"Who’s that guy… what was that movie? Is it Terence Stamp?”
Harris Dickinson has interrupted himself. A random thought has barged into his conversation flow. He’s looking perplexed. “I had a weird dream last night about Terence Stamp being sick,” he says, as though the fantasy maladies of a fellow English actor might pose a problem. “Who made Eureka? Or The Witches?” he asks. “No, hang on, it’s a Passolini film— Theorem. Have you seen that? Anyway, Stamp was really prominent in my dream. I don’t often dream of actors.”
Some, it might be suggested, could well be dreaming of him, however, and given this fresh-faced actor’s roles to date, that’s no big surprise. Dickinson first made his mark in Eliza Hittman’s acclaimed 2017 independent film Beach Rats, in which he plays a kid in the New Jersey ’burbs discovering his sexuality, unsure whether he’s straight or gay, but exploring both sides. He followed that with the lead in Steve McLean’s Postcards From London, playing a gay male escort in a hyper- real version of London’s Soho district during its heady red light days.
Both roles involved baring his arse as much as his soul. Yet, more recently, he’s flipped these arty credentials on their head, playing the dudish love interest in the film adaptation of the teen sci-fi novel The Darkest Minds, and the handsome prince in Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Think “nobility, fairness, that regal look”, he says. “Getting the part of a prince was weird for me, a boy from Walthamstow [in north-east London]. It was the kind of thing that didn’t happen, ridiculous and great at the same time.”
A fairy tale, you might say. But it means his metaphoric poster is undoubtedly now on the walls or screen savers of young women and men alike. And it’s not a notion he’s comfortable with. “I don’t like the idea of being a pin-up. No. No,” he says emphatically, slightly horrified even, as if the idea had never occurred to him. “Why would you like that? What does it mean?”
Dickinson likes to ask questions of himself, as though he’s still working it all out. And, in a way, he must be. Only 23, while he’s done his fair share of drudge work to fill in the long gaps between acting assignments, he’s made it young where some actors never make it at all. It’s been a roller-coaster few years in which he’s hardly stopped working. He’s about to get a taste of the big time too, having won the lead role in the forthcoming The King’s Man, a prequel to the successful Kingsman series of espionage romps that helped put Taron ‘Rocketman’ Egerton’s name on the map. It’s Dickinson’s first lead in such mainstream, wide- distribution fare.
“I’m still wondering how this has happened to me,” he concedes, and his puzzlement certainly seems unaffected. “I know I’ve worked hard. I’ve been lucky. And I’m aware that luck can run out. But I’m not scared about how fragile the job [of acting] is. I’ll always make money, somehow. I auditioned for three years and didn’t get anything so I got a taste of that and know what it’s like not to be working as an actor. I know how rare it is to get a lot of work, so I’m just knuckling down and going with it.
“That said, I’m aware of the exposure [The King’s Man] will bring, the mass audience and the pressure that comes with that,” he admits. “It was a scary thought to begin with, but you put that to the back of your mind because you can’t think about that while doing the job. It’s a big thing to get a role like that and it’s incredibly satisfying. I met Matthew [Vaughn, the director] on a Wednesday afternoon, went to his house and read a few scenes and then got it. It was really quick, man. It wasn’t a high-pressure environment, which is great, because some auditions feel like you’re being interviewed to go to the moon.”
For all that his career so far spans a mere seven years, Dickinson was one of those kids who always wanted to be an actor—who loved dressing up, putting on impromptu one-man shows for his family (he’s one of four siblings, all of whom, he says, are excellent performers), always in the school play, going on to make short films for entry into local festivals. Enjoy it though he did, school itself didn’t work out so well for him.
He had, he says, “some issues with some teachers and was made to feel a bit worthless, that I didn’t belong, so I got frustrated. That combination didn’t work well for 16-year-old me.” Ironically, for someone who says he has no trouble learning lines, “that education system of remembering info in order to regurgitate it for a test” was always a challenge. “I was engaged in art and theatre because it felt personal to me,” he says. “But I was somewhere else in class. I didn’t come out of school feeling encouraged”.
Rather than continuing with further education, and seemingly with few other options, Dickinson considered applying for the Royal Marines, one of the British Army’s elite regiments. He’d long been a member of the Army Cadet Force, an organisation for school- aged children, with a vague interest in later joining the armed forces. “I was a chubby kid so I enjoyed the fitness, the structure of it. I was firing guns so you get to feel manly—all that stuff,” he says, “though sometimes I missed the training because I had theatre to do and the officer would look at me as if to say, ‘what do you mean, you’re “doing a performance”?!’.”
In retrospect Dickinson reckons he wouldn’t have got in to the Royal Marines. “I’d have been too sensitive for them,” he suggests. But he was saved from finding out by Graham Bryan, whom a thankful Dickinson is careful to cite by name. He’s the youth theatre drama coach who took Dickinson aside and persuaded him that he had talent and a chance of making it in what is a notoriously fickle industry.
“I think it’s unusual to be set on acting so young. But I just loved entertaining people,” says Dickinson. “I got that magical feeling when I performed—a weird euphoria. And when I went to the cinema it gave me a sense of joy too. And that joy is definitely still there. When I’m on set I’m marvelling at all that’s going on. That joy has got more intense because I’m at a place where I’m starting to understand it more, even if sometimes it’s hard not to watch some films and not think ‘I bet that took 10 takes or that angle’s not great’. But the fact is that if I hadn’t had the people around me to encourage me I might not have [pursued] acting. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, nobody in my family was part of it, no connections, it wasn’t a world I knew. It was mentors who made me feel like I was able to do it, that it was realistic.”
His parents were behind him. His dad, who has a rather more ‘proper’ job as a social worker, and his hairdresser mum, who’d wanted to be an actress but, for reasons of family finances, was persuaded out of it by her father. And they were all, it certainly seems, proven right in backing him. “But then my parents always supported me in pursuing acting because I was always so defiant about doing it,” laughs Dickinson. “And they’re thrilled for me. I’m making a living out of my passion at a pretty young age and that’s really cool.”
Indeed, Dickinson is still working his craft. The wide- eyed wonder he expresses about his job—hanging with Michelle (Pfieffer) and Angelina (Jolie), working with Ralph (Fiennes)—is still, it seems, hitting home. But he’s determined to get better at what he does, experimenting with whether he’s more classical or method in his approach. He may be mindful of the story of the 1976 movie Marathon Man, for which Dustin Hoffman chose to go without sleep for three nights so that, ready for one scene, he looked and felt genuinely haggard, only for his bewildered co-star Laurence Olivier to tell him “my dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”.
“I’m definitely still figuring that one out with each project. I’ve lived a life and I definitely have things to draw on. It’s not like I sit there and if I need to cry I have to think about a cat I had that died when I was eight."
"It’s performance, it’s acting, you know what I mean? But, for the want of sounding pretentious, you do want [a character] to feel real. It has to feel palpable otherwise you can’t find the reality in it,” says Dickinson, who plastered his room with pictures of John Paul Getty III, the kidnapped grandson of the richest man in the world at that time, when he was playing the unfortunate heir in Danny Boyle’s 10-part FX series Trust, which aired in 2018. “I’d go to bed looking at him, which sounds a bit creepy. It wasn’t just him, but getting into that world, his family. It definitely helped.
“Sure, there’s a part of me that acknowledges the absurdity of method acting,” he adds. “It can often be a selfish behaviour in relation to those around you. It can prohibit an easy working environment on set. It doesn’t always work because you’re working in a team. But I do try to stay in a part in my own head and if it’s an accent—like in The King’s Man or Maleficent, which is a far higher RP [received pronunciation] than the way I speak—then the lines can get blurry. Once I’ve gotten to a certain point, I can move in or out of a character.”
He’s certainly committed. “I try to go about my life in a nice, kind, respectful and considerate way, but when you get to play people who aren’t like that it’s fun, innit?” he says of his role as the baddie in the forthcoming County Lines, a film about the use of child ‘mules’ to carry drugs from London to the UK’s coastal towns and which, he notes, perplexed, was a subject that struggled to get funding.
Likewise, word on the street is that many an agent refused to put their actors forward for Beach Rats, fearful that, for a relative unknown, all the nudity and gay sex scenes would prove career poison; and that’s not to mention the bubbling controversy surrounding the idea that only gay people should play gay roles, only disabled people disabled characters, and so on.
Dickinson took a more pragmatic approach. He’d been working the bar in a hotel for a few years when he was offered the part and he wasn’t about to come up with reasons to turn down a lead role under a respected director because it meant getting his clothes off or butting up against identity politics. He made the right call.
This evocative but dialogue- light film, with a somewhat drifting narrative, is carried almost entirely by Dickinson’s performance. All puff aside, it really is outstanding. It saw Dickinson nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, alongside the excellent company of James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Daniel Kaluuya and (the eventual winner) Timothée Chalamet.
“I was worried about [the part in Beach Rats], not because of the gay element, but just because it was a world I didn’t know,” Dickinson explains. “I hadn’t really even been to America at that point and the idea of sex scenes with men was daunting. But it’s good to be challenged. I’d only really be put off by bad material. And I didn’t think about it too much. I just faced it head on and thought about it after, which I think is probably my way. But I’ve done two gay roles now and my approach has been the idea [that] you’re not that person. You’re playing a character, right, that’s not you. Correct representation is important, inclusion and equal opportunities are important—I get that. You have to tell a story in an informed way. But everyone should be free to tell different stories in different ways.”
He doesn’t like to overthink any of this, mind. One thing that keeps coming up in his conversation is a concern with sounding pretentious. He speaks interestingly, for example, of the value of costume for getting into a role: how he couldn’t quite take himself seriously in his pantomimic princely get-up—complete with flowing wig—for Maleficent because it looked so far from who he is day to day, and yet how he’s learnt that costume helps him differentiate between himself and his character.
“Not to sound pretentious,” he adds, not sounding pretentious at all, “but they’re vehicles by which you can move away from yourself.” He speaks of having lost a lot of weight for a part and of how “it sounds pretentious but it felt as though I’d lost parts of myself ”. He’ll tell the story of how he once tore the cover off a self-help book he was reading—the portentous-sounding The Power of Meaning—for concern of what lookers-on might wonder.
“I mean, it was a really shit cover, man,” he laughs. “But it was an egotistical decision—me not wanting to be seen reading this really obvious self-help book. It was all capital letters. I remember sitting on the train and thinking ‘I have to be less conspicuous about what I’m reading or people are going to think I’m absolutely at rock bottom’. But I’ve started not to care what people think about me. I didn’t when I was younger—I just did what I wanted. And I’ve always been thick-skinned. It was the way I was raised. My parents weren’t delicate with me. It was all hand-me-downs and older sibling beat-ups. But I think I developed self-consciousness like most teenagers and it’s especially [acute] when you get into this industry.”
What he seems to be getting at is the fact that, as a boy from a normal background and an un-flashy part of London, who’s happier playing villains rather than heroes because they’re closer to the real people he knew growing up, who hasn’t come up through the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or the Royal Shakespeare Company, and who might now well have been a squaddie in a beret rather than a playful prince in, as he puts it, “a nice open-necked shirt”, well, all this close analysis of craft can feel—how might one put it?—a bit poncey.
“I just think there’s too much intellectualising of things sometimes, that placing of so much meaning on things,” says Dickinson. “And I’d hate to come across as taking myself too seriously because I really don’t. Obviously I take my work seriously, but I don’t sit at home theorising about my own technique or ‘my journey’. There’s a little bit too much of that, even if it’s part of human nature to want to unpack things. There’s a lot of importance placed on the entertainment industry, but we’re not saving lives.”
One might go so far as to say that Dickinson is keeping a cool head about what to him no doubt feels like a steady upwards trajectory, but which to outsiders looks like something far more meteoric. Perhaps this is because, given his age, he’s still finding himself or at least exploring the options. If costume is, for him, a way into a character, he speaks of how, in his own dress, he floats between what he calls “scruffy functional” and “intentionally styled”. “I have a few versions of myself and I can’t figure out which one to go with yet. None of them are winning,” he says. “They’re all the underdog.”
He’s likewise undecided as to whether his age makes his work especially challenging. “There was a period when I was 16, 17, when I just knuckled down and wasn’t enticed by the kind of things 16- or 17-year-olds do. Actually, that’s a lie. I was about to try and sound really sensible but it’s just not the case,” he laughs. “But I have forced myself to be more professional than I would be if I wasn’t in this work. And I think it’s harder to play someone else when you’re still trying to work out who you are. Well, it’s harder because you’re always drifting between ideas of people. And in some ways it’s easier because it means you can be more fluid. But I know who I am. I just enjoy playing around with other guises.”
Indeed, he hints that he might even be happiest when he’s doing so. Dickinson is surely not alone among actors in embracing the profession precisely as a means of hiding in plain sight. And maybe it says something that the actors he most admires for their commitment and intensity, he says, Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Sam Rockwell, Michael Shannon, Gary Oldman, Peter Sarsgaard, are also private people, most definitely actors, rarely celebrities.
Maybe even that his dream role, or at least one he’d like to have a go at, is Willy Wonka, the eccentric, reclusive chocolate entrepreneur and, as Dickinson calls him, “quite a tragic, broken person”. Dickinson has spoken of the desire to remain, if not reclusive, then at least elusive—not so easily pigeon-holed.
“I can’t do [a role] if I feel there’s too much of my own psyche, my own physicality on display. I’m not an overly confident person,” he says—surprisingly, of course, to anyone who doesn’t act for a living. “I find it so much easier to be someone else—to be brave and strong as a character. I find doing press scary because it’s just me. [But] I’m not going to complain, say, about having to repeat myself occasionally. A little repetition is minor compared with some of the jobs I’ve done and what some other people do [for a living]. I wouldn’t dare complain about this. I’ve not worked for a while, which is nice. And I know there are not many jobs you can say that and get away with it.”
Dickinson is just hanging out today, having breakfast, then maybe going for a yoga session. He’s sat in a busy dining room in London and nobody bats an eyelid. People aren’t peering at him over their yoghurt and granola, perhaps because most of them are not Disney’s audience and The King’s Man has yet to be released. But line up The King’s Man and add his appearance in The Souvenir: Part II later this year—a part Dickinson got when Robert Pattinson dropped out of the project—and all this is going to change.
It’s a good bet to say that there will come a time when just nipping to a class for some downward dog will not be an easy option for Dickinson. Yet somewhat counter to the current 20-something culture, fame, he says, is not something he’s all that interested in. And he’s never questioned that standpoint because he never expected it to happen.
“I’ve never aspired to be famous and I say that as part of a generation that grew up with that breed of reality TV stars,” he says. “I’ve always just been interested in performing and telling stories. But then I never thought I’d actually be successful in this job. I didn’t assume I’d do well. The fact I’ve made it my income is a bonus. I’m obviously so, so lucky to be doing this job and I’m grateful to be doing it, so I don’t want to complain about that side of the business, but fame for me was never part of it. I’m not really comfortable with the idea. It’s a strange concept.
“I did actually get recognised the other day by a homeless man because he said he’d illegally downloaded Maleficent,” Dickinson adds. “He’s a guy I always see near where I live. I used to get him some food here and there. But he didn’t know what I did for work and I liked it that way. He said how he couldn’t believe I was in this film and asked me for some change. And then said, ‘now I know you’re in films I can push you a bit harder’.”
Photographs by Justin Campbell
Styling by Rose Forde
Stylist assistant: Sophie Tann
Groomer: Jody Taylor
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