Talking about Industry with Harry Lawtey
Harry Lawtey is one to watch. The emerging star can be found in Industry (HBO/BBC), a drama – written by former bankers, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, and executively produced by Lena Dunham – that follows a handful of graduates into the gruelling world of investment banking. Harry’s character, Robert, is everything you’d expect a young, good-looking graduate banker to be – wild, charming, and charismatic – and Harry approaches this role with such depth that you can’t help but adore him. Surrounded by sex, drugs, hostility, and a whole lot of money, the show focuses equally on the graduates’ journeys as investment bankers and their journeys towards discovering the type of people they want to become. We sat down with Harry to delve further into the world of Industry and the importance of making this type of show in 2020.
What drew you to Robert’s character?
He’s an interesting character. It’s funny because when I first auditioned for the part, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I hadn’t seen all of the script. I had only seen select scenes, so I went in and did a different interpretation to what I’ve ended up doing in the show. I originally thought very differently of him as a character. I thought he was full of bravado and not much of a nice guy, to be honest, but the casting director, Julie, and the writers kept on saying, “No, he’s a nice guy! He’s a really good person.” Eventually, I saw the rest of the script and how he develops through the arc of the show. Then I realised that he’s confident and cocky, but underneath he’s sensitive, insecure, and a bit lost, really. He wants validation, acceptance and to just get along.
We found Robert very frustrating because we could feel the dichotomy between his bravado and need to be accepted. Were you ever frustrated with him?
I think there were times when I was more frustrated with the people he latches onto. He’s got an obsession with, and hunts for, validation, but he goes to entirely the wrong people for it. He idolises his boss, who rarely looks at him or pays him any attention, but for some reason he needs confirmation from him to show that he’s on the right path. Even in his social circles and romantic pursuits, you could argue he’s attracted to the wrong people, when someone else is possibly staring him directly in the face. I was rolling my eyes at the people he was chasing, but I think much of the show is about that; he’s young and he’s blinded by the lights of it all.
The show explores issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class incredibly well. Could you tell us more about the classism that your character, Robert, experiences?
The show explores a lot because the work environment acts as a melting pot of different backgrounds and experiences. The hope is that it’s democratising, in that sense, and explores whether that’s true or whether people have institutionalised prejudices that are still present in the work environment. Robert’s background is partly reinforced by the people around him but also partly by Robert himself because he's class-conscious and aspirational too. He romanticises the relationship he has with his boss, who represents an outdated, archetypal upper-class banker in appearance and practice, and although he has no affiliation with that identity, it’s something he wishes he could be. And the same is mirrored in his best friend, Gus, who has been streamlined into this job straight from Eton – which is certainly not where Robert has come from – so it’s all had a great impression on him and reinforces why he feels that he should search for those things.
Across the whole spectrum of class, race, and sexuality, I think the show has a great new perspective and puts each one under a microscope within a hostile work environment, which is something we haven’t really seen before.
Did you ever feel stressed or depleted after filming in such a hostile environment? There’s one scene in particular, where Yasmin is put on the spot by her boss, which makes the audience physically uncomfortable whilst watching. How did it feel to be around that?
It’s a strange contrast because we had so much fun whilst filming. We had a lovely cast and were excited to be involved in such a fantastic project. It’s such a cliché but the cast and crew were wonderful to work with. But, of course, there can be stressful moments and the more intense scenes can take their toll and they did, on occasion, for all of the cast, I think. After working long days – sometimes 14 hours – sometimes you need to go home and just breathe a little.
One day on set, I was supposed to be doing a scheduled scene, but it got shuffled around and was moved to a couple hours later. I could have gone back to our base area and chilled for four hours, which actually seemed a bit boring to me, so I asked if I could stay on set by the monitors and watch what was going on. It was actually the scene where Kenny (Conor MacNeill) gets Yasmin (Marisa Abela) to sit on the bin, which is a fundamental scene to her career progression. And I watched that whole scene being shot and I watched Conor’s performance develop and the way that Marisa brilliantly bounced off that. It’s completely cruel and intense but fascinating at the same time.
It’s so horrible! During that scene, our hearts managed to simultaneously stop and start beating extremely fast.
I think that’s the experience for her too. What you just said perfectly sums it up; it makes their hearts stop, but they’re exhilarated by it at the same time. This role of a banker is a lifestyle more than it is just a job and I think you have to be an extremely specific type of person to be able to thrive.
Do you think Robert wants to engage in the level of partying and drug taking he does, or do you think he has been swept up in the idea of his job being a lifestyle and feels as if he must do that?
I think it’s both, actually. I think he does want to do it. He’s consciously aware that he’s young and wants to feel as if he’s lived and wants to be hedonistic. And then I also think he feels that he must because he thinks that’s what expected of him. Also, in a funny way, those are the particular set of skills that he brings to the table. As I said earlier, he has a very outdated interpretation of what the banking industry is, and what is required of him, and he’s realised that he’s good with people and at showing them a good time. In the old days, that was a fast ticket to success, so he’s definitely going to lean into those skills. That’s his trump card. He doesn’t have the analytical brain that some of the others have, so I do think it’s a mix of both.
It’s fascinating that the writers of the show used to be in the finance industry themselves. Did they help you prepare for the role?
Having the writers as a resource was perfect, as we had limited access to the actual banking world. They were still working in finance within the last ten years, so they have a lot of first-hand experience and quite a galling amount of the things that happen in the show are probably true to life. In fact, I was able to ask a few questions here and there about that, which confirmed it – and that’s a bit scary. Whenever we were struggling or wanted some questions answered, we always had them as a first port of call and that was great.
Do you think those kinds of horrible situations still happen within the industry?
It’s hard to say. Perhaps, perhaps not. I think the show is looking at that, in terms of an industry that’s in an evolution as we speak. It’s being forced to respond to the cultural movements that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, such as #MeToo and, of course, everything that’s happened with civil rights. The show is really looking at that progression and looking at the characters within the bank to see if some of them are resistant to it, enforcing it, or championing it. And that’s an awkward situation to be in, which is something I think the writers enjoy taking inspiration from.
How else did you prepare for the role? Did you reach out to anyone else?
I did a lot of my own work. I tend to get very academic when it comes to characters and I create a big backstory for them. It sounds as if I’m a crazy actor, but it really helps me if I can write down where he’s come from to get to this point. Most of it will never show on screen, but you’d like to think that it’s in there somewhere, bubbling away.
Could you tell us Robert’s backstory? The literature graduate in me absolutely needs to know!
[Laughs] I had a story on my laptop somewhere. I would have to go back to it for the whole thing! It’s weird, but I look at specific events that would have shaped him and made him who he is in the show. I do remember writing that he was a successful runner in school. He was very good at athletics, but then he was injured. It sounds so clichéd! But going back to it, speaking to the writers obviously helped me understand the banking side of things and the drive of bankers. I also have a very close friend on whom I partly based the character too.
Have you told him? Sometimes Robert comes across as quite annoying, so it’s difficult to see him being flattered that someone like Robert is based on him?
I have told him and he’s absolutely thrilled. He’s telling everyone that there’s a TV character based on him. Similarly to Robert, he’s a bit crazy, but he’s the nicest guy at heart and that’s what I was going for. Also, being his best mate really helped me to relate to Robert and try to work out some of the reasons for his actions, because I know why my mate does them.
Did you get much face-to-face time with Lena Dunham?
She was heavily involved in the casting process and then she directed the first episode. She’s fantastic. She’s so enthusiastic, full of life and she’s got a lot of time for everyone individually. It was great to have her at the start, because not only did she understand our needs, but she also gave us so much confidence, licence to play around with things and room to be quite free, which I don’t think we were expecting, as we are all pretty young and inexperienced. It was nice to have someone with such credibility giving us the reigns and ensuring that our views and ideas were respected.
Dare we ask if you have any upcoming projects, considering how dismal the world is currently?
It’s difficult, I think, for everyone in all industries, but all I can speak of is my line of work and I think everyone has been halted in whatever progress they were trying to make. I managed to do a tiny bit in a film a couple months ago, which was great. It was just a joy to be back on set and I’m potentially in the running for a few things, so hopefully there is something else around the corner!
Would you like to add anything?
I just like to think we have made an exciting new show with some interesting and different perspectives on some big issues. Hopefully, it’ll be fun and well received!
Industry is out now
Photographer Connor Picken
Fashion Vesa Perakyla
Fashion Assistant Sophia Polhmann
Grooming by Shamirah Sairally
Editors Jheanelle Feanny & Carlo Zambon
Interview by Sophie Winfield
Sub Editor Primrose Jeanton
Location The W Hotel London