“Occasionally on the street now I get people shouting Knippenberg!,” says British actor Billy Howle of his newfound recognition. “But what I’m really pleased about is that they pronounce it correctly.”
The “it” refers to the surname of real-life Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, whom Howle portrays in the Netflix crime drama The Serpent. Macabre and mesmerizing, the story is based on Knippenberg’s decades-long obsession with a string of unsolved murders in Thailand, where he was stationed in the 1970s.
Now serving life in prison, Charles Sobhraj is thought to have drugged, robbed, and murdered a stream of young, idealistic backpackers as they made their way across Asia, and it was largely thanks to the meticulous work of Knippenberg that Sobhraj was eventually caught.
Alongside The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and Normal People’s Paul Mescal, Howle, 31, leads a new generation of young British actors who have achieved stardom due to their indomitable talent rather than their class or background.
“Who Can I Become?”
Raised in Staffordshire, the second of four boys, Howle first tried acting to allay a minor sibling rivalry. When he was little, his older brother was taking acting classes, and Howle got jealous. When his brother quit, Howle took over.
Soon, make-believe became an escape. “I’d make my family watch what I now call ‘endurance theater,’” Howle says. “I’d put on, like, a three-and-a-half-hour play with all these improvised characters, making them up as I went. I have very vivid memories of me in my bedroom, the thinking being, Who can I become?”
Howle had talent, and his youth-theater director encouraged him to audition for drama school. He auditioned for six different programs. After settling on Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, it was baptism by fire. “My parents drove me down with all my stuff and dropped me on the pavement outside the house I was supposed to be living in,” Howle says, “and then they just drove away.”
After graduating, Howle landed a handful of sought-after roles, including alongside Saoirse Ronan in the 2017 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; as a young Tony Webster in a film version of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending; and as Konstantin Treplev in a reworking of Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Most recently, Howle played a young investigator with severe PTSD in the TV series The Beast Must Die, a taut thriller adapted from a 1938 novel by Nicholas Blake (the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis). The cast includes Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife) and Jared Harris (Mad Men), and the story and performances are tense, gripping, and unnerving.
Next up, Howle will film Chloe alongside The Crown’s Erin Doherty. It’s another allusive thriller, but this time with more of a millennial mindset.
It isn’t lost on the actor that the brooding, deep-thinking character is becoming a bit of a pattern. “People who know me well have said to me, Why the hell don’t you do something funny?” Howle says. “I have a very anarchic, ridiculous sense of humor. I love nonsense.
“But I would never want to do something frivolous or meaningless,” he continues. “I think, for me, it’s just got to have substance, whatever it is.”
The Beast Must Die is available for streaming on AMC+
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail