“I sound like a moaner,” says Harris Dickinson, catching himself at the end of a rant about the tiny coffees that have arrived at our table. It’s a rare hot, sunny day in London, so the 21-year-old actor and I are sat on a bench outside a Walthamstow cafe, a few miles from where he grew up. “This is a very cute coffee. I feel like it’s too small,” he says, remarking on the dinkiness of the glass. “Do you mind that? Does it bother you that the coffees are getting smaller and the prices are going up?”
Dressed in Kappa tracksuit bottoms, a flimsy short-sleeved button-up and raffish black flat cap, Dickinson looks the part of a way-out-east London local. There’s no trace today of his character from Beach Rats, the award-winning indie drama that gave him his breakout role as a repressed Brooklyn teen with a growing sexual fascination with men. In the film, he disappears into Frankie, a moody, swaggering presence with shifting eyes and a vulnerable mouth that betrays his youth. It’s a subtle, exacting performance that suggests a sense of internal malfunction – and a gulf between the character and the world.
I’m curious to know how someone as seemingly open and amiable as Dickinson was able to get into Frankie’s head. He explains that he embedded himself in south Brooklyn, alongside the non-actors that played Frankie’s friends. “I think the most effective research was just being in the area, meeting the boys, going out, trying to get a sense for it,” he says. “The fact that I was an outsider helped me feel that uncomfortableness.” As for his impeccable New York accent? He just had the knack – after watching his audition tape, Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman automatically assumed he was from the US.
Dickinson describes getting a taste for acting at the age of 12. “I was a normal, chubby little kid who tried everything. I was easygoing and shy, but I could also be a little performer at times,” he says. “Acting allows me to express versions of myself that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to in my own life. I think there’s something that, as me, holds back.”
The tendency towards restraint was useful in creating a character who is running away from himself. For Hittman, it was this ability that drew her to Dickinson’s audition. “He didn’t seem like a 19-year-old to me. There was a soft, introspective old man in there, you know?” she says. “You had an incredible sense of emotional access, and he didn’t really work to amp up any machismo or masculine behaviour. There was an internal world – a lot of times when people audition they try and amp up aspects of the character that they think are important and he didn’t do that at all. I liked his first impulses.”
Dickinson’s impulses developed early, but he didn’t grow up dreaming of Hollywood. The youngest of four children, he was born to a hairdresser mum and a father who was a social worker. “My parents are amazing people but I didn’t know anyone in the industry,” he says. “I fell in love with acting at a young age, but I didn’t know I could make a living from it. I wasn’t brought up thinking I’m entitled to anything.”
The realisation that acting could be a career came when Dickinson was 16, and on the brink of joining the marines. His acting coach had other ideas. “From then on I just threw everything into it,” he recalls. “I was strangely obsessed and made it my everything; I didn’t settle for anything else.”
Still, like most young actors, the teenage Dickinson juggled acting with school and other jobs. “At 14 I was working a paper round, at 16 I was working in a cafe, and then a bar, and in a hotel... I was litter-picking at the Olympics, and at the (London) marathon, and things like that. Just a lot of working to try and survive and then, I dunno, I guess I got lucky – but I worked hard for it.”
Since Beach Rats, Dickinson has collaborated with Hollywood directors including Danny Boyle, as abducted hippie heir John Paul Getty III on FX’s TV drama Trust, and DreamWorks alum Jennifer Yuh Nelson – the first woman to solo direct an animated film for a major studio – in upcoming YA sci-fi blockbuster The Darkest Minds. The latter project, based on Alexandra Bracken’s bestselling dystopian novels, sees him star as a telekinetic teen alongside Amandla Stenberg. This rapid ascent seems less like luck and more like an inevitability, but Dickinson doesn’t see it that way. “I remember coming back from Sundance and sitting with my agents who were like, ‘What do you want to do?’ It’s weird – you go from being very... not desperate, but –”
Hungry? I suggest.
“Hungry!” he replies. “And keen to just work on any level and learn and absorb. To go from that to getting asked what you want to do, which is not necessarily how you think things are gonna go... You don’t expect to have choices, and get chances.”
In fact, Boyle was Dickinson’s first choice anyway, a fact almost too serendipitous to be true. “I’ve been a massive fan of Danny’s since I was a kid. I know people always say that when they work with big directors, but I genuinely was. He was at the top of that list (that my agents asked for),” he insists. “Then, one day after that, I got the audition for the series Trust. Before I’d even said anything! It’s strange how the universes aligned. I just thought about it!”
Or perhaps he manifested it?
“Exactly, I believe in manifestation. You know The Secret?” he asks, referring to Rhonda Byrne’s infamous self-help book, based on the documentary of the same name. “It’s about the law of attraction and manifesting. People have kind of slammed it, and you can’t invest your whole decision-making in life around it, but look at it. It’s interesting.”
In Dickinson’s downtime – when he’s not schooling up on the law of attraction – he takes photos. “I have loads of different film cameras – I really love it as a medium. To be able to explore the process of it, of getting (a photograph) developed and not having that immediacy is nice. Having to wait a couple of days.”
“I got my medium-format film in Italy. I’ve got so many beautiful pictures from Calabria (where Trust was filmed), and I was doing that while I was shooting, between setups.” Dickinson pulls out his phone and selects a picture of an older woman making a face. “That was an Italian actress who I just asked for a photo,” he recalls. “She went (pulls face) and I was like, tsch-tsch-tsch – thank you!”
“Acting allows me to express versions of myself that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to in my own life. I think there’s something that, as me, holds back” — Harris Dickinson
Dickinson shares his photography on Instagram, but he has his problems with the platform. “I’m fairly active, but I delete the app a lot. I go weeks without Instagram because I need... I can’t be engulfed with that, oh my gosh. It’s too much.” While we’re on the subject, I bring up his Twitter, on which he’s been documenting his dreams. He cracks up when I read a selection aloud:
Had a dream that Daniel Day-Lewis made me dress up as Abraham Lincoln and walk the streets with him...
In my dream last night, I think I met a Gary Oldman character that does not yet exist... he was bloody brilliant though
I had a dream I was running around in a field full of HUGE, ripe avocados. It was bliss.
“How far have you gone back?!” he groans.
I want to know what he dreamed about last night.
“I can’t tell you my dream last night, it was too weird,” he says, hesitating. “Do you know Gemma Collins from TOWIE? For some reason, Gemma Collins and I, erm, had an argument. And then we made up. I feel like I shouldn’t have told you that, it’s too revealing about my dreamscape.”
In Beach Rats, the sexually ambiguous Frankie’s fantasies play out in the dreamscape of gay video chatrooms. Dickinson tells me that digital native status gave him an ease with the film’s explicit webcam scenes. “I’m from, like, the MySpace generation, so I’ve grown up with things like Chatroulette and MSN (Messenger). Not going on it a lot, but seeing it and understanding it.”
I ask Dickinson how it felt to play those scenes as a straight actor. “What I wanted to do was try and engage with it accurately, and portray it in a way that could be handled sensitively, yet unapologetically,” he says, choosing his words carefully. The actor feels a keen sense of responsibility to speak out on Beach Rats’ theme of coming out – or rather, not coming out, and the consequences of remaining closeted. “I think there is a certain amount of obligation that comes with doing a character like Frankie, and being a part of an important story that moves the conversation forward.
“I feel strongly because I’ve got friends who have struggled with their sexuality. I think that if you’re lucky enough to tell a story about that and have that story seen by a lot of people, it’s important to be vocal about the issues surrounding it. What I’m also aware of is that I can’t for one minute say I’ve been through the same issues as someone with LGBTQ struggles. I wouldn’t dare say I’ve been through that alienation, that pressure or hatred. All I can really have is understanding and empathy.”
Dickinson’s The Darkest Minds co-star Amandla Stenberg praises this aspect of his character, explaining that “Harris has a profoundly beautiful sensitivity to life and the people around him that emanates through his work”.
“Harris has a profoundly beautiful sensitivity to life and the people around him that emanates through his work” — Amandla Stenberg
Empathy, understanding, sensitivity – these aren’t traits readily associated with cinema’s men in the post-Weinstein climate. When I ask Dickinson who his male role models are, he takes a deep breath. “It is a big question, but I don’t mind answering it. I think my ideals of masculinity were quite fluid and ever-changing (depending on) what I was doing.”
“I used to fight – my dad was a boxer, so I really enjoyed fighting. My older brother was in the marines,” he says of men he was surrounded with growing up. “But it’s weird, because I was also doing musicals at school – I was Corny Collins in Hairspray – so I was a weirdly rounded kid.”
Dickinson joined marine cadets himself at the age of 13 (“as soon as I was old enough to join”), a transitional moment in the journey to manhood. “I got these set ideas of masculinity from marine cadets. That’s something that gives you a purpose – it makes you feel like you are becoming a man, but I felt kind of indoctrinated.” He elaborates: “I just felt that I’d been given a certain amount of information and a certain type of training that led me to believe that I should go off and fight for a cause that I don’t necessarily believe in, or know what I’m fighting for. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, and now that I look back on it, I’m so glad I didn’t (pursue it).”
Dickinson’s next project, Postcards from London, offers a similarly soft-edged version of masculinity in Jim, a Soho rent boy who specialises in “post-coital conversation” about art and literature. Directed by Steve McLean, the film’s theatrical stylings are a little My Own Private Idaho by way of Derek Jarman. “I really liked Steve – I’d watched his last film, Postcards From America, which he made 20 years ago. I learned a lot on it, you know. Every day, Steve would come in and give me a new book – that’s what I want, I’m a sponge. I want to absorb everything.”
In the film, Dickinson’s character is applauded for his beauty but derided for his ideas – as though the two qualities couldn’t co-exist. Actors often come up against the same miscalculation. But in the course of our conversation it’s evident that as an actor, Dickinson just wants to learn, not rest on his laurels.
“I think the character did as well. He’s from a town outside of Essex – it’s about wanting to know more and broaden your horizons in life, and not just be fixed to the ideas you’ve been brought up with. It’s normal, innit.”
The Darkest Minds is on UK screens now
Grooming Jonathan De Francesco at LGA Management using Bumble and bumble., photography assistant Harry Burner, styling assistant Sasha Harris, on-set production Natalie Stranescu