rising star fionn whitehead on filming 'dunkirk' and rejecting fame
The young British actor discusses filming summer blockbuster Dunkirk and avoiding the spotlight.
This article was originally published by i-D UK.
"I don't feel the need to please people," Fionn Whitehead decides. It's a traditionally English, wet summer's afternoon and Fionn is in an East London photo-studio, where the actor is weighing up his increasing success. "I don't need to go out there to try and get people to like me. I have friends who don't even like me," he says, half jokingly.
The 20-year-old actor has spent the day having his photo taken. Rain is beating down fiercely on the glass roof and his voice is barely audible above the din, but he's nothing but charming and polite, persevering through a volley of interview questions and demands from the team to look beautiful in a million different ways. Such hardships are nothing compared to the grueling regime he underwent while filming Christopher Nolan's critically and commercially acclaimed new war movie, Dunkirk.
Shot on location in Northern France, Fionn spent five excruciating months running up and down the beaches of Dunkirk carrying heavy stretchers laden with bodies, and being plunged into freezing cold waters while weighed down by a full-length woollen trench coat, army boots, and a gun on his back. There was smoke everywhere, screams, blaring sirens, giant warships, Spitfires overhead and people actually shooting at him. "It was so draining having to go through all of that," he recalls. "But, of course, it wasn't even remotely close to what the soldiers themselves must have experienced." Set during the Second World War, Dunkirk, tells the harrowing tale of 400,000 Allied troops being evacuated from the French port as the German army advanced upon them. It's a brutal story of survival and heroism against the odds, as hundreds of small civilian boats famously came to rescue the stranded servicemen.
Cast alongside British heavyweights Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance, and Hollywood newcomer — but no stranger to the limelight — Harry Styles, Fionn plays the role of Tommy, a young soldier fighting to get home. "He's the eyes and ears of the audience," Fionn explains. "You see the world through him as he takes you on this journey." Despite the obvious differences in situation, it's a role Fionn easily identified with on a basic human level; that of a young man thrown into a bewildering situation, fighting to navigate his way through it. "The whole thing felt very real. You didn't have to act, you were just responding to what was happening around you," he recalls. "Dunkirk is such a strange place, it was so weird being on the beach and knowing how many people were slaughtered there. There were still bullet holes in the wall of the church. I'm not religious, but it's crazy to think of someone shooting at a church." Forever haunted by the events of 1940, Dunkirk is one of those eerie places where time stands still. "The whole town is still reeling from what happened," Fionn reflects. "Being there was very emotional, you had to make jokes and shake it off at the end of the day otherwise you'd get dragged down in sorrow. Anyone who complained, cast or crew, got shut down immediately with an 'at least you weren't there.'"
Born in Southwest London, Fionn is the youngest of four siblings. He had a happy childhood, growing up in a house that was filled with music. His father, a jazz musician, would slide down the stairs scat singing and improvising melodies on the spot. There's also a slight sadness about him; an incredibly private person, Fionn's air of mystery only makes you want to understand him better. That he is named after the mythical Irish hunter Fionn mac Cumhaill (it's pronounced Finn MacCool) — who, as a teenager, gained all the world's wisdom by mistakenly ingesting some of the salmon of knowledge, is no coincidence. Fionn too appears wise beyond his years, yet full of boyish charm. It makes for quite a captivating combination, on-screen and off.
Fionn got into acting at school and joined the National Youth Theatre at 15. "It sounds quite weird and perverse, but I like the idea of manipulating people's emotions, making them feel things they wouldn't normally feel," he says of why he was first attracted to acting. "With some characters you can draw on emotions you've felt in the past, experiences that are personal to you. But there are other characters where you can't truly become them. That's when you need to do the research and start taking into account why they do what they do, how they think, how they feel." When preparing for his role in the three-part British drama Him, it was a case of combining experience with exploration. Fionn plays a troubled young teen, navigating the turbulent waters of boyhood, who suddenly discovers he has telekinetic powers. "That feeling of isolation people have growing up," he muses, "it can be really lonely. But it's also quite a taboo subject. You get told that it's meant to be the best time of your life, but it can be really shit. You have all these intense feelings but you can't talk about them. There's a stigma about being a man and not being able to reach out and talk to people. I've been quite lucky as my family is very open. We talk about everything."
Released this summer, Dunkirk is already making headlines. Of course, having co-star Harry Styles being, well, Harry Styles, helps, but as the lead all eyes will firmly be on Fionn. Is superstardom something he's ready for? "I have no interest in it," he says immediately. "I find that whole world quite weird and creepy. It's so important to keep a sense of normality. I have a close group of friends and a supportive family. They always keep me grounded and never let me get big-headed. I also don't have Instagram as it feeds that whole machine. If you want to do that side of it, that's absolutely fine, it doesn't mean you're a bad actor. I just don't like the idea of people knowing me on a personal level."
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Maxwell Tomlinson
Styling Max Clark
Grooming Roku Roppongi at Saint Luke Artists using Bumble and bumble. Styling assistance Louis Prier Tisdall.