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When Harris Dickinson was told that he’d been nominated for an Indie Spirit Award for his lead performance in Eliza Hitmann’s 2017 Sundance winner Beach Rats, such was his response that his agent instructed him to be “more happy.”
The British actor, 25, whose portrayal of a sexually troubled Brooklyn teen also landed him a Gotham nomination, recalls being on train in London when the call came in and saying something underwhelming like “oh cool” on hearing the news.
“I wasn’t ‘fucking yeah!,’ I just wasn’t,” he says, speaking from New York where he’s been filming FX’s upcoming whodunnit series Retreat from The OA pair of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (and still sporting some sizeable face and neck tattoos put on for the role).
Although Dickinson knew inside that something pretty special had happened, he also knew that it could be all over soon, so he wanted to take everything in stride. “My way of looking at life has always been just to try and keep it level. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at things, but I feel that’s how I got through that period, because it was a lot at once.”
Almost five years on and “a lot” is an apt description of Dickinson’s career. A steady stream of work since Beach Rats last year included a major role in Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man plus an appearance in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, this year saw him land a BAFTA Rising Star nomination, and now it sees him preparing for his first Cannes visit, thanks to his lead performance in one of the festival’s most anticipated films, Triangle of Sadness from returning Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund.
And it’s a career that could have made an unlikely military detour. Born in East London, the youngest of four siblings to a social worker father and hairdresser mother (while not actors, he describes his family as “very boisterous storytellers”), Dickinson’s background is markedly different from the standard privately-educated conveyor belt of British acting talent.
He claims his first brush with creativity came aged around 12, when he started making a weekly web show (which he refuses to name out of embarrassment, but says it became popular among his friends). But it wasn’t long before he discovered his passion for theater.
“I realized that I found a lot of solace in performing and found parts of myself that I was perhaps too reluctant or too scared to go to… so I kind of fell in love with it from a young age,” he says. Alongside school plays, he began attending — off and on — the RAW Academy, a local “reasonably priced” part-time youth theater school. But then, aged 17, it briefly looked like he was set to ditch it all and join the Marines.
“I’d been in the Marine cadets for four years. It wasn’t like I had a full comprehension of any conflict, it was that I found purpose in it and I found structure,” he says. “I wasn’t an academic child, I was just creative. And then I had this newfound military structure in my life, with weapons, medical stuff, camping and being outdoors. I loved everything about it, and it felt like an option.”
With his military papers ready, he began having second thoughts. In the end, it was his theater coach who managed to sway him. “He sort of said, maybe don’t do that, it might be a bit stupid, you can probably be an actor,” he recalls. “So I just kind of went for it from there, put everything into it and really studied. And I think the fact I didn’t go to drama school made me want to work harder, to kind of earn my place.”
So Dickinson put his head down, juggling auditions with college, plus jobs in bars and hotels. Among his early work was a VW commercial, plus a number of short films and small parts in TV shows. In 2014, he performed in Angels, set in a graveyard, at London’s Royal National Theatre, and in 2016, he appeared in Brad Anderson’s TV movie Home. Hittman cast him to play her troubled lead Frankie in Beach Rats — her sophomore feature — after a tape that he filmed on his phone in his bedroom while living in his mother’s house.
“And all of a sudden I was in Brooklyn. I’d never even been to New York before. It was wild,” he recalls. “I remember thinking like, this is such an intimate and authentic Brooklyn story, and I’m here from London. But I did feel this parallel with the boys I was working with, I felt like I knew them and that world to some degree. There was some kinship to the drifter suburban life that I grew up in, so it wasn’t so far away.”
Beach Rats landed Hittman the directing award in Sundance in 2017, shortly before it was acquired by Neon. But it was its young British star, then just 20, who earned much of the applause for his understated portrayal of a gay teen whose personal struggles see him lash out with increasing cruelty as he haunts the boardwalks of New Jersey. He appeared in every single scene.
Dickinson was soon cast as a young John Paul Getty III in Trust, Danny Boyle’s retelling of the oil heir’s infamous abduction, for FX and replaced Brenton Thwaites as the dashing Prince Philip in Disney’s 2019 sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil alongside Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning. The same year his first brush with a studio was released he appeared as a manipulative drug dealer in the low-budget but hugely well-received U.K. crime drama County Lines, earning a British Independent Film Award nomination for best supporting actor, plus had a smaller role in Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime.
By this time, Dickinson had already met Matthew Vaughn in a London hotel to discuss his biggest part to date and first stab as a Hollywood leading man, playing Ralph Fiennes’ blue-blooded son in his history-bending franchise prequel The King’s Man. “I didn’t know anything about the aristocracy, so I remember going in thinking, I’m not right for this,” he recalls, crediting casting director Reg Poerscout-Edgerton, who also worked with him on Maleficent. “But then I remembered that I’m an actor, you know, it’s part of the job.”
Dickinson says The King’s Man was a major education, particularly given the size of the set and “trying to find that calm and control your nerves.” Watching Fiennes, he says, was the “real experience” of the shoot. “He’s a formidable force. And just being that close to someone of that level was a real learning curve.”
Despite the lessons learned on The King’s Man (and “the lovely catering”), it seems that Dickinson prefers his productions of the less enormous variety. And while it’s by no means a small affair, with a budget of more than $15 million, Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, fits that bill. The long-gestating project — first announced in 2017 after the director won the Palme for The Square and whose 72-day shoot was twice disrupted due to the pandemic — sees Dickinson play one half of a fashion model celebrity couple (alongside newcomer Charlbi Dean) on a yacht that sinks, leaving the survivors marooned on an island with the ship’s rabid Marxist captain, played by Woody Harrelson.
“I feel really lucky to be a part of this one. I’m a huge admirer of Ruben’s — his satire is so on point,” he says, adding that he believes the director’s renowned ability to poke a comedic stick beneath the facade of humanity, especially when put in extreme situations, is more present than ever in Triangle of Sadness. “It’s just so funny, but also really poignant.”
Upcoming work on a noisy slate for Dickinson includes the Reese Witherspoon-produced Where the Crawdads Sing alongside fellow in-demand Brit Daisy Edgar-Jones, as well as Searchlight’s 1950s mystery thriller See How They Run, where he is part of an all-star cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, David Oyelowo, Adrien Body and Ruth Wilson.
It was actually watching Rockwell that inspired Dickinson’s attitude to his work, and perhaps backs up his reaction when hearing about his Indie Spirit Award nomination.
“Despite having this rich career, full of accolades and whatnot, he has not bought into his own bullshit,” he says. “And I think that makes you a better performer, because the minute you lose sight of what reality is and that you’re not the center of the universe, then that’s when you start to lose sight of people, and how can you portray people if you’re getting caught up in that?”
While clearly excited by his fast-rising trajectory, the roles he gets to play and people he gets to work alongside, it’s evident that, five years after his big break, Dickinson it still determined to keep a level head. He may have worked hard — perhaps harder than many — to get to his current position, but he’s not going to be buying into the bullshit anytime soon. In fact, the bullshit factor in an industry that isn’t shy when it comes to self-importance is something he admits sits uncomfortably.
“It’s a weird dichotomy,” he says. “Sometimes I feel guilty, especially given the tumultuous times that we’re in. But then you have to be reminded that storytelling is a form of escapism in some way, and that’s important.”
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