best – is as Richard Wilder in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. In a dizzying adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel, Wilder is both revolutionary firebrand and unhinged maniac, righteous in his outrage against the luxury and excess of the building’s higher floors while simultaneously representing the worst of humanity’s impulses. His manic energy pervades all interactions, be they with his wife or with the upper class he hates so much (lest we forget his sympathies, Wheatley puts a Che Guevara poster in his bedroom). The standout moment is when Wilder, upon finding the children have been barred from the swimming pool on his son’s birthday, leads the young attendees in a raucous parade to reclaim their turf. Juxtaposed with the high-rise’s flickering lights – a tangible sign of its deterioration as a building and society – and well-chosen moments of slow-motion, it is haunting.
Wilder is Bard the Bowman without a moral code, and as such is entrancing to watch. It is easy to imagine Evans relishing every moment of madness. He divides even characters’ opinions, being called both an “unconscionable fucking reprobate” and “possibly the sanest man in the building”; Evans makes both stances entirely believable, and in the process, portrays Wilder as the most realistic inhabitant of a mad world. It is a masterful performance which wins the audience’s sympathy at several turns, but his (also all-too-realistic) treatment of the women in his life – his abandoned wife, his raped mistress – is rightly unsettling. In view of his humanity, his final confrontation with the building’s architect fits perfectly. In view of his cruelty, his own ending does too.
Richard Wilder is a far cry from the pomp and pulp of The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit, Fast and Furious, and Dracula Untold. However, this antiheroic mould is clearly a place where Evans thrives as a performer, and future forays into these darker roles may define Evans as one of this generation’s finest actors. A similar turn in a less niche drama would have easily marked him for Academy Award consideration.
Evans’ most recent role was in the lacklustre adaptation of The Girl on the Train. He plays Scott Hipwell, whose wife’s disappearance drives the plot. For the first half of the film, he is only glimpsed briefly in flashbacks and through the train window, but – in some clunky “telling, not showing” dialogue – his bad temper is discussed at length by other characters. When he finally gets a chance to become more than set-dressing, he subtly conveys Scott’s destructive tendencies with a very convincing American accent. His performance would have worked in a better film. Unfortunately, Girl on the Train is governed by unreliable narration: when Scott enters the action having already been labelled as abusive by others, the character loses impact.
Currently, Luke Evans seems to be heading down one of two career paths: the hunky antihero – even villain – in acclaimed dramas, or the heir apparent to his High-Rise co-star Jeremy Irons as the best thing about bad movies. Given the pomp and pulp of The Hobbit or Fast and Furious, he brings out the best aspects of the film; given a masterful (if mental) film like High-Rise, he steals the show. Evans is still at the beginning of his career, and while not every entry in his filmography is cinematic gold, his notable successes mark him as a performer to watch.