Triangle of Sadness Star Harris Dickinson Explores the Pitfalls of Masculinity

by Jihane Bousfiha

A photo of Harris Dickinson at the MET Gala
Photo by Getty; image treatment by Ashley Peña.

In the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning satire, Triangle of Sadness, we first meet Harris Dickinson’s Carl at a casting call for fashion models, during which an interviewer shouts at a lineup of shirtless men to do various poses for “grumpy” (“Balenciaga!”) and “smiley” (“H&M!”) brands. As the film’s only common denominator in all three chapters, Carl and his supermodel-influencer girlfriend Yaya, played by the late Charlbi Dean, are later invited on a free luxury yacht trip, along with a group of filthy-rich passengers and a perpetually drunk Marxist captain played by Woody Harrelson. The wickedly funny movie culminates in a third act that sees the social hierarchy turned upside down, as Carl uses his good looks as currency to survive on a deserted island.

Having played a series of dashing men over the course of his career, it’s not difficult to see why Dickinson fits Carl so well. Over Zoom, he tells me he hadn’t been aware of the fact that people online thirst over him (“It’s better than being shouted at.”), and I joke that the tweets may have been a factor in Östlund’s decision to cast him as a well-oiled model. Triangle is a showcase for Dickinson’s comedic chops as he brings a vulnerability to the seemingly unlikable character navigating a relationship defined by traditional gender roles.

Since making his feature film debut in 2017 with Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, Dickinson has been killing it on screen. In addition to Triangle, he’s had a hell of a year, with roles in the adaptation of Delia Owens’s best-selling Where the Crawdads Sing and whodunit comedy See How They Run. Below, the 26-year-old British actor chats about his approach to playing the deeply complicated Carl, working with Östlund, and his iconic turn in Xavier Dolan’s 2020 film Matthias & Maxime.

How did the role of Carl come about?

Ruben cast his net quite wide for this film. I heard about it through my agents and sat down with him in London, and we auditioned and improvised, playing around with the material. I watched all of his films in one night. I’d seen The Square, but a few nights before my audition, I sat down and just powered through—wanting to watch the next one, because I was so into his filmmaking. He’s a really good actor as well. He read all of the other lines and made it personal with him and I.

From left: Erik Hemmendorff, Zlatko Buric, Dolly De Leon, Sunnyi Melles, Jean-Christophe Folly, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson, Ruben Östlund, Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson, Iris Berben, Henrik Dorsin, and Philippe Bober at the 20222 Cannes Film Festival.

Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images

Carl is presented as somewhat of a himbo. But as the film progresses, he takes advantage of it when he’s on the island with Abigail (Dolly de Leon). How did you approach playing him?

I never saw him as a himbo. I always saw Carl as someone who was deeply complicated and a bit of a mess. I think he makes a lot of poor decisions. He buys into the neuroses Abigail feels, and many of these poor decisions come from ego and a lack of self-esteem. I don’t think he’s dumb, I think he is rather intelligent, but perhaps not in the right ways. He wants to explore what it means to be a man nowadays, in a modern relationship. He ends up becoming a himbo, buying into his own appearance as a means of currency—because he realizes that, in that environment, that’s what’s going to get him the furthest, sleeping with someone or whatever it may be. But I also think that relationship is genuine to some extent, I don’t think it’s just a transactional thing. There’s weight to it.

It’s a complete foil to his relationship with Yaya, which can also be considered transactional, since they benefit each other in terms of social media clout.

He starts out having an awareness of that and knowing they have been put together because of her profile. Then he realizes he wants more meaning than that. It’s interesting because what he ends up looking for in Yaya, he finds in someone else—in a much more specific and unusual scenario. All he wants is for things to be equal, and to not be the provider. He doesn’t want to be with a girl that is looking for the archetype of stereotypical gender-based roles. He very much makes that clear, and that’s part of his downfall. He’s also consumed by his own guilt and immoral behavior.

What did you personally find to be the most challenging scene to shoot?

The elevator scene was really tough for me, because I had to be so angry over and over. We spent a day on it. In the morning, we did Charlbi’s coverage and I had to go just as extreme, because I want to give the same performance when the camera’s not on me. Then in the afternoon, after the lull of lunchtime, I had to go back and go just as hard for another 20 takes. I spent it absolutely knackered and you think, “I don’t know if I’ve got it in me.” Ruben was very good at creating an encouraging environment. He had a gong he would bang on the last five to 10 takes, and it would be like a countdown. You feel like you’re part of this meditative and collective experience rather than just, “I’m going to do my take now.”

Ruben Östlund has said that his three most recent films—Force Majeure, The Square, and Triangle of Sadness—have been investigations of “what it is to be a man,” and you’ve done many roles that explore masculinity, especially in a modern context. Are you drawn to these roles?

I guess I find them, and the discussion and dissection of it, quite interesting. I don’t know if it’s been the driving force behind the decision-making, but it has coincided. I’ve always been open to exploring the pitfalls of masculinity, because there are a lot of them. Trying to create more discussion around that whilst creating stories leads to greater discussion, development, and discovery.

It’s been five years since Beach Rats was released. What have you learned about yourself as an actor since then?

So many things. With Beach Rats, I had put so much pressure on myself. When I first started acting, and even now, I had a sense of “Am I doing my job correctly?” I’ve learned to just enjoy the process and not hold myself to an unrealistic standard, and that makes everything more fun and enjoyable. I’ve learned that I know I can do certain things without torturing myself.

How do you choose projects at this stage of your career, where you’ve done a mix of studio and independent films?

I find out if the food’s gonna be good and I just go with that. [Laughs.] Honestly, I’ve lately been filmmaker-driven, working with great people regardless of the size of the part. Just being involved in any capacity with great artists is the only go at this stage. That makes me a more curious and interested artist.

You’ve worked with a ton of some of the best directors we have in independent cinema right now: Eliza Hittman, Xavier Dolan, Joanna Hogg, and soon, Sean Durkin. Who are your other dream directors?

Oh my gosh, so many. Lynne Ramsay, Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard, Mike Leigh. I’m constantly putting out feelers in my head, because I think it works. The law of attraction, you know? If you think it and will it into some sense of existence, it’s a possibility.

My friend and I were just talking about how we think you’d be really good in a Lynne Ramsay film, so we’re putting it out there for you.

Wow. Well, Lynne Ramsay, if you’re reading this—I’ll do anything.

A few years ago, you did Xavier Dolan’s film Matthias & Maxime, and that introduction scene of you on the escalator spent a long time circulating Film Twitter. Are you aware of its impact?

Film Twitter is a funny place. I often dip my toe into it. I’m entertained and horrified in equal measures. I have a friend who is a journalist and he sometimes sends me stuff, but I don’t want to see. I mean, that was funny. I saw a meme of me dabbing as that character and that made me laugh quite a lot.

How did you get involved in the film?

[Xavier and I] actually messaged each other on Instagram. I just wanted to tell him I admired his work. He had seen some stuff I was in and very kindly offered me this part. It was a really nice little collaboration, even if it was only for five days.

Since you recently wrapped production on FX’s series Retreat, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, is there anything you can tell me about your experience on that?

I can say that I had an amazing time. Emma Corrin’s performance is no doubt gonna blow everyone away. It’s such a good story, such good scripts. It’s really expansive and the world they’ve created is quite impressive.