David Dawson’s introduction to his costars in the upcoming film My Policeman was, in a word, unconventional. Dawson—who stars opposite Harry Styles and Emma Corrin in the romantic drama—had spent the first few months of rehearsals in 2020 running lines over Zoom. When the cast was finally able to get together in person, director Michael Grandage devised an unexpected meet cute for the actors.
“In the movie, there’s a song we sing in a bar,” Dawson tells me from his family home in Cheshire, England, where was performing “uncle duties,” as he described them. “So the first time the three of us met, Michael put us in a sound booth to sing that song to each other. It was actually quite clever, because it meant you just had to get rid of any nervousness or butterflies and start that bonding process.”
That bonding process, Dawson says, was key to tackling the film’s narrative. My Policeman, in theaters on October 21, and streaming on Amazon Prime November 4, tells the story of husband and wife Tom Burgess (Styles) and Marion Taylor (Corrin); they fall in love young and marry quickly in 1950s England. But Burgess is hiding a secret from both Taylor and the rest of the world, which comes to light when he meets and strikes up an affair with Patrick Hazlewood, played by Dawson, the curator at an art museum in town. The love triangle—which largely takes place unbeknownst to Corrin’s character—goes on for years, before local authorities find out about Burgess and Hazlewood’s doings, and take them to court. The heart-wrenching story of their reunion decades later is told alternately between a modern-day plot with three other actors playing the trio (Linus Roache as Burgess, Rupert Everett as Hazlewood, and Gina McKee as Taylor), and flashbacks to their past friendship.
Rehearsals continued in the spirit of Styles, Corrin, and Dawson’s first meeting: Grandage split up Dawson and Styles to read together, separate from Corrin, who did their scenes individually with Styles and Dawson as well. “You only knew as much as your character knew,” Dawson explains. “I found it incredibly effective, especially in terms of the secrets that are kept in the film.”
Secret-keeping was central to the lifestyles of LGBTQ+ folks during that time period, and the film illustrates this point: as Hazlewood, Dawson is only able to truly be himself in the privacy of his own apartment, where he and Burgess spend time together while dodging nosy neighbors. Hazlewood also frequents speakeasies and clandestine gay bars to meet new lovers.
“Patrick has to, out of necessity, lead two very different lives,” Dawson says. “The public life, which enables him to not only survive but to thrive–you know, he’s an ambitious person—and then to explore the private side of the man and the vulnerabilities of him: a man who, like everybody, just wants to find love.”
Dawson spent time studying the history of gay bars ahead of the role, adding that this exploration became a key point of interest for his involvement in the project. He scoured the Internet for information on the “importance of those hidden spaces and the affirmation you would gain,” he says. “I was fascinated by this idea of what is a safe space for someone who, in a society, is seen as an outsider.”
Dawson says he felt a personal connection to the film as soon as he read the script: “I’m a gay man myself, and it’s set in the country where I live,” he says. But the excitement of a real romance between Hazlewood and Burgess resonated with him even more strongly. “That’s just a symbol of the strength of the LGBTQ+ community,” he adds. “That, even in those dire times, they still found hope. Patrick is full of all that, because he’s not a victim of his time. He’s incredibly proud of his sexuality and determined to find great joy in his life.”
In his real life, Dawson finds joy on stage and in front of the camera. He says he always knew he wanted to be an actor “since I was about three. The only thing I wanted to do was to live in make-believe.” Growing up in what he describes as a “little industrial town in the north,” Dawson spent his childhood raiding his mother’s yarn baskets; he’d gather up handfuls of black wool to make a wig. “I would be deadly serious all day as Captain Hook,” he says. “I stuck a coat hanger in my sleeve for the hook.” He went on to join a drama club in his town, which pushed him “to be brave and think that anything and everything’s possible.” After taking classes at the Royal Academy of Drama and Art, Dawson pursued acting as a career at 19, taking on roles ranging from an ITV drama called Doc Martin to a play named Posh at the Royal Court Theatre. He’s got a fairly robust IMDb page already, with roles on Peaky Blinders, Luther, and The Last Kingdom. But My Policeman is undoubtedly Dawson’s biggest project to date.
Dawson, who in person is charming and incredibly British in his ability to dodge compliments, is the undisputed breakout in the film. His approach to Hazlewood is loving and tender, particularly in scenes with both Corrin and Styles. But Dawson’s chemistry with Styles is undeniable, as the two convincingly fall in love with one another and reveal their innermost thoughts in the most intimate of scenes. When asked whether journalists have been focusing on his sex scenes with Styles during the My Policeman press run, Dawson says, “It has been a question that’s come up quite a bit. But I don’t mind discussing it, because of the incredibly support we got during that time. We worked with an intimacy coordinator and decided on how those scenes would be, together, with Michael. It almost became, in many ways, like a dance.
“When you read a script like this and see that there will be intimate scenes, you hope going into it that the person you’re gonna go on this journey with will be someone you can put your whole trust into,” he goes on. “And I honestly couldn’t have asked for better with Harry. We promised each other from day one we would have each other’s backs and always check in with each other and ensure we were both completely happy. We really wanted to create something beautiful, so we took it incredibly seriously.”