Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk, 2017.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

When Christopher Nolan, the acclaimed English director of such modern classics as the dark Batman trilogy, Inception, Memento, and The Prestige, cast former One Direction member Harry Styles in his new World War II film Dunkirk, he didn’t quite grasp how famous his young actor really is. Nor, it seems, did Styles’s co-star Mark Rylance, a celebrated Shakespearean actor who previously starred in the miniseries Wolf Hall and the Spielberg-directed period drama Bridge of Spies.

My daughter had talked about him. My kids talked about him, but I wasn't really that aware of it,” Nolan told the Associated Press this weekend, explaining that Styles, who makes his big-screen debut with the role, “fit the part wonderfully” and “had earned a seat at the table.” This means he also likely did not foresee the response set off by Styles cutting off his famed hair for the role.

Styles’s role is a small one, especially by comparison with the starring role he played in One Direction. “When we put the cast together, we had some established names: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy,” Nolan told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “But for the guys on the beach, we really wanted young unknowns.” Cue the search for a “young unknown”: According to Nolan, Styles was just one of thousands who lined up to audition. “He’s not that unknown,” Nolan admitted, “but he’d never done anything as an actor before.” (Exactly how much Styles was “not that unknown,” Nolan would soon come to learn.)

Rylance also learned of the mythos of One Direction via a younger relative: His 11-year-old niece “was just more excited than anything I've ever done because I was going to be acting with Harry Styles,” he said. Once upon a time, Rylance’s Bridge of Spies co-star Tom Hanks, now 61, would have garnered such a response—but as far as teen idols go, he’s cleared the way for the 23-year-old Styles.

Styles, who has had a busy year between his debut solo album and Dunkirk; appears in the film alongside Nolan’s regular collaborators like Tom Hardy of Mad Max: Fury Road and Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders, who previously co-starred in Inception and each have their own particular fandom. (In addition to screen time, Styles, Hardy, and Murphy also have shared, at one time or another, the title of “Internet’s Boyfriend.” As much as the Dunkirk rescue saga is already an extraordinary tale, perhaps even more extraordinary is how good-looking the Allied soldiers seem to have been.) Strategic or not on Nolan’s part, it’s a clever move to harness the power of the fandom to advance the film: Styles told the Associated Press his bandmates, as “big fans of Chris,” are looking forward to the film—and so too, presumably, are the legions of fans who follow them.

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