Harris Dickinson Goes to Hollywood

If you passed Harris Dickinson on the street you would never guess that so many people have seen him naked. He’s a fair-skinned, freckled young man, tall and sweet-faced with a gentleness about him that makes you want to talk to him. He obliges you with an awkward, but assured friendless that endears him to you immediately. He is, all things considered, a true gentleman. This fact makes him even more intriguing considering that his breakout role as Frankie, the sexually confused teen at the center of the film Beach Rats, is so rough damn around the edges. Not to mention he spends a great deal of the film full frontally nude. It’s those stark differences alone that emphasize this burgeoning actor is indeed an incredible talent.

Dickinson picked the perfect time to star in a gay arthouse movie. Queer film, it seems, is having a major renaissance. Gone are the days where good gay films are few and far between, where the majority of titles are just vapid stories of sex and forlorn love, packaged in bright colors and good bodies. We now live in a world where small indie films like Moonlight – a story about the lives of gay black men – can sweep the awards season clean, no problem.  It might’ve been mainstream artists like James Franco that helped set in motion this new interest in queer stories, but we’ve come to a place where we actually want want to see them told. And Hollywood, it seems, is finally ready to acknowledge that gay films are important.

Beach Rats might be too dark for the Oscars, but it rocked Sundance this past year with a vengeance. Writer-director Eliza Hittman won best director for the film, which succeeds thanks in large part to Dickinson’s complicated, nuanced performance as the south Brooklyn teen struggling with his intense sexual desires for men. Frankie’s endless summer days are spent in dilapidated arcades and boardwalks with his hoodlum friends, a potential new girlfriend, or the older men he secretly meets online to fuck.The film not only captures a slice of life not often seen on film, but does so with the art and care of a master filmmaker. Hittman illustrates these often overlooked lives in such an intentionally stark manner that viewers cannot overlook the indelible art that is unfolding before them. The subject of Frankie’s sexuality is lurid, candid, and brutally honest, yet beautiful in every way.

Dickinson plays the gritty character with such a lived-in authenticity that it’s a shock that he’s in fact British, and not gay. For someone that, at the time, had never even been to Brooklyn, his accent was so spot-on that in his audition tapes he even tricked writer-director Hittman (a New York resident) into believing he was from the area. Perfecting the rough, south borough accent is alone is proof of his dedication. Even native Americans struggle with the very specific twists of the regional diction. But how did such a young, newbie Brit capture the essence of a sexully confused, working-class Brooklyn boy so convincingly?

“I didn’t expect myself to be on such this small indie film [taking place] in an area so foreign to me. When I got cast I thought, ‘shit I have to actually engross myself in this now.’” Dickinson says. “But I didn’t find it incredibly difficult, it’s not so far away from me. I’m working class. Being an actor is about taking on a persona and an environment, there’s a lot of things that add up to form a character.” To help, he sat in on countless auditions for the supporting roles, most of them neighborhood locals (some of which he’s formed lasting friendships with). He studied the endless details of their slang and body language, morphing himself into the character with each new discovery. The result is a perfect mimic that would make any international wartime spy envious.

Accents are one thing, but sexuality is another. Truthfully portraying a gay character when one is not gay has proven to be a tricky task in less competent hands. Dickinson drew from his own experiences with friends that had conflicts with their sexuality, something he speaks casually about (and not something actors of the past have been so readily admitting of).

“As a kid I was never played sports, but was into the arts. A lot of friends around me struggled with their sexuality, so I’ve seen that pain throughout the years. I’m very familiar with it, and I tried to portray it as truthfully as possible.”

His depth of empathy paid off, but it was never the gay aspect of the the film that was the problem for him. In fact, he said the gay sex scenes were quite easy. What the challenge was, he said, was the baring of his body. The excess of nudity left him feeling vulnerable in every way imaginable, from the perspective of his career and as an individual. It was a challenge he accepted, and that he ultimately made peace with because he was so devoted to the character and the film. What translates on screen is both what Dickinson is experiencing in life and also what Frankie gains in those moments – some kind of personal power.

Those deft acting skills aren’t totally a fluke, though. He was in youth theater since he was 12, where he was able to hone his craft in his developing years.  In 2014 he even wrote and directed his own short film, entitled Surface. It’s a story about a young man’s battle with mental illness, and from those that saw it he received great praise. It was a small victory against those that had little faith in him and his abilities, and one teacher in particular that told him he’d never act professionally. Fast forward a few years and those victories are mounting. But it was probably comments like that that kept him from seeing the value in most of what he did at school. Though it granted him access to the world of the arts, he wasn’t always an exemplary scholar of discipline.

“I have a gripe with school systems. They don’t accommodate the people that don’t know what they want to do. There’s not much margin for discovery,” he says. “My grades were based on just remembering facts, not [actually] learning them. I did poorly in school because I had trouble remembering. I didn’t learn anything. The things you learn in school shape you, and I think schools need to allow kids to be free to learn in their own way.” Perhaps it’s these parallels – the working class, the need for freedom – that also related him to Frankie so much.

Regardless of its origins, Dickinson’s talent will not be relegated to Beach Rats for very long. With an upcoming leading role in the adaptation of the YA sci-fi franchise, Alexandra Bracken’s wildly popular, The Darkest Minds, he’s set to become the undying passion of many teen girls and boys alike. This could be the star making vehicle that all young actors can only dream about.

Though he soon might be on the cinema marquee, he’s not giving up his attraction to complicated roles. He’s already tackling another complicated gay character in Steve McLean’s sequel to Postcards from America, called Postcard from London. In it, he stars as a teenage boy with Stendhal Syndrome (a rare fainting disorder triggered by encounters with beautiful works of art) who travels from his small English town in search of fame and fortune in the big city. Though this role probably won’t require as much nudity, it’s already getting the Sundance buzz. In addition, he’ll also have a part in the upcoming horror film, The Medium, and he’s also hotly rumored to be in talks for a key role in Danny Boyle’s FX limited series, Trust, about the famed Getty family of Los Angeles. His star is rising, to say the least, and though current fans might have seen all of him in the film, they definitely haven’t seen all of him yet.

In an anecdote he shares with me about filming the final scene for Beach Rats, it sums up perfectly the point at which young actors often find themselves at this pivotal point in their career. Dickinson describes how his tall frame towered over a crowd of locals gathered to watch the oceanfront summer fireworks that go off in Coney Island every Friday. Amidst the strangers and the chaos of filming, the noise and lights, as he tried to muster the emotion of this highly critical scene, he realized how incredibly hard it was to accomplish all of this in a such short amount of time. But in the same breath, as he looked around at where he was and what he was lucky enough to be doing, he also he acknowledged how much fun he’d had along the way.