‘My Policeman’ Star David Dawson on Sex Scenes With Harry Styles: “We All Just Had a Laugh”

The British actor, in his first major feature role, says current attempts to overturn gay rights drew him to the historical gay drama: "You shouldn’t read it as a period film."

Afair degree of the noise surrounding My Policeman — especially emanating from the hundreds who amassed outside the Princess of Wales Theatre for its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival — may, understandably, be connected to a certain former One Direction star. But much of the critical praise for the Amazon Studios film, in theaters Oct. 21, has been lavished on David Dawson.

The Brit actor plays Patrick, Harry Styles’ museum curator lover in 1960s England, a character who experiences romance as well as tragedy during a time when homosexuality was illegal. While Dawson isn’t exactly a screen newcomer like his musician co-star — the 40-year-old has been a regular onstage and on TV since 2005 with roles in Peaky Blinders and The Last KingdomMy Policeman does mark his first major film role. But the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) graduate, born in the Northern English town of Widnes, doesn’t see it as any sort of major career moment, just a continuation of making sure each new project “scares me and it’s different all the time.”

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How was the experience of premiering My Policeman in Toronto? 

That red carpet was something I’ll always remember. That and getting stuck in a lift with [My Policeman co-star] Gina McKee for about half an hour. We were picking up the Best Ensemble award and had about 10 minutes to spare and security were trying to get us out of the lift. 

Was TIFF your first film festival?

Yeah, it was. But I was actually in Toronto with a play, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, about 14 years ago, and we performed in the same theater that My Policeman premiered, which was pretty special.

How did My Policeman come your way?

I worked with Michael Grandage years ago, when he was artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. I was about 26 and loved him and how he runs a rehearsal room and learned an awful lot. And then I was produced by him in a play with Andrew Scott a few years later, and that was one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. So I knew, when he brought me this script, the opportunity to work with him on screen this time would be a beautiful thing. 

My Policeman director Michael Grandage said that one thing that drew him to the story was how poignant it felt today, and that the progress of LGBT rights that had been made since the 1960s felt more vulnerable now than ever before. Did you feel the same? 

I did. That was something when I initially read, that you shouldn’t read it as a period film and therefore everything’s just fine now. It’s continuing to happen around the world.

And at what point that you’d be starring alongside Harry Styles and how do you react to that?

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Ha! I think it was after my second audition. But I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of high-profile people over the years. But you do think: how strange is life? Because you’ve seen this person as a musician since they were 16, basically. But they made it incredibly easy to put that to one side, within one Zoom call. He’s incredibly down to Earth, and a good Northern lad. You can’t go wrong. We communicated throughout the whole process – it was very collaborative. 

You and Harry obviously have some very intimate scenes. How did you work together to make sure that you were both on the same page and comfortable?

That was one of the most special things I took away from this project. Because initially, when you read the script and you know that there are these intimate scenes, you hope that the person you’re going to be going through this process with is someone you can wholly put your trust in and will communicate with you and is void of ego. And I got all of that and more in Harry. 

Were there ever any moments when you thought, “I’m shooting a sex scene with one of the planet’s biggest pop stars ­— this is quite peculiar”?

I suppose less that, and more that when they called “cut,” the two of us did laugh. That’s how odd the situation is. There were only about four other people that needed to be with us in that room, and suddenly when “cut” is called you notice that, you know, the DP is there. But we all just had a laugh, because that’s the best way to deal with it.

From left: Dawson, Emma Corrin and Harry Styles in My Policeman. Parisa Taghizadeh/ AMAZON

The story of My Policeman is exceptionally sad. Did you try to separate from the emotion of it while filming?

Well, part of the reason why I was always excited to join the project was that, as a gay man myself, you have an inner response to the person you’re playing and an admiration for how he’s thriving through very difficult times.

You’ve had an impressive career on TV and stage for almost two decades, but My Policeman is your first major film role. Does it feel like a career milestone or turning point for you?

Interestingly, I think I’ve always just loved acting, and feel so lucky to be able to do it, so I’ve not really thought about it like that. I’m just always excited by every project being a real challenge. I remember me and my agent sat down and I said, ‘As long as it scares me and it’s different all the time, then I’ll constantly learn and hopefully surprise an audience.’ So I think I’m more excited about that aspect. 

What was your first brush with acting? When did it all begin? 

When I was about three I would be deadly serious, raid my mum’s drawer and be The Joker – Jack Nicholson’s version — all day. Then I played Joseph in the school nativity play, sorting out the shepherds. I’m from an industrial town called Widnes and I was lucky that there was a wonderful drama club, and for years we used to put on plays, and the lady who ran it went professional and I got to tour the country when I was about 16. 

What was your first professional gig?

It was [Brit TV series] Doc Martin. I had to leave RADA for a month and play this weird sinister boy from the hills whose mother had died [and] his dad dressed as his mum. My first stage role after school was as an understudy Richard II at the Old Vic [directed] by Trevor Nunn. But I never got to play Richard II, so I’ve got unfinished business there. Funnily enough, Michael encouraged us to have private conversations with our older counterparts on My Policeman, so I had this gorgeous hour-and-a-half conversation with [co-star] Rupert [Everett] and he promised he’ll direct me in Richard II.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.