We all begin as polymaths. I mean, if you ignore the true meaning of polymath (from the Greek, ‘having learned much’), put Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Nabokov in a holding pen, and use the term in the inaccurate sense of simply being pretty good at a lot of different things… well, we probably hit our polymathic peak at around ten years old.
Children see no contradiction between being an actor and a musician and a footballer and a spaceman. In fact, they are frequently all of these things, and a pirate, and Rastamouse, all in the space of one playtime. It’s only when we become self-conscious and adult that we cease to develop these skills, and put ourselves into compartments.
That’s what the modern multitasker rebels against. Ben Drew, aka Brit Award-winner Plan B, decided one career wasn’t enough, and has recreated himself as alter ego Strickland Banks, as well as pursuing a sideline as an actor alongside Michael Caine in Harry Brown, while his first project as a film writer/director, Ill Manors, an episodic Hip Hopera, is in development. Meanwhile, Johnny Flynn (left), another British musician, is as celebrated for his soulful folk arrangements as he is for his theatre works – currently to be seen alongside Juliet Stephenson at the Royal Court Theatre.
For James Franco, the star of 127 Hours and Howl, simply being a handsome Hollywood star did not satisfy. He has also published a collection of short stories, is presenting the Oscars on Sunday, modelled for Gucci, developed a sideline in video art, grown a moustache and was at one point pursuing four graduate courses: creative writing at Columbia, fiction at Brooklyn College, poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina, and film-making at NYU. ‘I didn’t want to be perceived as an actor who is just dabbling, just taking a class,’ he has said. The main task of his assistant, a former classmate from UCLA, is to whisper where he’s going when she bustles him onto the next plane. Such a list of accomplishments seems to provoke a mocking sort of jealousy. All the reviews of Franco’s book noted his film star looks disdainfully.
Recently, I was at a recital given by the classical pianist (and ex-banker) James Rhodes, who played a piece by the 18th-century Italian Alessandro Marcello, a genuine Renaissance man: composer, poet, politician, mathematician, philosopher and – Rhodes felt compelled to add – ‘bastard’. Most attempts by film stars, models or writers to launch a pop career end in extreme tedium (I’m looking at you, Minnie Driver); and it was with a wariness of this that novelist and talented jazz singer Zadie Smith gave up the mic.
But perhaps we’re wrong to see the people who excel in more than one area as strange and enviable. We all contain childhood multitudes after all. In most cases, polymathdom is not a question of their taking on more activities and finding extra time. From talking to our Renaissance men and women overleaf (from Polly ‘math’ Stenham, gallerist and playwright, to Riz Ahmed, Evening Standard Award-shortlisted actor and rather good MC), it seems more a question of having the will to let childhood interests develop in an unbroken line.
No-one thought me all that weird when I played guitar and wrote songs at school, but, oddly, people find the fact that I still do so and maintain a career in journalism the strangest thing they’ve ever heard. In fact, the one discipline informs the other: a few of my songs began as news stories and, conversely, it’s incredibly useful to understand how a song is produced, or what it’s like to perform when you’re writing about other people’s music. To lose the release of music would be like chopping off an arm (which Franco can probably sympathise with after 127 Hours).
For musician-artist Marcus Foster, 25, it would be bizarre to restrict his creativity. Arty musicians are not new (art school having proved the breeding ground for bands from The Who to Blur) and nor are musicky artists so unusual – the Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed regularly fronts his own band. Foster has risen in both fields discretely: his art bought by Charles Saatchi, his music signed up by Geffen UK. His father is a sculptor and painter, his mother a doctor who ‘makes strange things’, his best friend is Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, so he has grown up in an environment where self-expression is normal. What draws him uniquely to music is live performance: ‘I like the idea of controlling this unravelling moment in time,’ he tells me. ‘I like that element of communication, where you’re standing on stage and you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go next.’ With art, it’s different: it’s about making something permanent to occupy a space. It all comes from the same place.
But what of those who span science too? Take Prasanna Puwanarajah; pursuing a successful career as an actor (he’s currently touring in the National Theatre production of Hamlet, playing Rosencrantz) while maintaining a sideline in directing (he’s just made a short film with Harry Lloyd, and Yes, Prime Minister’s Henry Goodman and David Haig), the 29-year-old happens also to be a qualified, Oxford-educated doctor of medicine. He sees no contradiction: these are all things he has always enjoyed and he will continue to pursue each as long as he gets away with it. ‘Closing the door on any of medicine, directing or acting would actually be a more active decision than not. In many ways, being a ”polymath”, if you’re going to call it that, is the path of least resistance,’ he says.
In truth, however, these exploits are nothing compared to the polymaths of old. Take the quintessential Renaissance man, Pico della Mirandola, reputed to have read every book in existence in the Italy of his day. Or the French genius Blaise Pascal, who invented the calculator when he was a teenager (it was 1642), found a way of weighing air, rewrote the book on geometry, had a thing or two to say about theologyand altered the course of French literature. Or Denis Diderot, pioneer of the modern encyclopaedia, himself a one-man Wikipedia. Or Thomas Young, who established the wave theory of light, identified astigmatism, wrote a comparative grammar of 400 languages, pioneered child medicine, deciphered hieroglyphics and devised a new method of tuning musical instruments.
Nowadays, the sciences have advanced so far beyond the layman’s understanding that such broad-ranging achievements are dismissed as impossible (Young was sometimes called ‘the last man to know everything’). So it may be a comfort to know that James Franco’s achievements in particle physics, immunology, interpretive dance and macroeconomics are pretty risible.
Top of the Polymaths class
by Hannah Nathanson
If anyone deserves to be the polymath poster boy, it’s Johnny Flynn. The 27-year-old from southern England has grown up leapfrogging between music and acting with significant success. He’s currently on stage at the Royal Court opposite Juliet Stevenson in Richard Bean’s new climate change play, The Heretic. ‘The cool thing about doing more than one thing is that you only do the jobs that appeal to you from either strand.’ And the downside to being so darned talented? ‘I sometimes feel a bit schizophrenic and I get frustrated saying no to jobs because I’m committed to something else.’
The performance gene is prominent in the Flynn family. Johnny’s father, the late Eric Flynn, was one of American composer Stephen Sondheim’s favourite musical theatre actors, and his older brother, Jerome, was part of Simon Cowell’s chart-topping pop duo Robson and Jerome. Since gaining a music scholarship to bohemian school Bedales aged 13, Johnny has learned the violin, trumpet, guitar, banjo, mandolin and ‘a bit of piano’, toured with Propeller’s production of Twelfth Night, and released two folk/soul albums. He’s just finished writing a film score for the upcoming comedy A Bag of Hammers, starring Rebecca Hall, ‘who I’m told is a fan of my music’. As is his old school friend, the model Poppy Delevingne.
In a couple of weeks Johnny will be adding another string to his banjo, becoming a father: ‘By day I’m going to antenatal classes with my girlfriend, Beatrice, and by night I’m back on stage as tree-hugging Ben.’
Whilst busy plotting her third play, award-winning playwright Polly Stenham, 24, has found the time to open an art gallery in Camden with flatmate and art history graduate Victoria Williams, whom she met whilst studying at UCL. Cob Studios & Gallery, which also houses purpose-built workshops and a 500 sq ft project space, has just hosted its first exhibition, Unnatural Nature, about humans’ faltering relationship with nature. In addition to the visual arts, the two gamine twenty-somethings have also factored in a ‘writing room’ for Polly, best known for her debut play That Face, which starred Matt ‘Dr Who’ Smith as part of an affluent family in meltdown, and enjoyed a sell-out run in the West End. Polly by name, polymath by nature, she now looks set to conquer all media as she tries her hand at screenwriting, adapting her second play, Tusk Tusk, for Film Four.
American actress and singer/ songwriter Elizabeth McGovern, 49, became Hollywood’s sweetheart aged 19, starring in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning drama Ordinary People. Brought up in LA by academic parents, she has played roles from Robert de Niro’s love interest in the 1984 gangster film Once Upon a Time in America to a fiery lesbian in Volker Schlöndorff’s thriller The Handmaid’s Tale. But neither ex-fiancé Sean Penn nor Dudley Moore’s romantic advances could keep her in Hollywood; Elizabeth, now married to Cranford director Simon Curtis, has lived in London for 20 years. Most recently, she was watched by more than nine million viewers as the canny Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey. Currently filming the period drama’s second series, Elizabeth is also working on a second album with her poppy country band Sadie and the Hotheads, whose line-up includes rockers the Nelson Brothers and Goldfrapp drummer Rowan Oliver. ‘It’s my secret life… an alter-ego for me and my musicians, who are the antithesis of hotheads.’
Sadie and the Hotheads will be at the Maverick festival in July(sadieandthehotheads.com).
Voice of The Streets, Mike Skinner is best known for bringing his confessional rap lyrics to garage music in 2002 with his debut album Original Pirate Material. Signed to Atlantic, Skinner, 32, has made five albums and had chart-topping hits with ‘Fit But You Know It’ and ‘Dry Your Eyes’. A rapper, musician and record producer from Birmingham, he has flexed his polymath pectorals on his final album, Computers and Blues, about the human relationship with technology. ‘It was written by me, it was engineered by me, it was recorded by me, it was mixed by me and it was mastered by me.’ After a valedictory Streets tour this spring, Skinner will explore different avenues. He’s co-writing his life story with a friend in his own ‘verbal style’ and making a low-budget film, a hospital-set thriller in which he will also star. Although he admits it’s not going to be a blockbuster – ‘I’m no Martin Scorsese’ – it’s clear there’s plenty more puff in this polymath.
Actor, MC and political activist Riz Ahmed displays a prototypical polymath trait: he has, he says, ‘a hyperactive over-analytical mind’. The 27-year-old Oxford graduate from Wembley landed his first acting role, in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Road to Guantanamo’, as one member of the Tripton Three, the group of Britons detained at the infamous Cuban prison. A surreal overlap between fiction and reality – he was detained and questioned under the Prevention of Terrorism Act as to his motives for making the film, as he was returning from its world premiere in Berlin – inspired him to start rapping and so ‘Riz MC’ was born. Although he says he uses music to explore his thoughts, and acting to escape them, Riz stands out for pushing socio-political boundaries in both music and film: his first track, ‘Post 9/11 Blues’ was banned from British airwaves for being ‘politically sensitive’ and he starred as a suicide bomber in Chris Morris’s controversial comedy Four Lions. This year, Riz will be promoting his debut album, MICroscope, as well as filming opposite Freida Pinto in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Black Gold, and looks set to climb the polymath pyramid further when he joins forces with Ben Drew (aka Plan B), starring in the BRIT winner’s new film, Ill Manor.