For most young actors, the idea of appearing full-frontal nude in one’s big screen debut might cause at least a moment's hesitation. Not Harris Dickinson. No big deal, really. “I didn’t have any reservations,” he said. “I was pretty happy to normalize male nudity. There are a lot of female genitals [in film], but it’s a little more absurd to show a penis, and I think that’s a little bit whack.”
Well, male exhibitionism is working for the 21-year-old Brit. Since making his mesmerizing debut to U.S. audiences in Beach Rats, a homosexual coming-of-age indie drama that turned out to be the sleeper hit at the Sundance film festival in January, Dickinson has been in high demand, most notably nabbing a lead role in Danny Boyle’s upcoming FX series, Trust.
In Beach Rats, Dickinson plays Frankie, a brooding Brooklyn teen juggling two lives—one involves his hooligan pals and a prospective girlfriend, and the other involves the older men he meets online. In many ways, the film mirrors another celebrated, gay coming-of-age tale: Moonlight. Though Beach Rats tackles homosexuality from a white perspective, it is also an intimate portrait of a young man’s struggle with sexuality and identity. Both films find a gritty beauty in the lower-class worlds in which they’re set; both fearlessly linger upon and celebrate the male body. Where Moonlight is a multi-decade portrait, though, Beach Rats zeroes in on probably the most tortuous time for someone struggling with who they are: Frankie's late teens.
The role presented Dickinson, who had never set foot in Brooklyn, an entire world to learn. “The first time I had a Nathan’s hot dog was in a scene and they were cold,” he recalled. An affable British bloke, Dickinson's transformation into Frankie started with the physical: First came the Brooklyn accent, of course, which came more naturally after hanging with his costars, who were street cast to play Frankie’s degenerate friends. “It’s such different intonations and different slang,” Dickinson said.
Then there was his body, which, believe it or not, was a little too fit for the role. “I got there and, without sounding arrogant, [director] Eliza [Hittman] told me that I was a bit too in shape,” he recalled. “She told me to kind of eat what I wanted for a bit, because it wouldn’t be right. Frankie is amongst a community of people where going to the beach and having your top off is such a big part of summer, so there’s pressure to work out, but also they’re not quite hitting the mark in terms of being in top-notch shape. They’ll do, like, chest and arms.”
Despite conquering all the film’s physical demands, which also included learning how to play handball (“I actually had to keep going to practice because I was pretty bad at it”) and snorting various powdered substances meant mimic crushed-up opiates (“It was such a hot summer that the milk powder would clump up and I’d be snorting clumps of milk”), Dickinson truly shines in the small moments. It's got sex and drugs, but Beach Rats is mostly a quiet film and Frankie is a quiet character, one who conveys little through words and volumes through looks. It's clear five minutes in that Dickinson can command a screen without saying anything at all.
Meanwhile, there was one symptom of appearing in the buff that Dickenson may not have anticipated—some overeager fans sliding into the DMs. “I do get some weird ones here and there,” he admitted. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, your bum’s peachy. Love me, LOL,’ and I’m like, ‘Come on, what do you want me to reply to that?’”
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