Photo: Channel 4
“I’ve been playing sweet teenagers all my acting life,” says Dylan Llewellyn, sitting across from me in a busy restaurant in London. “But I’ve actually reached a stage where I’m starting to grow out of it. I’m getting to the point where, at 31, I’d really like to play some real adults.
Llewellyn picks from a lunch plate of prawn toast and pork dumplings and smiles, only half-serious in his assessment. Certainly, he has no complaints about the fact that playing cute, sweet-natured and sometimes unhappy teenagers has helped him build an impressive primetime career. There was polite and clumsy schoolboy James Maguire in all three seasons of the hit Derry Girls, his big break. More recently he played the shy and tender-hearted 19-year-old Jack, starring in Channel 4’s critically acclaimed coming-of-age comedy Big Boys, which returned to our screens in January for season two.
It’s not hard to see why parts like this keep coming. With his fresh face and soft voice, his personal energy channels much of the friendly and sweet nature of his most recognizable roles. “And I’ll miss that youth and innocence in the characters when they retire,” he assures me, “it’s always so much fun. I’d just love to play a terrible git and then test myself.
At the very least, the second part of Big Boys could mark the next phase of Llewellyn’s on-screen adolescence. As Jack heads off to college and begins to explore his sexuality in season one, the show picks up post-freshers as he navigates the dangerous world of sophomore year: student housing, changing friendships, anal douching. The difficult themes that season one deftly handled with humor and grace remain at the heart of the storylines – coming out, fluctuating mental health and the long shadow of grief are still at the show’s warm heart.
The series, created and written by Jack Rooke, is semi-autobiographical. Llewellyn and Rooke first met on the outskirts of Edinburgh when they were introduced by his Derry Girls co-star Nicola Coughlan. “Jack was trying to get Nicola to play a drug dealer in the pilot,” says Llewellyn, “then my agent called to ask if I wanted to audition.”
Rooke knew early on that Llewelyn was a perfect fit for him. “Dylan has an incredibly kind, empathetic quality,” says Rooke, “and he’s also a fantastic physical comedian. Writing material for him is a joy: I can write scenes with slapstick stuff – like getting an old man’s dick in the eye or passing out from drinking poppers – that still deliver so much heart.
A pilot was filmed for the BBC, but it went nowhere. Just over a year later it was picked up by Channel 4. “When it was commissioned, Jack gave me a lot of research about his life,” says Llewellyn. “I listened to the audiobook of his book Cheer the F**k Up, and when I heard Jack tell his story in his own voice, I could really understand him.”
Series one was filmed straight after lockdown was lifted, but Llewellyn managed to use quality time to get to know the real Rooke family. “Jack and I spent a lot of time together on set. I always wondered, ‘Should I do it this way?’ After a difficult scene, the crew came by to see how I was doing. And I’d say, ‘More importantly, is Jack okay?’
And then there is of course That her. Both on- and off-screen iterations of Jack have impressive and unruly curly locks. These days, Llewellyn’s seems much tamer than on the show – what’s the secret? “We shot the first season straight after lockdown, so I had lockdown hair,” he says. “It was super long, completely natural. I did grow it out for season two, but not nearly as long, so yes, I did have to wear extensions this time.” Llewellyn grew up in Reigate, Surrey. He still lives in the area. “I was nine years old when I moved from the local primary school to More House School, which specializes in supporting students with autism and dyslexia,” he says. It is the largest school of its kind in Britain. “Before that, I suffered a lot from my dyslexia. I was left behind; I could barely read and write.”
Pre-diagnosis was a particularly challenging time. “Honestly,” he says, “I just thought I was stupid. I now know what is not the case. When I was told I was dyslexic it was very reassuring. No, I’m not stupid.” His new school was on the other side of Surrey, the longer commute was worth every second. “The classes were smaller, the teachers were patient and took their time. It was transformative. I felt comfortable, like I could express myself.”
It was in photography that Llewellyn envisioned his future: “Being behind the camera was what I wanted.” There had been a few small roles in school plays during his early teens, but acting was otherwise not on his radar. “I got into it by accident,” he says. “At GCSEs I chose media, photography and drama. To be honest, it was meant to be a dossier subject.”
His drama class took part in a National Theater competition. “Our version was a play within a play, and my character was introverted and stammering, very shy. But when he read lines as a stand-in, he came out of his shell. He understood it perfectly; really broken.” This spoke to how 16 year old Llewellyn felt. “Just like my character, I was shy at the time and had trouble with my self-confidence. Acting allowed me to put on this mask, just like that character. On stage I did things I never thought possible.”
His group won the competition and performed at the National Theatre. There he was scouted and then signed by an agent. Still, he enrolled in a photography course at university. “But I started getting auditions – and it was a lot to juggle. My parents thought it was worth pursuing acting, so I dropped out of college a few months later.
Today, Llewellyn knows how dyslexia shapes his approach to acting. Take line learning: he has a method. First he types all his lines on an iPad and remembers them all in the correct order. “Once I’ve written all my lyrics,” he says, “I record my voice while I do all the other parts, leaving room for my part. And then I press play and perform my lines live so I learn the cues. He is confident in telling casting directors what he needs to be the best he can be. “But when I first started at 16, there were definitely problems. It was heavy. There were times in audition rooms where I would be given a new script and asked to read a different scene, or try a different role, with no prep time. I would try to pull it off, but I would panic: it took everything I had to even try to read the script correctly, but I could never get it right.
When he talked about his dyslexia, not everyone understood: “People were not that sensitive. They didn’t know much about dyslexia and thought I was just lazy. Other times I was afraid to even tell them, in case it would affect the outcome.”
These early experiences in the industry, which was already struggling with fear and shyness, began to disrupt his morale. “I wasn’t confident at first, so this was all a huge blow. I realized I had to learn a bit more, so I went to drama school.” At the age of 17, Llewellyn auditioned for Rada; on his first attempt he was accepted into a basic course.
The gigs started coming, including an 18-month stint on Hollyoaks as sixth former Martin “Jono” Johnson and a breakthrough onstage in the West End production of War Horse. Then the auditions started to dry up and he took a job at a cafe making sandwiches.
“It was at least a year of nothing,” he remembers. “I was almost ready to throw it in there. But I had dropped out of college – I didn’t know what else I would do.” Unfortunately, he refused to get excited about the early Derry Girls auditions. “I was at work when I got the call. I took out my marigolds and replied. He was cast. “It was emotional, really. I was about to give up. It really meant the world to me. It saved me.”
He wasn’t the only one. Set in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s during the Troubles, the series has established itself as a comedy classic in just 19 episodes. Now it’s a worldwide sensation after making its way to Netflix. It’s been a launching pad for the entire cast: his co-stars have had major roles in Bridgerton, Barbie and DC’s The Flash, among others. “I love the girls,” Llewellyn says of the gang’s bond, “they look like my sisters. Experiencing this together was a huge part of our acting careers.”
Now with two beloved major shows to his name, it’s no surprise that Llewellyn is regularly recognized. For now, he says he wouldn’t change that for the world. “My confidence has grown through Derry Girls and Big Boys,” he says. “That’s why I like to talk to people about the shows, have photos taken and sign things. You might think it means a lot to the person asking for a selfie, but really, considering how I got here, all of this? It also means a lot to me.”
• Big Boys series two is available to stream on Channel 4 now.