Hollywood's Next Big Thing: 'Dunkirk' Star Fionn Whitehead Goes From London Barista to Leading Actor

The 20-year-old tells THR he didn't even know what he was auditioning for before landing his high-stakes debut role in Christopher Nolan's war epic.

Fionn Whitehead had no idea what the part was. "All people knew was that there was a group of boys auditioning," says Fionn (pronounced "fin"). "We didn't know how many parts there were, how important the roles were. We didn't know anything."

But it turned out that Whitehead — who'd been working at a coffee shop in London just a couple of months earlier — was trying out for the lead role in Christopher Nolan's World War II drama Dunkirk, out from Warner Bros. on July 21. "It's been pretty surreal, to be honest," says the 20-year-old, whose only other screen credit was last year's U.K. TV miniseries Him. "I don't think it really sunk in until Chris was there, on the first day, on the beach, with Spitfires flying overhead and real warships."

After going through the various stages of auditioning, even getting some direction from a usually silent Nolan ("which I felt was probably a good sign"), Whitehead was at home when the life-changing call came through from his agent. One bout of wild screaming was swiftly followed by another when she revealed ("Are you sitting down?") just how central his character would be.

"My sister's boyfriend was the only other person in the house," he smiles. "Obviously, I wasn't supposed to tell anyone, but he'd heard me shouting on the floor above and just said, ‘So you got it then?'"

Whitehead, who lives in London with his jazz saxophonist father, didn't always want to act. He had aspirations of being a guitarist ("I'm not good enough"), a rugby player ("I didn't have the skill set") and even a break dancer ("I couldn't actually break dance").

But he picked up the bug at school. "Pretty cliched, really. Making my friends laugh at first, I think," he says. "But as time goes by, you develop different reasons about why you like doing it — getting inside people's heads and being able to make people feel emotions."

From a war-battered soldier escaping the beaches of France with Harry Styles (whom he describes as "really funny and witty"), the next head Whitehead will be getting inside — in Richard Eyre's The Children Act — is that of a terminally ill boy who refuses a life-saving operation because of his family's religious beliefs (he stars alongside Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci). Then there's another lead role, this time in Caravan, Sebastian Schipper's follow-up to the acclaimed one-take German thriller Victoria. Playing a rebellious teen who steals a campervan and takes it from Morocco to France, he's currently working on one "very useful" bit of preparation: passing his driving exam. "It's coming! I've failed once so far."

While Whitehead says his sights aren't set on L.A. just yet ("It's such a vast change to London"), his breakthrough at the hands of one of film's most respected directors already is turning heads in Hollywood (Nolan has described him as like a "young Tom Courtenay"). "I think Chris commands a lot of respect in the industry and it's an amazing thing to be attached to such a cool project," says Whitehead. "So it definitely helps having that on the CV."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.