Rising to the occasion

Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod in a scene from One Day.
Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod in a scene from One Day.
From scene-stealer in White Lotus to leading man in One Day, Leo Woodall’s rise to fame has taken his breath away, he tells Alex Moshakis.

Throughout our meeting at a North London vegan cafe, Leo Woodall is considered and earnest. At times he turns away from me and speaks out into the cafe, so quietly I almost cannot hear him — aware, I think, that other customers might be listening in. This is a relatively new situation for him. In 2022, Woodall (27) appeared in season two of the Emmy-winning HBO series The White Lotus, in which he played a "cheeky Essex boy" involved in a deliciously wild murder plot. (Woodall’s character, Jack, wears a tattoo on his neck that reads "Cowabunga"; as the series progresses, a fun-loving charm unravels into menace.) Lotus, which was directed by Mike White and filmed in Sicily during the 2021 holiday off-season, was Woodall’s first big job and it hurled him into the public consciousness.

When I ask how he is dealing with fame, he says, "To be honest, I don’t consider myself to be famous," and then, "I’ve experienced crumbs of what famous people experience." But the remarks seem practised. Last year, while he was in New York with Lotus co-star Meghann Fahy, the pair were followed by a photographer, who "cycled from block to block to block, trying to remain hidden" — a sure sign that life has changed. Strangers regularly approach him in public now; some even know his name. At the cafe, a waiter who is at first curt to me becomes buoyant on Woodall’s arrival. Later, looking around, I realise people might well be listening in.

Woodall and I are meeting to discuss a major Netflix adaptation of One Day, the David Nicholls novel, in which Woodall leads alongside the actor Ambika Mod. (A film adaptation of the book, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, released in 2011, was a flop — a catastrophe for legions of the novel’s fans.) The project will do nothing to lower his profile. One Day revolves around the years-long relationship between Emma Morley, a hard-working northerner, and Dexter Mayhew, a character Nicholls describes as someone who "hoped one day for a retrospective of his work, without having any clear notion of what that work might be". Woodall plays Mayhew and he does so with the frayed edges of someone who wants to be good, but cannot always find the ways to be so. Partway through One Day, Mayhew’s beloved mother dies. His interpersonal behaviour slides from poor to damaging, he slips into addiction and his false-start of a television career goes awry. Eventually, he becomes a husband and a father, and he begins works at a cafe, and when all seems to be going well — Mayhew by this point realising that perhaps what he wants from life is not fame and fortune, but a more simple kind of happiness — his wife cheats on him. "You know, he goes through a lot," Woodall says. "His journey is tumultuous, it’s a rollercoaster. And perhaps he’s not well equipped enough to deal with it."

Woodall sees Mayhew as deeply flawed, but ultimately decent. He has described Jack, his Lotus character, similarly, which is surprising, given how central Jack is to a plot-line involving a conspiracy to kill a wealthy hotel guest. When I ask Woodall, "Do you always see the good in people?" he responds, "I prefer to, it’s healthier." Then he adds, "I feel that most people, the people you meet on a daily basis, they are good. And often you find a way to recognise the signs that someone’s going through something. It’s not black and white, is it? This person is being a dickhead, therefore they are a dickhead?" He shakes his head, and then another thought occurs. "I mean, sometimes people are just dickheads."

Mayhew is not a dickhead. He is "deeply selfish", Woodall admits, and "horrible to Emma", and he "goes to these really s*** places". You could describe him as indifferent at best and troublingly egotistical at worst. And yet "there is still something good in him". He is a person who is trying, like all of us.

He had auditioned for One Day while filming Lotus. Once, moving between a Sicilian set and a London audition room, he forgot to remove Jack’s cowabunga tattoo, and panicked Netflix casting agents who worried it was real. ("Towards the end of the audition bits were peeling off.") Woodall is certain he landed One Day because he had already been cast in Lotus — it had given him "an edge" during auditions, to be flying in from a major set. He is less sure why he was cast in Lotus, an established HBO hit whose cast was kitted out with famous actors.

"It shouldn’t really have happened for me at that point," he says. "White Lotus is a star-studded show and I was not a star. I was not even someone who had been on television before." He goes on, "I was lucky that Mike White doesn’t give a f*** about stardom. I did a tape, I did it well, he liked it."

Woodall was born in Hammersmith, west London, into a "fairly posh middle-class" family. He talks less like Jack and more like Mayhew, who uses the received pronunciation of privilege. As well as an older brother, Woodall has an older sister and he considers himself "the baby" of the family. ("I was a bit spoilt.") Though his father once described him as "a taciturn child", he was, until 11, a content kid. But at secondary school he slipped helplessly into deep water. There were bigger boys. Some feigned friendship, then stabbed him in the back. One pinned his neck to a wall; another beat him in the chest. ("Like, it was a s*** school," Woodall says. "You know: violence.") Once, at a house party, the stabbing almost happened literally. A boy Woodall had only recently come to know demanded the gloves he was wearing. A knife appeared. Woodall handed them over.

These experiences changed him. He became sullen and preferred not to leave the house, fearing the worst would happen. At school, he began to put on a character. "I started shaving my eyebrows," he recalls. "I shaved my head. I wore a hood all the time, changed the way I talked. It was a kind of survival instinct, I think. To fit in. But I wasn’t nice. I lashed out. My mum was worried."

During our conversation, this time is referred to hyperbolically as "the dark years" and Woodall suggests the period might be the reason he has been cast to play complicated, often angsty young men. (He later made new friends, "boys who played ping-pong at lunchtime, people we had considered to be nerds", and escaped.) But this period was not the reason he turned to acting in the first place.

Woodall comes from a family of performers. His father is the actor Andrew Woodall. His stepfather is actor Alexander Morton, who for many years appeared in Monarch of the Glen, and is now retired. (Morton met Woodall’s mother, Jane, who also went to drama school, but did not pursue an acting career, in London, where she was briefly his landlady.) "And my mum’s mum’s mum," Woodall goes on, of his acting pedigree, "somewhere down the line ..." (He is referring to the silent-film actor Maxine Elliott who was a star in the 1910s.)

Woodall went to drama school at 19. He had been working at a bar, smoking weed, directionless. "I was thinking, What am I going to do? I wasn’t too worried about it. I wasn’t stressed. But I thought: ‘Perhaps, now I’m creeping into my 20s, I should think about it’." (This experience is similar to Mayhew’s, who is described in One Day as thinking of travel and not much else, as a viable post-graduation plan.) Woodall didn’t perform well at school. "I didn’t really give a f*** about my grades, so it wasn’t like I could just go to university to study economics." Other than acting, what else was he to do?

The work that has come since drama school — The White Lotus and now One Day — has entered him into a world in which he is allowed to be "snobby about hotels", Woodall says. When I ask how else he has changed, he responds, "You know, I’m making a bit more money. And there’s freedom that comes with that. But I try not to let it get to my head."

"What would happen if it went to your head?" I ask.

He looks around the cafe, briefly considers the question, and then says, "Oh, I’d be an unbearable f*****" — The Observer