Life & Culture

Meet the Star of Must-See Gay Drama Beach Rats

As Eliza Hittman’s film hits UK screens, we talk to its talented British star, Harris Dickinson, about bringing the powerful story of a confused Brooklyn teenager to life

  • TextDaisy Woodward

“I’ve always been attracted to the darker, more challenging roles – without wanting to sound pretentious or psychopathic,” laughs 21-year-old actor Harris Dickinson, the star of award-winning drama Beach Rats, written and directed by Eliza Hittman and released in UK cinemas tomorrow. Dickinson began acting at the age of 12 and has appeared in numerous theatre and television productions, but Beach Rats is his debut feature and it’s already seen the north-east Londoner proclaimed one of Britain’s most promising new talents for his nuanced and daring performance.

The actor plays Frankie, a Brooklyn teenager struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in a hyper-macho environment. It’s the summer holidays and Frankie is spending his days basking in the Coney Island sunshine, shooting hoops with his troublemaker friends, scoring drugs and creeping around his family home, trying not to disturb his dying father. But in the privacy of his dimly-lit basement, he begins to flirt with older men online, eventually mustering the courage to act upon his fantasies at a nearby cruising beach, all the while beginning a relationship with a precocious girl his own age. Tension builds slowly and steadily, thanks to Hittman’s naturalistic directing style – reminiscent, many have noted, of early Gus Van Sant or Larry Clark – and beguiling cinematography from Hélène Louvart, as Frankie’s two worlds look set to collide.

Dickinson is spellbinding in the role, imbuing Frankie with a searing sense of loneliness, confusion and desire, often through the slightest of gestures – an anguished hunch, an awkward smile, a longing gaze. It is a part for which he has to bear all, both literally and metaphorically, and he does so with all the capability of an actor twice his age. Here, we catch up with the laidback and affable actor – whose upcoming projects include sci-fi thriller The Darkest Minds and a leading role in Steve McLean drama Postcards From London – to find out more about the making of Beach Rats, the importance of its message and his forthcoming TV series with Danny Boyle.

What first drew you to Beach Rats, and to the character of Frankie?

I read the script last summer and although it was quite sparse, I got a real sense of Frankie’s struggle and the conflict going on in the story. It was really intriguing, and it felt like an interesting challenge as an actor to portray that. I also liked the idea of portraying someone that was so far away from myself culturally – he comes from Brooklyn, somewhere I’d never been – and who’d had very different experiences to me.

What preparation did you do for the role? A lot is understood through how Frankie looks and acts rather than what he says...

Definitely. Such an important part of this film is understanding Frankie’s psychology and the struggle he faces in terms of where he’s from – having a very well-placed understanding of the area – and then understanding his character arc. I think I went off my own instincts, using the script as the starting point, and then Eliza supported me and we worked together to create something that felt accurate to the story. I asked if there was any material she wanted me to watch or read, any films that had inspired this, but she didn’t tell me anything specific. Instead she spent a lot of time with me in the area, taking me to a lot of the locations. I spent over a month there before filming began.

It feels like LGBT films are finally being accepted into mainstream cinema, without being relegated to their own separate genre...

I’m really glad you say that. It’s so important, first of all, that films which shine a light on people’s struggles are made, whether that’s becoming conscious of one’s sexuality, or stories of oppression – homophobia, sexism, racism – anything that can help to keep moving society forward and open minds through cinema. So there’s that need to create discussion, to challenge expectations and morals, but it’s also important to normalise it – not to put it in its own section but to let it be as much a part of the industry as any other narrative would be.

Did you have a favourite scene to shoot?

The fireworks were very cool because we didn’t hire out the space, we just went there and shot it. We did that for a lot of the film. For that scene, there were so many people there and the fireworks were going off – it was crazy. I don’t know if it was a good moment but it was an absurd moment!

Did you expect the film to be such a success?

No, it was a tiny project so I really didn’t expect this amount of people to have watched it. I had high hopes for it, because I really believed in it, but I’ve never gone into anything thinking about what happens after. I think it’s the same with a lot of actors: you try and focus on doing a good job, on not messing it up, and then you’re finished and you move onto the next project, and then all of a sudden it comes out and people enjoy it – or they don’t. It’s very strange, but it’s also lovely that it’s been received well. I’m very thankful.

This was your first film. What was it like to work in a new medium, and what was Eliza’s directing style like?

The atmosphere on set was very intimate. We were shooting on film and it felt like a very organic, natural process. Eliza likes to keep it small and quiet. She worked closely with the cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who’s an amazing French director of photography, and they had a very beautiful, poetic vision. Eliza had a lot of metaphors she wanted to include, for example. She knows what she’s doing; she’s great. She trusted me and let me do my thing, guiding me where needed; there weren’t a huge amount of rehearsals.

What’s the biggest lesson you took away from it?

The discipline of filmmaking – of being required on set everyday; the stamina and the work ethic required. I loved it and it confirmed to me that it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

You’ve been working with Danny Boyle on a TV series about J. Paul Getty – what’s that been like?

Yes, it’s called Trust. It’s been awesome. Danny’s such an incredible director and person. He really is an inspiration; I had to pinch myself that I was working with him. I play Getty’s grandson, J. Paul Getty III, so another American. I’ve got a British film coming out next year but I do seem to be doing a lot of American characters. I don’t know why. No one wants me over here [laughs]!

Beach Rats is in cinemas nationwide from November 24.