Joseph Mawle: seeing through Orwell’s eyes changed my views

Joseph Mawle plays George Orwell in Mr Jones, the new biopic of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. He reveals how the role changed the way he looks at the world

The Big Issue: Your pinned tweet is an Orwell quote: “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” What does that mean to you? 

Joseph Mawle: Facing uncomfortable truths. That’s something that Orwell was renowned for. There are ideas and there are facts, and they are different things. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, grizzly, mean, pessimistic, but it’s actually about looking at those facts rather than ideas.

Is it a quote you came across while researching the part?

I can’t say I was a huge fan of his beforehand. I’m not brilliantly well read until I find a purpose to read. On this occasion, it was to find out more about a man whose real name was Eric Blair. There are parts of him that can be quite repellent. He described himself as an odious little snob while he was at Eton. No one’s completely clean, there’s no one perfect. We are imperfect as a species and we continue to be.

Orwell’s last words on his last published statement, relating to 1984, said: “Do not let it happen. It depends on you.”

Do you think Orwell’s name being used as an adjective simplifies somebody who was quite complex?

He is absolutely much more complex. He felt uncomfortable in his own skin. He had this voice that people say was Etonian then, as I understand it, he tried to be a bit estuary. There’s no recordings of him anywhere. From what I researched, Orwell was very conscious of a ruling-class voice suggesting someone looking down on others, and that his writing was to be for everyone. Animal Farm is written so a child could understand the story, just as an adult who’d been through the wars could understand what he was talking about.

Apart from Animal Farm, what other books did you read during production?

Homage to Catalonia, about joining the freedom fighters against fascism in Spain. That’s the other thing about Orwell – he tended to do as well as write about it. But essentially, Orwell is an observer of people, of places, and he doesn’t always get that right. That is the revolutionary element. He is honest about not always being right.

What was your take on contemporary events from his perspective?

Things are happening now that to a degree he predicted – Cambridge Analytica, the way we are encouraged to vote. We think we are thinking freely but actually it’s somebody finding out that you’re on the fence about something and subliminally adding pieces of information to the point you think that’s your thought. We do go around in circles, and have to hope that the 1920s don’t become the 2020s and we’ll be in the same situation in 2030 as we were in 1930. We are moving away from each other. Nationalism is coming back. What will happen next? What will be allowed to happen next? Racism and xenophobia have been encouraged and people are not listening or having cohesive arguments. There’s no problem with arguing or disagreeing, but it’s important that we that we are able to understand and listen to each other.

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What makes you optimistic?

Orwell’s last words on his last published statement, relating to 1984, said: “Do not let it happen. It depends on you.” That can relate to people like the amazing Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion. People are activating rather than sitting there dormant and pacified by government. People have their own individual thoughts. Social media allows that to spread faster and easier. We just have to learn to use social media with a moral compass of our own.

Mr Jones is in cinemas from February 7

Image: Signature Entertainment