Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to spy movies. The iconoclastic genre filmmaker has already directed three Kingsman movies, and that came after having a brief flirtation with James Bond. Yet the filmmaker who’s also dabbled in fantasy (Stardust) and superheroes (Kick-Ass) is up to something extra mischievous with Argylle, his new 2024 action spectacle: he’s playing it for real. Kind of.
Set in a heightened world where Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard playing the allegedly real-life author of the Argylle novel) stops writing spy fiction, which includes Henry Cavill as her idealized agent Argylle and begins living it upon meeting a spook played by Sam Rockwell, Argylle sees Vaughn changing the game.
You’re a connoisseur of espionage and spy films. So what about Argylle appealed to you after doing three Kingsman movies?
First of all, lockdown made me catch my kids. Now I could make them watch lots of films from my childhood, which they’d refused to watch. And one of the movies that really stuck with them was Romancing the Stone. They were like, ‘Wow! Dad, why don’t they make movies like that?’ And I had forgotten how much I loved that film. And I didn’t say this to the kids, but I remember that was my first date that turned out to be successful afterward. So Romancing the Stone was a really, shall we say, profound moment in my life at age 13.
So I just wanted to make a film that I could share with my wife and my daughters that they would enjoy and that my son wouldn’t throw up with boredom watching at the same time. But I didn’t want to copy Romancing the Stone. But then I read the first book of Argylle. And book one of Argylle is brilliant. It’s coming out in January or something. Then I saw the synopses of the other five, and I said, ‘Let’s make book four. Book four is better for a movie’…
So we started with book four, but I was again like, ‘Hold on, it’s got to be different.’ And I had an idea: imagine a world with J.K. Rowling while she was writing Harry Potter in Portugal and being inspired by her aunt. Imagine if a real wizard suddenly turned up with J.K. Rowling and went, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty good what you’re writing, but this is also how you do magic.’
And with Romancing the Stone, they don’t make a lot of those anymore, romantic action movies.
I’ve called this probably more of an action-romantic movie. [Laughs] It’s got romance in it, but it’s got a bit of everything. You know what it has? Escapism. Because when we were all sitting in the house together watching these movies, we were escaping lockdown. I was like, let’s recreate that feeling that they had. It’s an adventure movie. Romancing the Stone. This is spies. I’m guilty of contributing to creating the tropes that we all know in spy movies. So, I love the idea of taking some of the tropes that I’m guilty of and reinventing them.
I’m taken by the meta quality of this. It’s reminiscent of how you broke the fourth wall in Kick-Ass and Stardust and Layer Cake. Is that something that appeals to you, winking at the audience?
A friend of mine said I should have called my company Mischief Films, or Mischief Movies would have been even better. I can’t help [it]. If I can find an area where it can be a little bit more fun, a little bit more elevated in the genre that I play in, I’ll go for it. If I did a serious movie then I wouldn’t, but let’s see if I end up making a serious film. One day I’ll try. [Laughs]
People say Kingsman is your Bond. And there is obviously a large element of that, but Colin Firth’s playing Patrick MacNee from The Avengers in that. So, if that’s the case, is Henry Cavill here your 007?
Yes, I call him 007 and a half. I adore him. He would make a brilliant Bond, really would. I know when he did the screen test for Bond [in 2005], if he was older, he probably would have got it. He was just too young at that time. I think Ian Fleming, when he wrote Bond, Henry Cavill would have been on his mind.
What can you say about the dynamic between Bryce Dallas Howard and Sam Rockwell as the author and the “real spy” of the story?
He’s the realistic spy, and he’s brilliant because Bryce’s Elly has written a spy novel about what spies are and what people want spies to be. That’s what’s fun because in the whole movie, we’re taking all the clichés she would be imagining should be happening, and then there’s Sam saying, ‘No. This is how it is.’ So she has to rely more and more on Sam dealing with stuff because her idea is how to deal with a problem that would work if you were in a fancy spy movie, but if you’re in a realistic way, there isn’t going to be a gadget that will let you fly out of the situation.
Between casting Colin and now Sam as your spies, do you just like taking Oscar winners and making them kickass heroes?
By default. I was about to say, ‘Sam’s won an Oscar?’ Sam winning an Oscar makes me laugh. Yeah, I love casting really good actors because it makes my life a lot easier. I also think when you cast great actors, and you get them to do stuff that they haven’t done, that greatness kicks in because they’re excited. And Sam excels in this movie. He’s so good.
This is also Dua Lipa’s first major film role.
This was her first film role as well. We did it before Barbie. Just to be clear.
Could you talk about what she brings to this character?
In the movie, she is the nemesis of Henry Cavill, and I needed someone that you would immediately recognize but also be like, Oh, that’s not what I was expecting. And thank God for my girls because I didn’t know who Dua Lipa was, and they started playing me their music because I’m an ’80s boy. And she did an album inspired by ’80s music, and I thought that’s great.
Then I saw her being interviewed, and she was wearing a Valentino dress that I’d say five people in the world would get away with wearing. It looked like a Christmas tree ornament, and she pulled it off. I think a lot of young pop stars are playing to be pop stars; they’re acting as what they think a pop star should be. And then you have the greats, whether it’s Madonna to Taylor Swift, now Dua, where they are the pop star. So I knew she would explode off the screen; she was a delight to work with as well.
And, typical Hollywood, people who’ve seen the film, like agents, they’re like ‘who’s the blonde girl? She’s unbelievable.’ And I’m like ‘that’s Dua Lipa.’ You forget it’s her, which is hard to do when you’re very famous.
You mentioned this is based on a book that hasn’t been published yet. So this is Elly’s first book and Elly is a character in the film, so I’m just curious how does that work?
It’s a little bit like Kick-Ass. With Kick-Ass, there was no comic, there was just the idea. And [that happened] on Kingsman as well. But there was an Argylle book, and I really liked the book, but I just knew that wasn’t how to start a franchise. And with Bryce, Bryce loved the idea of playing an author that no one knew but will know…
And I told her, ‘Just imagine you’re J.K. Rowling or you’re Ian Fleming. You’re playing a very famous recluse.’ Because she is a recluse. I think I’m allowed to say that about Elly, because I’ve never met her. I’ve never met other authors [I worked with]. I met Neil Gaiman because he’s impossible not to meet. But other authors own the rights to the book, but they’re writers. They probably prefer email for a reason. But Elly, she’s very talented.
What do you think about people speculating that Elly is a fictional creation by you?
Well, you’re going to have to see the book. And I know people are saying it, but there’s a 380 page book, which either I’m [the greatest] magician of all time [or she’s real].
It is interesting, because I’m like, ‘Since when has anyone been interested in authors?’ There’s J.K. Rowling and [Michael] Crichton, and stuff like that, but there aren’t many authors who’ve written a first book, which is now becoming a movie that everyone’s going crazy about.
Like do you know who Terry Hayes is? So Terry rang me up, because he’s got a book coming out called The Year of the Locust, his new book which is coming out in a couple of [months]. And he laughed and said, ‘I wish I had as much bloody attention as Elly Conway. It’s ridiculous.’ [Laughs] It’s funny because it has become this weird story, but maybe because I pissed off some studios by getting it before they got it.
Argylle opens in cinemas on Feb. 2 before premiering on Apple TV+ at a later date.