Harris Dickinson

"all this male nudity and gay sex!" – meet harris dickinson, star of beach rats

Harris Dickinson is totally chill about playing a Brooklyn bro exploring cruising sites and his sexuality during one hot summer day in the city

by Colin Crummy
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20 September 2017, 8:20am

Harris Dickinson

"All this male nudity and gay sex!" It might sound like a pretty enticing strapline for a movie, but in Hollywood, it remains a no go for some actors. When filmmaker Eliza Hittman cast around for a lead in her film Beach Rats, she ran into a lot of agents who declined to put actors on their books forward for the lead role.

Fortunately for Hittman, one young English actor was not feeling so prudish. Harris Dickinson was aware of the nature of the role in Beach Rats from the get go. He would be playing Frankie, a bored, high, Brooklyn teenager who spends his summer figuring out his sexuality on gay chatrooms, at cruising spots, and through a romance with a girl.

All this, Dickinson says, in his totally chill manner, was fine. "One of the first emails about it said it was a very rough and tumble role, it might not be something you're interested in," Harris explains. "I think I'm attracted to a rough and tumble role, whatever that description means."

Having read Hittman's script, the actor knew all the things he would be asked to act out – from taking thirst trap selfies to cottaging with older guys in the undergrowth – were essential to the story. But more than that, he had no interest in the out-of-date moralising reactions of some. "I gravitate towards something that people are a bit scared of," he explains. "I know that sounds like – ooh I want to do something that people are scared of – but the taboo around it is a little bit built up and silly."

"He's struggling with the idea of coming to terms with his sexuality. He has all these toxic outlets that push his true identity further and further away and deeper inside of himself."

Beach Rats tackles taboos in a much more contemporary way. Set around Gerritsen Beach, a south Brooklyn outpost untouched by hipster redevelopment, the story sees 19-year-old Frankie try out several identities in a summer adrift from work and school. He loafs around Jacob Riis Park in Queens with his boys, playing handball, doing drugs and chasing girls. He tentatively starts an Instagram relationship with a cute, savvy young woman called Simone. At home he plugs into gay dating sites, showing his ripped abs to older men online. "He's struggling with the idea of coming to terms with his sexuality," Harris states. "He has all these toxic outlets that push his true identity further and further away and deeper inside of himself throughout the film. The film is all about Frankie's struggle."

He eventually takes his attraction to men further, hooking up with guys at cruising spots after attracting their attention with his looks on websites. The camera lingers on Frankie's lean torso as he prepares it for inspection online or IRL; the fact the director's gaze is a female gaze, focusing on the male body, adds a frisson of complication to audience expectations. All this Harris understood, but to get a handle on the complex set of emotional circumstances involved, the actor says he didn't have to look far. "I have friends who really struggled with their sexuality so I grew up with that around me. I saw people come to terms with it and people stigmatise it."

Frankie may be bursting with desire privately but in public he plays it cool. His mates – all street cast Brooklyn locals – infuse the scenes with a laconic, straight male sensibility. Dickinson hung out with the non-actors on local handball and basketball courts, tuning into their vibe and honing the accent. But the north east London boy was already well versed in the codes and conduct of the teenage crew. The Leytonstone native spent a huge chunk of his formative years ambling around London, skateboard in hand. "That was a big part of my youth. I was a little street rat for many years," he laughs.

"I have friends who really struggled with their sexuality so I grew up with that around me. I saw people come to terms with it and people stigmatise it."

But as a kid, his skills for imitation drew him towards acting. He joined theatre school at 12-years-old and found a way to shake off his inhibitions. "I really wasn't a loud kid. I was chubby and unassuming, pretty quiet and chilled and a little bit shy," he reflects. "But when I was acting my confidence soared because I wasn't myself anymore, I could be someone else."

Harris could easily have been someone else entirely. He almost joined the marines, but his drama teacher persuaded him against it. He got a job as a runner, working on music videos. He's always been interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. He has three shorts under his directorial belt already, with a long term view to make more in the future.For someone who is so low-key to speak to, Harris is pretty industrious. His Instagram is an unshowy demonstration of talents that include drawing, painting and photography. There was also a stint in a school band called Fragile. "We had an album called Handle with Care," he laughs. "I mean I was young, you gotta allow me!"

For now, extra curricular pursuits defer to the acting. Next up are roles in sci-fi thriller The Darkest Minds, and the lead in Steve McLean's Postcards From London, about a male escort getting involved in a Soho underworld of art and literature. Then there is his part in Danny Boyle's new series Trust, about the Getty family. He plays J. Paul Getty III, a bohemian youth and grandson of one of the richest men alive, who was famously kidnapped by the Italian mafia, and whose miserly grandfather refused to pay his kidnapper's ransom demands, as it wouldn't have been tax deductible.

All of this capering doesn't leave Dickinson with a lot of down time, but if he gets it, he knows exactly where's he's headed. "I love the Bussey Building in Peckham," he says, in another hint there's more going on underneath that cool exterior. "It's a lovely place, good times. I feel like a mature working man right now, but I hope to get back in touch with my youth and go raving!"

This article originally appeared in i-D's The Acting Up Issue, no. 349, Fall 2017.