‘Among men, there’s certain aspects that are supposed to stay suppressed’

Harris Dickinson, the rising British actor, has been praised for his performance in the Sundance prizewinner Beach Rats

The official trailer for "Beach Rats", written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Video: Neon

 

Harris Dickinson is a little late for our interview, but he has a series of very solid excuses. Long story short: Dickinson is in high demand. Next September, he’ll line up alongside Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie in The Darkest Minds, a big-budget sci-fi thriller based on the young adult novel of the same name by Alexandra Bracken.

Aged 21, he has already been bigged-up Variety, Vogue, and IndieWire as one to watch. A Salon profile of the young actor in August trumpeted: “Meet ‘It’ boy Harris Dickinson of ‘Beach Rats’, the woke hunk you’ve been waiting for”. “Newcomer Harris Dickinson makes waves in gay coming-of-age indie Beach Rats”, swoons Entertainment Weekly.

That’s quite the brouhaha around an actor whose most visible roles until last year were in British telly (Silent Witness) and London theatre (notably Pauline McLynn’s Angels at the National Theatre).

“I’ve been doing things back to back for just over a year or so,” says Dickinson. “This year I haven’t had a weekend off yet. It’d be nice to put my feet up for a day. But it’s been lovely to be busy. Just having a job is amazing. And I’ve got four days off coming up on this FX thing I’m working on.”

Harris Dickinson stars in a new anthology series based on the Getty family entitled Trust which will air in 2018. Photograph: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images
Harris Dickinson stars in a new anthology series based on the Getty family entitled Trust which will air in 2018. Photograph: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Debuts

This FX thing is Trust, an anthology series based on the Getty family: (the one that doesn’t require Christopher Plummer to be drawn in). The first series, directed by Danny Boyle, will centre on the 1973 abduction in Italy of John Paul Getty III (Dickinson), and the subsequent negotiations with his frugal grandfather, John Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland).

Before that debuts in January, you can catch the young actor in Sundance prizewinner Beach Rats, writer and director Eliza Hittman’s much-admired sophomore feature about an aimless young Brooklynite. Dickinson had never set foot in the borough before being cast as Frankie, a conflicted teen who, by day, hangs out with his girlfriend and the lads at the beach, and by night, cruises around gay hook-up websites. At home, to further complicate matters, he helps his mum and sister tend to his dying father.

“I recognised so many different parts of Frankie,” says Dickinson. “That lack of ability to articulate yourself that you have as a boy. Among men generally, there’s certain aspects of ourselves we’re not good at communicating. There’s certain aspects that are supposed to stay suppressed. In terms of the sexuality, he completely restructures himself to fit with the expectations of others.”

Frankie’s self-censorship has inevitably resulted in favourable comparisons with Moonlight. But where Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winner has its moments of tenderness, the many sex scenes in Beach Rats are fraught and complicated.

“He’s meeting these older men purely for sex and figuring out what he likes and what he wants,” notes the actor. “That’s the development. There are scenes that are more heartfelt when he feels a real connection. There’s a horrible forced encounter. There are scenes when he’s about to break down and reach out for help. But it’s quite sad that he can’t seem to have a blissful, carefree moment of intimacy with anyone, really.”

‘I love what I do’

Dickinson recorded native New Yorkers on the subway in order to nail the accent for the Coney Island shoot. Having been cast after several Skype sessions with filmmaker Hittman, he was the only Brit among a cast of genuine Brooklynites.

“It was f*****g scary,” laughs the actor. “I stayed in my American accent at first. So everyone wouldn’t be asking who the f**k is this British kid? But after a while, they seemed to appreciate that this is my job and I love what I do. And I could relax a bit.”

Never mind the geography. The lack of focus and self-awareness that characterises his role Beach Rats is a far-cry from the real-life Harris Dickinson. Born in the East London neighbourhood of Leytonstone, Dickinson was a lifelong film buff who wrote, directed and edited his first short film, Who Cares, when he was 17. He has since shot two more films (Surface in 2014 and Drop in 2015) and continues to produce elegant photography and goofy sight gags for his Instagram account.  

“I remember making a sitcom – well more a sketch show – when I was 13,” recalls Dickinson. “We’d release an episode every week at school. And everyone would ask: When’s the new one? We’d take the piss out of Harry Potter and all that. No one in my family was in the industry. My mum loves films and always encouraged me. My dad likewise, but he’s northern, so he’s really into social realism.

“I just started making videos from a very young age. Long before I discovered acting, I was hanging around sets hoping to get work as a camera operator. I want to get back to it but I’m too busy filming in Russia and Rome.

“I can’t complain about that, can I?” he laughs.

Three to See from Coney Island

The Wiz (1978)
This Motown reworking of The Wizard of Oz flopped on its initial release. But how? It has Diana Ross, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, and Off the Wall era Michael Jackson. It has Mabel King belting out No Bad News.

 The Warriors (1979)
“When we see the ocean, we figure we’re home,” says warlord Michael Beck of his Coney Island stomping ground, Walter Hill’s iconic reworking of Xenophon’s Anabasis (of all things) has has spawned multiple spin-offs, video games, comic books, and – if hysterical contemporaneous tabloids are to be believed – uncouth behaviour.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Seaside attractions have seldom looked more desolate than they do in Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s novel.

  • Beach Rats opens tomorrow on limited release and is available on VOD
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