Uncharted Territory

Harris Dickinson is one of the most exhilarating actors to emerge in recent years – his leading-man appearance belying a multifaceted talent. For issue 24, we talked to the breakout star of 2017’s Beach Rats about acting inspiration, his desire for uncomfortable work and how to strike a balance

A bright and sunny Sunday in central London. Dickinson and I meet in Green Park. The Houses of Parliament – in crisis, as is usual now – are partly visible through swaying willow trees. We sit on recently mown grass with clusters of daffodils erupting all around. The Andrea Bocelli hit ‘Por Ti Volaré’ is being performed on a Chinese erhu nearby. Dickinson says he feels like we’re in a Haruki Murakami novel.

He plays with the grass as we talk, and we discuss how the city is different, calmer, at weekends. I ask him if he always imagined being an actor: “I didn’t grow up dreaming of Hollywood,” he replies, “but I did make a lot of little films when I was young [in east London]. Mostly me orchestrating my mates. I never acted in my own stuff but I got a taste of it.” Technology, of course, and the Internet has helped: “I had this show with my friend when I was 11. We would upload weekly videos to YouTube. Spoofs of various other films. Then my own material came after that… short films I’d written. I was somehow completely okay with the idea of asking companies for money to make them. I got 1,500 pounds when I was 15 to make a film. I was hustling, man!”

Dickinson wears PRADA throughout

Now, only a few years on, he is acting in films with 100 million dollar budgets. Talent emerging from acting school or the theatre can be taken up quickly, but this is meteoric. How does he feel about it all? “Things feel good man!” he enthuses. “There have been some overwhelming moments lately… I met Gary Oldman. He’s…” Dickinson pauses for a moment and looks away, as if words aren’t sufficient. “Gary’s very cool. And acting alongside Ralph Fiennes [in part three of the Kingsman series, in production] is a masterclass.”

Dickinson seems adept at maintaining balance in his life, with a calmness that doesn’t feel engineered for an interview setting. “I think my way of dealing with life, in general, is to stay on an even plane. Best to take it as it comes, rather than think about it too much. I just want to continue to explore extreme characters – roles that force me to change, to feel uncomfortable.”

The conversation turns to where he may have acquired this desire for uncomfortable work. Could it be his time training, on weeknights and weekends, over the course of several years, in the Royal Marines’ cadet corps (a profession he very nearly entered)? “I think the cadets helped a bit, perhaps, with self-discipline. But Daniel Day-Lewis is such an inspiration for me here; he’s shaped my idea of what acting is, helped forge my view of the industry… how one behaves in it.” He continues: “I find, with acting, you get to learn with each character, and that comes from uncharted territory, which is humbling. It makes you less selfish; that’s what I love about it. You need to feel what these characters think… to understand their psychologies and characteristics, which feeds into your own life. I think that’s why I go for those roles: that, and the need to push myself.”

Taking on the feelings and thought processes of someone else and living by them is, we agree, quite a peculiar thing. Dickinson is suddenly gripped by how strange his job is: “It’s getting the chance to live life through other people. It’s really quite weird isn’t it! A lot about acting is feeling it; and once you feel it, it’s actually part of you…” He marvels at this apparent magic. “And then you have to shake it off afterwards, other- wise you lose your marbles, and I need those,” he smiles.

It feels like Dickinson could go either way: progressive art-house cinema or Hollywood hero. It’s a wonderful mixture to have; a promise of great range. We talk about how masculinity has changed in movies, from the ’50s teenager to the hardmen of ’80s action films, and I ask him if he thinks things are still changing. “Those films were great for sure – Gene Hackman and Paul Newman being the tough guys; they are amazing actors. But a lot of characters now are being written with much more range, more emotion and depth. Not just for men. I think things are still changing a lot.”

How does he feel about the blockbuster action stuff? “As much as people want escapism, they also want to be immersed in a detailed story. That idea of the hardman just isn’t real anyway. Audiences don’t need a dumbed-down version of the world: It’s complicated. And that’s what I want to be part of.”

Dickinson sometimes tweets his dreams. They often include walk-on parts by directors and other actors, such as one in which he asked Lynne Ramsay for a hug in his local corner shop. “I was on the cusp of tech, so I didn’t grow up on Instagram as such,” he says of the apps that are a fundamental part of kids’ lives today. “My childhood was playing in a forest. I didn’t have a phone until I was 14. I really value that time before the social media explosion. I totally get tech, and use it all the time, but I think it can be really harmful. It’s twisted… social media. You’ve got to strike a balance with it.”

I mention a tweet I read earlier, by Mark Frost – co-writer, with David Lynch, of Twin Peaks – which pointed out that there is a single falcon feather on the moon: An astronaut performed the feather-and-heavy-object-falling-at-the-same-rate test and left the feather behind. It could be there, in the vacuum of space, for millions of years. “That’s incredible man! That’s the amazing thing about the Internet, about social media. All these little bits of information you wouldn’t normally have noticed. It can bring something unexpected to your life,” he says equitably. “I had a dream about David Lynch recently: He rang me while I was skiing. Dreams can be so cinematic.” I venture that some of these dreams may come true, and Dickinson asks, with disarming sincerity, “Do you really think so?”

As we leave the park, I suggest dropping by a nearby restaurant to use their facilities. Approaching the entrance he stops, figuring out faster than me the inappropriateness of my plan; it’s a particularly fancy establishment. He starts to gently mock me: “You can’t just go in there, walk past the diners and use the toilet!” His inner actor kicks in and he animates himself into a proper cockney geezer, arms swinging up and down: “Let me in, yeah? Alright, cheers mate…!”

I see a snapshot of him in full flow: open, funny, confident… a young man at the beginning of an extraordinary journey.

Photography Jack Davison

Styling Rose Forde

Hair and makeup Jody Taylor at Premier Hair and Makeup

Styling assistant Christina Phillips

Photography assistant Maxwell Tomlinson

Set design Gemma Tickle at East Photographic

Set design assistant Leonie Wharton

Production Mini Title

This article is taken from issue 24. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here