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For his first feature, British actor and filmmaker Harris Dickinson didn’t shy away from some significant challenges. As the star of Eliza Hittman’s Sundance premiere “Beach Rats,” Dickinson appears in nearly every frame, tasked with striking a delicate balance between rough-and-tumble teen and a young man struggling with his sexuality. His Frankie lives out parallel existences that threaten to not just bump up against each other, but with annihilation.
“Beach Rats” follows Frankie over the course of one summer, a season spent alternately lazing around with his rabble-rousing pals at the beach and exploring visits to gay chatrooms that steadily go from digital-only to all-too-real. When Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), he gets a glimpse of what his life could be like, but that’s a choice that could mean denying his real feelings. It’s a hard-hitting, truth-telling look at the pains and pleasures of an unsure adolescence, and Dickinson shines in every single scene.
Dickinson will next be seen in Brando Lee’s horror film “The Medium” and Steve McLean’s “Postcards From London.” He recently signed on to star in Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s big-screen adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s popular YA series, “The Darkest Minds.” In his own words, the young Brit talks about finding his calling early on, the honesty of adolescence portrayed in “Beach Rats,” and why he doesn’t get freaked out by sex scenes.
I was about 12 when I [first] went to theater school to try out. I started doing youth theater at school and trying out for plays. I kind of drifted away from it slightly, and I was thinking about joining the Marines. My acting coach told me not to do it and get back in with drama school and start doing it seriously, and I listened to him.
I got an agent when I was 16. And then just worked my ass off really, and I committed my everything to it. I kind of knew it was what I wanted to do since then. I was pretty certain after that point, which is rare at that age, I think.
Someone told me, “You learn everything, you go through film and TV classes or theater classes and then you kind of just have to forget it.” I feel like once you have your training, you have that spine, those techniques, those feelings, it’s always rooted in you. It’s been a vital part of my career, having that [theater training] behind me. You just adapt to whatever job you’re on, I don’t think there’s any preparation you can do that will prepare you for any job. Each job is so different. I haven’t really realized that until now.
[For “Beach Rats”], I got an email from my manager and he said, “This is a rough and tumble role, you might not be into it, it might be too risqué for you.” But [it’s the] sort of role I want to read for, so I put myself on tape and then Skyped with Eliza. We chatted, I tried to get more of the gist of it, she gave me some notes, I sent a tape again. The next thing I know, I’m in Brooklyn, shooting the movie.
I’m only 20, so I’m not far off from having that teenage experience. There are big cultural differences [between the US and the UK] to me, so that was something I had to adapt to and learn about. It wasn’t so foreign to my own childhood and teenage years. We went to amusement parks, we fucked around, we did stupid things. Everyone can relate to that, everyone can tap into that.
I’m quite comfortable with the idea of a sex scene. It wasn’t strange. I’m quite comfortable with my body. The idea of it, and the build up to it, you get some nerves and maybe you think about it a little bit. When you get there, it’s just two actors doing a scene, and it becomes natural, it doesn’t feel weird. None of it felt weird, none of it felt strange to me. Some of it was a little bit difficult, but nothing that I couldn’t do, and Eliza made it very comfortable.
[Those scenes] were always justified. Eliza always had a chat with us beforehand and explained the intention, it was always justified. That’s what makes it so much more comfortable when you’re doing it. It was artfully shot, and I had confidence in Eliza and [cinematographer] Helene [Louvart]. I knew that they knew what they were doing, and I knew they wouldn’t exploit us as body parts. It was done beautifully.
I’m going into [Sundance] with an open head, I’m not sure what to expect! Obviously, I’ve known about Sundance for a long time. When you’re starting out, you see films that were at Sundance, you see actors you admire there. It’s a weird prospect, I’m going to be there with a film I’m in. I’m a little bit pinching myself. I’m just open to having a good time and meeting some great people, some amazing filmmakers and watching some good films.
“Beach Rats” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 – 29, 2017 in Park City, Utah.