When we sat down to chat on a chilly autumn morning, I didn’t know what to expect. There’s a certain cadence you must hit. A rhythm of question-answer, plus a little something more. But that’s boring and transactional. When we get to talking about his work, particularly in How to Have Sex, it’s clear he is still trying to wrap his head around how he got so lucky. The conversation becomes less of an interview and more of a chat as I learn to leave behind what is expected, as he seems to do in everyday life. He carries an air of confidence that puts me right at ease. His enthusiasm for acting is infectious, making me want to follow along on his journey and share in all his wins. Perpetually shocked and in a state of disbelief, his charming smile could melt the iciest of hearts and win any audience over. It isn’t hard to see how he fell into his profession.
When touching upon creeping closer to his thirties, I’m met with a boisterous laugh of disbelief. Shaun reflects on how quickly time has passed. He becomes pensive, looking back on all the stepping stones that led him here to this moment. Shaun is adamant that How to Have Sex is an important story that needs to be told. A fieriness takes over him now as he explains why this film is so important for everyone to watch. He hopes that viewers learn and glean something from it, much like he did when he read the script. Shaun explains how the material made him self-reflect as a man, stating that he and others must do better.
Shaun shows us that it doesn’t matter what your background is, where you come from, how you speak, or how you identify, what matters at the end of the day is how hard you work and how badly you want it. And maybe some luck matters too. The genuine article, across the board, he is certainly becoming a force of nature.
'HOW TO HAVE SEX' arrives in UK & Irish cinemas November 3. A MUBI Release.
So, just to start us off, what are three of the most cinematic moments you've had this year personally or professionally?
I'd have to speak on How to Have Sex. I think watching the last scene with Tara and Badger, where they’re sitting on the balcony in silence - I think that's one. That was a very powerful moment for me. I really enjoyed that. Good question.
Starting off strong. [laughs]
Also, I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time. That was a great film as well. I really enjoyed it.
I mean, Robin Williams at his peak. It’s an excellent movie. What shows and films inspired you growing up? How did you relate to them?
From a young age, I was always inspired by Rocky Balboa. I like the determination and the underdog mentality. That always kind of stayed with me. I also enjoyed watching stand-up comedy as a kid. I liked Peter Kay. He inspired me to want to make people laugh. They were two massive inspirations.
So, building off that, when did you discover your spark for acting? Is there a distinct memory that comes to mind?
For me? It all started when I was a kid. It depends how far back we want to go with this. [laughs] I'll start from the beginning. When I was a young boy, I grew up on an estate that had a strong culture for horses. And a lot of people would go out on horses and carts and collect scrap metal. One day, I saw two lads driving up the road and shouted them down. I asked if I could go with them, and this was me seeing an opportunity. I fell in love with being around horses and that was pulling me away from going to school. It was a mad situation because Film 4 came into the school I was attending and was looking for someone who knew about horses. So, the school recommended me to them. And that’s how I got into acting. I never really thought I'd be an actor. I never saw myself becoming one, even to this day. 10 years later, I've worked hard to get to where I am today and it's still all very surreal to me.
That’s incredible. What were the chances they were looking for a horse expert? I guess it was meant to be! Is what you love about being an actor now the same thing it was when you were a kid?
No, because I started when I was so young and naïve. I didn't understand the industry and what it was about. I literally got thrown into it at the deep end. I've always been learning on the job, but I always knew because of my consistency in it, that I loved it. As I've grown older, my obsession has only gotten stronger and stronger. I've grown to want to take it more and more seriously.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself from being in the industry?
I've learned that you never know what you’re capable of. That's the biggest one for me. Then to go on to see different places, to meet all these different people, coming from an estate where there's not a lot of opportunity, I've found myself feeling very grateful and lucky.
Amazing! Switching it up a little, take me back to the premiere of How to Have Sex at the Cannes Film Festival. What was going through your head? What was that experience like for you?
I’d been to Cannes before, when I was 15 with Selfish Giant. I was so young; I just didn’t understand where I was and what I was getting myself into. When I went this time, I could indulge. I had a bit of nervous energy. You know, like, How’s this going to go? Then [the cast] all met before the red carpet walk and we were like, ‘We’re all going to hold hands, we’re going to have fun, and we're going to dance’, and you know, just be ourselves. To get to share that moment after putting in all the hard work…it's a tough, tough endeavor to go on. And to get to share that was so fulfilling and satisfying - it was such a beautiful moment. It holds a massive place in my heart.
I have to ask: what was it like to see the audience's reaction firsthand?
That’s a tough one because the acting throughout is so magnificent, I was so enticed and so captivated by what was happening on screen. I did one little scan of the audience at Cannes, and I remember seeing people nail-biting or seeing them think as they watched. It’s a very powerful film and to see the effect that it had on the audience means we did something right.
I watched the second screening of it at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and you could feel the audience holding their breath. Stunning performances from all involved. When you first read the script, what were your initial thoughts?
The first time I read it, I was taken aback by how character-driven it was. The characters really stood out. They all had so much energy and traits of their own. And you could see the traits on the paper as you read it. You could kind of get a feel for each character. It was brilliantly written. And as I was reading it, I was anticipating something happening, but not what actually happened. I was expecting an injury or someone getting lost. And then you get hit with the realisation. It really took me back and made me reevaluate and think about the female peers in my life. You know, ‘Has anybody in my family been in that situation?’ It really got into my mind. So, having all those thoughts when I went into my audition, all I could do was be honest. I just explained what I was thinking, about how I’d hate for this to happen to anyone in general, let alone my family. I think that took them by surprise. I think that really took Molly [Manning Walker] back because I know she was doing workshops and within these workshops, people weren't reading this and seeing it as an assault. So, for a male to come in and see this for what it is, I think that played a major part in me getting the role.
Talk to me about working with Molly Manning Walker. Do you have a favorite memory of working with her?
Every memory with Molly is a favorite memory. [laughs] She's so funny and outgoing. She's just full of life and is always up for a joke. She really kept the team spirit high. The amount of time she has for actors and actresses on and off set is amazing. She really took time to get to know us on a personal level, to the extent that if we needed to message her or speak to her about anything, we were more than able to do so. Her being so open really brought us together, she was the rock of the team.
After spending so much time in Badger’s mindset, what is a piece of advice you’d give him as Shaun?
That’s a really good question. I've got a couple: be more responsible. Be more responsible when drinking because irresponsible drinking can lead to upset. And maybe pick your friends a bit better.
Absolutely. You can see throughout the film how he’s constantly giving his friend a side-eye, and I kept waiting for him to speak up!
He’s a people pleaser. He's not the guy with the good looks, he’s the person who's going to try and make you laugh and make you smile. He doesn’t want to upset anyone, even though he should. Especially in this case.
Circling back, how do you feel the shows and films you’ve seen have changed your perspective on life?
Mainly for me, my work has completely U-turned my life. I never really knew what I wanted to do as a kid. I'm really grateful. It's made me realize that if you want something and you work hard, you can get it. No matter where you're from, or your identity, or how you speak. I get the opportunity to see different sides of life in different cities and different people. I get to make up my own mind, and I get to make my own opinion instead of having an opinion that's driven by the people I’m surrounded by. I feel so lucky.
As you approach your 30s [Shaun bursts into laughter] what is a lesson you’ll carry with you into that decade and beyond?
[laughs] I’m not that close to my thirties! I’ve learned to take more risks and to be a bit more courageous. To always try to step out of my comfort zone; I feel like every time I have stepped out nothing’s really gone too wrong. I've kind of come out better than I would have if I didn't step out.
I can understand that. What’s life without a little risk? We'll end with a couple of fun questions. Is there a particular film, past or present, you’d like to be a part of and why?
It’s not a secret I would love to play Rocky, so I’d have to say Rocky Balboa for sure.
Would love to see that. If they ever decide to revamp the franchise, why not? I read in the Yorkshire Post that you’re not the biggest fan of driving in big cities – has that changed?
I enjoy driving. Now. [laughs]
Speaking of cities, what type of environment do you find yourself most at peace in?
I find myself most at peace at the top of mountains in the Yorkshire Dales. I love looking over the blue sky and green grass.
Did you ever grow up watching All Creatures Great and Small?
Oh, no, I didn't.
That’s the quintessential Yorkshire Dales. I highly recommend it! It’s a great show.
I went for a walk up there and they were filming!
Amazing! I would have loved to see that! As we wrap up, what is something long-term or short-term you'd like to manifest for yourself in the coming year?
To be healthy and for my family to be healthy and happy.