“The gloom is good,” Earl Cave says of the shifting London weather. “It’s quite nice for us to have a day where we can just wear a jumper and not have to deal with the sunshine.” Angular and pale, with a face suited to playful broodiness, Cave is very much the son of Nick Cave, the man in black himself, and Susie Bick, whose The Vampire’s Wife clothing line bears a name suggestive of a bloodline rather averse to sunlight. It’s a family joke Cave is happy to be in on. “To the blood-sucking night crawler of East Sussex,” he captioned a photo of his father on Instagram, “I love you unconditionally.”
Although very much his own man, the 22-year-old actor’s choice of roles has done little to dispel the sense of aesthetic continuity with his parents. His breakout role, and still his favorite to date, was as the younger brother of Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel’s 2019 adaptation of Peter Carey’s historical novel. It’s an intense role that features Cave wilding on horseback arrayed in women’s evening wear and gunning down colonial police in the Australian bush. His next role was as a disaffected teenage metalhead in another adaptation, Days of the Bagnold Summer, released in the same year. Then there’s Tiberius, the “prostitute-killing psychopath” he played in the first season of Domina. Most recently, he plays Hort, a raffish teenage werewolf, in Netflix’s forthcoming The School for Good and Evil, directed by Paul Feig. The film is about a Hogwarts-like boarding school for the training of fairytale heroes and villains. It goes without saying which half of the school Hort calls home.
One gets the feeling that even if Cave hadn’t grown up watching horror movies with his father and brother, he would have still found his way to the darker side of the arts—if not through film, then through music. His tastes run toward punk intensity, and he’s drawn to the transgressive lyricism and stylistic confidence of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, both of whom had a profound influence on his father’s music, and, it seems, on Cave’s own. A pianist and bass guitarist, he has been jamming and composing with his girlfriend, Devon Ross, during his downtime between film gigs. And while he thinks they’re in the early stages of what may become a formal project, he’s loving the experience of simply cutting loose.
There’s grace in this penchant for raw, emotive art. The Cave family has suffered greatly these last seven years—Earl’s twin brother, Arthur, died in a tragic accident in 2015, and his older half-brother, Jethro, died unexpectedly just a few months ago—and music and filmmaking have been tools for survival. Nick Cave has explored his grief in the documentary One More Time with Feeling (2016), and again in an album, Ghosteen (2019). Earl is following suit. “I’m doing all of this for Arthur,” he told The Guardian in 2020. “I want to make something beautiful out of something tragic.”
In the last essay he wrote before his death, the British philosopher Roger Scruton observes that mourning “obliges us to tend the grave within, to revisit what we have lost and to rehearse an attachment rooted in things that cannot be changed. It requires us to come to terms with the loss, incorporating it into our future, so that what we are and what we were belong to a single continuum.” While family and loss have shaped Cave’s motivation and interests as an artist, neither seem overly to define him. Neither are constraining. Rather, they seem to be the wind in his sails, driving him toward freedom and self-discovery through making. Perhaps the grave within is best tended in the creation of something beautiful.
His acquaintance with grief and affection for the macabre notwithstanding, Earl Cave is cheerful during our conversation, giving the impression of a young man for whom the world is all potentiality, a place of pure becoming where he is mapping out his own identity, project by project, character by character.
Are you settled in London? Or are you still flitting about the world?
It’s kind of a mixture of the two. It’s being stable for a while and staying in one place, and then suddenly you’re off to God knows where. It’s periods of intense working, and then not so intense sitting around. And it’s quite a nice juxtaposition, to be honest. It’s nice to just get it all done, and then sit back and look for your next job, and process what you’ve done.
When you’re in the down periods, what do you do? What do you do to refresh?
I try to spend a lot of my time playing music, jamming with my girlfriend. We do that a lot. And I just walk around London and sort of explore. Recently I stumbled upon this old boxing gym in a church, and I went in. So I’ve been doing a bit of boxing, actually, which has been pretty intense. It’s good to give yourself some sort of structure, especially when you’re not working. Otherwise you can fall into a weird place where you’re not really sure which way’s up. Filming really gives a structure to your day. And then when you don’t have that, you get a little lost. So it’s nice to have something that you can go to each day that creates a rhythm. I learned that over lockdown as well.
And boxing is very much a discipline. It’s not like you’re just going to the movies or something to pass the time.
It’s pretty fucking hard, I gotta say. Those coaches, they do not fuck around. They’ll make you go in a stress position on the wall and smack your stomach with a stick. There are sixty-year-old women in there who are just terrifying. Mike Tyson used to go there. It’s a cool place.
Do you see yourself getting into it enough to ever get into the ring?
I haven’t really thought about the actual fighting part of it. I’ve been using it just to keep in shape. But each session I do, I feel a little bit closer to getting in that ring. I do it with my friend as well. So I think one day we’ll have to fight each other.
Tell me about the music you’re making with your girlfriend.
I mainly play piano, a little bit of bass. She’s the guitarist. She’s really good. We’re just jamming, mostly, and doing stupid covers of songs. We’re just messing around for the time being, but we’re gonna start a band. I get a similar thrill from music as I do with acting. So it’s kind of nice to have both.
Have you gotten to perform much music?
A little bit. When I did the True History of the Kelly Gang, we had to start a band. You know, as a way to get to know each other and bond. So Justin, the director, booked us a gig and gave us a month to write some songs. We ended up performing to a random audience who had no idea about the film or anything—they just thought we were some weird band called Fleshlight. That was my first experience actually performing like that in a band.
I have to ask: Who proposed the name “Fleshlight”?
It was probably me or Louis Hewison. Yeah, I think we probably came up with that one day.
That cracks me up. It has to be one of the filthiest words in the English language.
We weren’t allowed to use it, unfortunately. We had to legally change our name to Fleshen Fella. Apparently, you just don’t go against Fleshlight. They’re just not ones to pick a fight with. So we decided to stay out of court and just go with a different name. But to me, it’ll always be Fleshlight.
You guys wore dresses during that gig, right? A nod to the film?
Exactly. Dresses and war paint. It was a thrill, man. It’s a similar feeling to being onstage doing theater. Anything can happen. And then when you’re done, taking a bow, there’s no better feeling.
What was it like inhabiting that character, Dan Kelly?
It was fundamental for me as a turning point in my life. I’d finished school, just turned eighteen, and I went on the plane to Australia. It was the first time I’d been away from my friends and family like that for such a long time. I went there as a quite naïve person and came back slightly more weathered. It was really intense, the filming, and also just to have the freedom to live on my own and do what I want essentially for three months. So I definitely got up to no good. It was sort of time for me to work things out, and in that sense it was amazing.
And then the character himself is very much more extroverted than I was at that time. So playing Dan Kelly showed me that I can be more confident if I truly believe in it. Even practicing the accent had this effect. Doing an Australian accent is quite tricky, so what I do is I go to a shop or something, and I’d order in an Australian accent. And for a while, you get this weird feeling that you’re some sort of freak, you know, some imposter. The first couple of times they’re like, ‘What is this guy trying to do?’ But eventually you get the hang of it. And it felt great.
When I came back home and my friends saw me, I’d almost visibly changed. So that job was so important to me. Seriously.
You finished Kelly Gang right before shooting Days of the Bagnold Summer?
I got off the plane and then the next day or so I had to start filming Bagnold Summer. So it was incredibly intense. I got pretty sick as well. On the plane back to England, I looked pretty rough. But it was good for the character, you know? I went from one extreme to the other. This extroverted, rebellious character to a very introverted, quite sort of mean character.
It was quite nice to do a quieter film. I was so exhausted, emotionally, especially after we filmed the ending scene in Ned Kelly, which is a big shootout. It was just the most intense scene. And my emotional exhaustion actually fit the character in Summer rather well.
Do you think the confidence that you gained from Kelly Gang prepared you for the lead role in Bagnold?
I do. When I got that job, though, I didn’t really see it as the lead role. Monica, who plays Daniel’s mom, is such an amazing presence in that film. So I did feel like we had a sort of equal weight on our shoulders. So I didn’t feel like I was getting dropped in the deep end. I really relied on her and learned so much from her. It was just effortless to work with her.
Tell me about filming that big shootout scene at the end of Kelly Gang. What was it like going from a film of that scale to something so understated?
That shootout felt so real to me. We were tired, and we were actually pretty scared. We’re looking out of this cabin and we see these lines of policemen in bright, reflective 3M jackets, and they’re coming closer, there’s gunfire everywhere and we’re blowing up because we’ve got these squibs in us. I didn’t know this at the time, but it really hits you. It’s like a little explosion in your chest. So it happens and you almost feel like you’ve been shot, you’ve just felt this weird pressure somewhere on your body, and you look down and you’re covered in blood, and it’s really quite emotional.
I never thought I could cry on screen, but Justin [Kurzel, the director] taught me that. He taught us how to tap into our deepest feelings, and we felt so safe with each other, all of us in the Kelly Gang. We spent every second together, and we were pretty inseparable by the end of filming. So it never really felt like we were making a movie. It felt way too real.
How did Justin get that kind of emotion out of you? What does that process look like?
It’s largely formed with trust. The four of us learned very early on that we had to trust each other. We had to tell each other our darkest, deepest fears, our darkest traumas, and be completely at each other’s mercy. And that’s how our emotion started pouring out. There was nothing in between blocking us. When you see an actor next to another actor, sometimes you can tell when they don’t know each other, you can feel a sort of awkwardness in the air between them. But with us, we were totally open with each other. We’d bawl in each other’s arms. It’s something I’d never expected, and I don’t think I’ll ever experience something like that again. Starting the band was big as well. You just don’t get as close to people as when you’re in a band, and you’ve decided that you’re going to present new lyrics to the band, or you’ve come up with a lick on the guitar…by the time we played our gig, we knew each other, man.
Which makes you feel more emotionally vulnerable: sharing your music or acting?
I mean, music, because it’s more personal, more your own. I don’t want to say it’s more true, you know, because some films are just so true. A song can just hit you harder than the film. Something about sound on its own can be pretty heartbreaking.
You’ve previously said that you listen to specific music to inhabit your characters prior to filming. In Bagnold, it’s pretty straightforward what music to get in the head of a metalhead. But what about for Dan Kelly? Or for Tiberius? What on earth do you listen to to get inside those guys?
It depends on the character, whether I do that kind of thing. It would have been interesting to try and find some music for Tiberius, but I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel like he was musically motivated, as opposed to Dan Kelly, who’s this mischievous, angry teenager, and so I listened to a lot of punk music for him. He was really an embodiment of that music. The Kelly Gang is really a punk film. That’s how I think Justin wanted it to be—against the world.
I hear you’ve also been listening to a lot of punk while filming in New York this summer with Sean Price Williams.
Yeah. My character is a crust punk, sort of an Earth punk. I’m from Brighton, where there aren’t really crust punks, but there are these sort of guys in camo and stretchers. And my character had these big stretchers. I also had gauges in my ears and my hair bleached. I listened to a lot of punk music for that, a little more hardcore punk, music that’s a bit harder to digest. I guess because my character himself is quite difficult to digest.
I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about the project. But it’s gonna be good. It’s just an amazing satire of things. And I’ve never had so much fun filming something. You could just have fun with it and the script. The script is there, and fundamental, but then you’re allowed to say what you want, stray from it, fuck around with it, and I just live for that kind of work.
And it’s an indie film, a New York film. I have so much love for that kind of filmmaking because no one’s there for any other reason than to make a film that they all love. And the people I’m working with are just the coolest group of serious film buffs. They’ve really inspired me to know my craft better.
You also recently finished The School for Good and Evil, another big production. How was your experience shooting a fantasy film?
I loved films like that growing up. I was totally obsessed with the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. I’ve always wanted to be in a film like that. My character, again, has a sort of punky spirit, which seems to be a bit of a theme at the moment. It’s a kind of emo, androgynous thing again, which I love playing. Paul Feig, the director, is just the most lovely man, and so generous to work with. He’s seriously funny. And he’s just such a legend as well. That guy, I’m like really obsessed with him. The School for Good and Evil is gonna be so fun. I can’t wait for it to come out in October.
They put you on the evil side, right?
Oh, yeah. He’s very much on the evil side. I’m playing the character Hort, who is Captain Hook’s kid. So I got to play a pirate as well. I’ve always wanted to be a bit of a pirate.
In an interview with Feig, you talk about the freedom of playing characters that are radically different from you. How does playing characters dissimilar to you help you understand who you really are?
That’s interesting. It’s related to the experience of playing characters that are similar to you. Because you think they’re similar to you until you’re doing it, and then you find things out about yourself, that you’re not quite who you thought you were. You realize that you’re also constantly changing. So for example, when I was playing Dan Kelly, that really was me for a certain amount of time. It does change you, or at least you change into it. But then there’s characters like, Tiberius, who’s a prostitute-killing psychopath—which I never was, if you can believe it.
I think if you resonate with a character, it’s because you’ve got a little bit of them in you. For example, in The End of the F***ing World I played this awkward little guy, Frodo. And he sort of embodied who I was at the time. I was finishing school, and I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted to do, or whether I wanted to run or stay. Some characters are more true to you than others, but in the end I think you’re always a little bit like the people you play.
You keep using the word ‘change,’ as if you’re in a state of becoming, kind of discovering yourself through all this. How do you stay grounded amidst constant change? What keeps you tethered to yourself, so to speak?
That’s the thing. There’s that period of time where you come off a film, especially one that’s been quite intense, and you really don’t know what to do with yourself. So it’s important to have something that can just bring you back home, you know, whether that’s something you can bring with you when you’re away, or something that you have at home. Playing music, I feel like that can really draw you back into yourself. Or even reading a book. I find that if I’m a bit lost, I read a book from a time when I felt like I wasn’t so lost. I find it will put me back in a place where I feel a bit more grounded. But it’s always simple things.
What are some of those books?
When I was filming The School for Good and Evil, I was away for a long time in Belfast, and it was during COVID, so we weren’t really allowed to go back home. So I started reading The Master and Margarita, and I got totally obsessed with it. That book just drew me back during those times I felt strange.
Who’s your character in Master and Margarita? If you had to play someone in the big budget adaptation, who’d it be?
Either that cat—
Behemoth! Or what’s his name, the checkered man?
Yeah, yeah something like that. God, yeah, I’m impressed you knew those names. Man, that was one of the hardest parts of that book.
That novel is everything I want to accomplish as a writer. It’s perfect.
It is perfect, and I need to read it again because I’m sure there’s so much I missed. I mean, there’s so much in that book, it’s insane. It even inspired “Sympathy for the Devil.”
It’s quite the spiritually ambiguous novel. I’m curious whether you have any faith background or practice a faith currently?
Nothing that I could name. I don’t deny anything, but I haven’t found anything, you know. I’m agnostic in a sense, but I don’t know that that captures it. I mean, something’s going on. That’s what I say, “Something’s going on.”