Harris Dickinson’s backpack is a book without a cover. It’s a self-help book: The Power Of Meaning, that aims to, well, you know, provide something in the way of illumination. But the 21-year-old Londoner ripped the front cover off his beloved tome to self-improvement so he wouldn’t get judged when he read it in public. “I didn’t want to be seen reading it, I was a bit embarrassed,” he says. “It was a bad cover! I thought, ‘Fuck this, I don’t want to look like I’m searching for meaning.’ Because I’m not. I’m just intrigued. Someone’s going to see me reading it and think I need help.” Does he? “I don’t think I do.”
He arrives at his ShortList shoot straight from an overnight trip to Paris, at the invitation of a certain luxury fashion house, where he and his girlfriend were wined and dined. Five years ago, the pair pooled all their money together to afford a trip to the city of love, and had to stash pastries from the breakfast buffet in their backpacks to eat throughout the day. “A lot can change in five years,” he says.
Dickinson has the build of a greyhound; slim and long-limbed, with a slender nose and big blue eyes. There’s little of the muscularity he displayed as Frankie in last year’s Beach Rats, the indie film that catapulted him into the spotlight, where he was taut and toned, a young man wounded by an inability to process his attraction to older men. “I’ve always been conscious of looking physically adaptable,” he says. “I want to be malleable, not pigeonholed. I want to constantly change.” Harris Dickinson cannot be read, and maybe that’s a good thing, for now.
The actor grew up in Highams Park, north-east London. He used to box, but stopped before his symmetrical features became less-than-symmetrical. “I enjoyed fighting. I enjoyed the fitness of it, I liked that I liked being challenged. I’m not a confrontational person, so the violence wasn’t something I was drawn to,” he says. “But it was a good sport. Routine and regimen.”
It fed into his portrayal of Frankie, whose physicality was crucial to nailing his Brooklyn working-class roots; posturing on the beach, showing off to girls, as well as a way to shield any fragile emotions from the outside world.
In Beach Rats, Dickinson’s wide eyes take in both Technicolor fireworks and numbing strobelights with a curious indifference. Even when he cruises gay hotspots he isn’t hungry so much as he is starved; desperate to be seen and understood, even for a few minutes.
His next move is in Steve McQueen’s Postcards From London, where he plays a young man from the outer edges of England who comes to Soho and becomes “an escort and a raconteur, someone who specialises in post-coital conversation”. I’m interested in his choice of roles, and suggest the most interesting ways to explore masculinity’s current sense of flux are by focusing on LGBT stories.
Some of the most masculine films last year were unapologetically queer.
“I agree,” he says. “With Beach Rats, we had this inherent struggle. Some people were annoyed that it didn’t uplift people, or that it glamorised the distress of being gay. I think you have to see the film for what it is, and [director] Eliza [Hittman] didn’t shy away from the fact some men fall through the cracks, and some men can’t be saved. Some don’t get happy endings.” I wonder aloud if Frankie has a happily-ever-after, but Dickinson shakes his head; the point is we will never know.
Later this year there’s a lead role in Danny Boyle’s Trust, the 10-part series based on the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (a film adaptation of the same event, All The Money In The World, came out at the start of 2018). There are key differences in the film and TV telling of the story; the TV series implies the kidnaping was a hoax gone wrong, orchestrated by the youngest Getty himself. I ask Dickinson about this, but he responds with silence, eyebrows knitted together in concentration.
“I don’t want to talk too much about it,” he says carefully. “The media coverage at the time, in 1973, was adamant that it was a ploy to get money. We get to see everything unfold, and see [every family member’s] perspective. I think you really sympathise with every angle of the story, and it’s lovely. It’s a beautiful series.”
There’s a reluctance to explain his work, or this work anyway. As someone who is yet to hire a publicist, he is rightly wary of what to say sometimes. Wouldn’t you be? The process of getting involved in the work he does, he explains, is quite precious, so sacred he sometimes finds it hard to explain. Maybe that will come with time, he wonders.
“It’s hard to establish yourself [in the industry] as someone who wants to be seen in different lights,” he says. “That’s the thing I’m facing… . I don’t want people to think they know what I’m going to do, or what I’m like.”
You want to remain elusive, so you can manoeuvre more freely?
“Exactly. Nobody knows what I want to do but me. But it’s hard, because I’m an open book. I’m very honest, because I care about people. I like interacting, and being a support system, and having support from other people. I enjoy people’s closeness,” another thoughtful pause. “But I need to be able to shut it out. Because, ultimately, my job is to be other people.”
Postcards From London will premiere at the BFI Flare Festival on 31 March. Trust will air on Sky Atlantic later this year