Interview: Harris Dickinson talks Beach Rats
Matthew Turner | On 22, Nov 2017
Eliza Hittman’s Sundance award winning Beach Rats arrives in the UK this weekend. The raw, exquisitely crafted, uncompromising drama stars British newcomer Harris Dickinson as the smouldering intense Frankie, a troubled teen cogitating his sexual identity, in what has become one of the year’s most notable breakout performances.
Frankie, an aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn, is having a miserable summer. With his father dying and his mother wanting him to find a girlfriend, Frankie escapes the bleakness of his home life by causing trouble with his delinquent friends and flirting with older men online. When his chatting and webcamming intensify, he finally starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering a cautious relationship with a young woman. As Frankie struggles to reconcile his competing desires, his decisions leave him hurtling toward irreparable consequences.
As the film hits UK cinemas and VOD, we sit down with Harris Dickinson to chat heading to America, masculinity and streaming.
What attracted you to the part and how did you get involved?
I got sent a script – from New York, but I was in London, at my mum’s house – and I read it, and it was quite a sparse script, it didn’t have much giveaway, it didn’t have much detail in terms of parentheses or description or anything like that. But from the get-go, I kind of felt the character’s struggle and I felt Frankie’s desperation – it was something that was just inevitably evident, I think. And I saw [director Eliza Hittman]’s last film, It Felt Like Love, and it was this very poetic, kind of tranquil coming-of-age story that felt both realised and left untold, almost, in a strange way. And then we chatted and we really got on.
I gather you sort of crashed the audition process, because obviously they were looking for a young New York guy and you’re not a young New York guy…
Yeah, I did crash it, yeah. Because I was aware of how small the film was and obviously there was all the logistics of working in America and I’d never even been to New York before. And I had to just do my audition tape, I just kept in accent, because you have to do like a little ident (or intro) before the audition, so I just almost pretended I was American so they wouldn’t second-guess it, and they’d have to deal with it later if they wanted to get me on the film. So I think that’s what happened and we worked it and I snuck my way in, man.
Your Brooklyn accent is extremely impressive. I would never have guessed from the film that you were British. How did you work on it?
Well, I’m one of those people that spots accents and notices when people go off. It’s a nightmare for me if I was, myself, doing an accent an injustice, you know? So when I got on board with it, I had to do it right. And I think, fortunately, I have quite a good ear, I kind of grew up impersonating people and probably imitating people and that’s probably where that stems from, having a good ear for accents. But I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn beforehand, before we started filming, which was good for me, to immerse myself into it and get into character and really have an insight into that culture and that youth culture.
As a British actor who’d never been to New York before, what did you take away from the locations themselves, from living and working in Brooklyn?
Well, I loved Brooklyn, I absolutely loved it, and it kind of reminded me of London a lot – it has that same movement to it and the same cultural diversity, I think, however pretentious that sounds. I mean, it is a beautiful city, but then it’s also interesting because obviously we were shooting in South Brooklyn, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Gerritsen Beach and all these areas that are very working-class, very traditional, very set in their ways. Not all of Brooklyn is like that, a lot of Brooklyn has been gentrified, a lot of Brooklyn is moving away – the poverty is moving farther out and people are being pushed out, but it’s a beautiful place and I loved shooting there and I loved being a part of it and I loved being with the boys, because they were all, like, local Brooklyn boys, local from the area and really genuine, all working-class boys who had amazing work ethics and are awesome people, so we all got along and I was welcomed into it and I was welcomed into the film and I was given a lot of acceptance and licence to tell the story. And it’s quite rare because I was just a British kid, coming in and portraying this Brooklyn teenager, so there’s pressures of course but I felt very accepted and open to that.
When you were there before filming started, and during shooting, did you stay in the accent?
A little bit, yeah. The first week I got there, I stayed in accent for the first couple of days, because the director, Eliza, told me to stay in accent and give it a go. And I’d never done that before, I’d only done that for theatre – I played a West Country and I stayed in accent for it and, you know, it was fine, but there’s also a certain amount of, like, it’s a little strange because on a film set, your day-to-day is probably thirty percent filming time and the rest of it is waiting, talking and figuring out what you’re going to do. So it’s strange if you’re in accent, because really, people aren’t getting to know you, they’re getting to know the character and so much about having a comfortable environment is a getting to know each other and being comfortable with each other and if you’re in accent, there’s a distance and it creates a little strange atmosphere. So I stayed in accent and then I broke it and I’d come in and out of it a little bit. But I found myself just talking like the character after a while, because I was just around the boys so much.
Outside of the accent work, what other preparation did you do?
I spent a lot of time gathering information on that kind of pre-set notion of masculinity in that area, what it entails, the sport version, the going to play basketball, working out, and that was obviously part of my youth culture as well and a part of my upbringing that wasn’t far away from how I grew up, you know – I think it’s universal, I think it’s just making the links into, like, an equivalent. But in terms of the pressures that the suppression of your sexuality can create, I think I was lucky enough to grow up around friends that were going through the struggle and it was like taking them and making them extreme and then having research and obviously, the character’s father is dying of cancer and there was a lot of stuff that I had to look into. There was a lot of stuff, I can’t really remember what I did, man, if I’m being honest with you, not in any detail.
Was there a moment during the preparation where you went, ‘right, yeah, that’s it’ and the character clicked?
No, I was very much feeling my way through.
You touched on this earlier, but so much of the film is about what’s not said, the things that are revealed through evasions or pointed silences. Was that something that you worked on closely with Eliza?
Yeah, Eliza has a very good eye for those unspoken moments and those very small notions inside of a scene that play a huge part in conveying Frankie’s tension and his insecurity and his fear, his constant boiling fear. I think that was just something that was created and I just couldn’t help but portray that. I think a big part of it is suppressing it, but also showing it in just the right amount. I don’t know if it was so talked through and intentional, I think the whole process and the way Eliza worked, it all felt very instinctual, she kind of let me do my thing, and there wasn’t like a huge amount of direction happening. And that’s not disparaging Eliza –
No, but it means you were on the same page…
We were on the same page, yeah. I got the character and she was guiding me, but it wasn’t like a thought-out, rehearsed, very heavily directed process, it was a very instinctual, floaty [thing], linking with her visuals.
Would you call it improvisation?
Not really. She liked to try improv, but ultimately it was like every time we improv-ed, things would get revealed too much, because the dialogue is so close-knit and so restricted, so little is said, so as soon as we started improv-ing, I could just tell that she wasn’t going to use it.
“I’m gay, goddamnit!”
[Laughs] Yeah, “I’m gay, okay? I don’t know!”
The film has already drawn comparison to Moonlight for its treatment of homosexuality in a particular community. Do you see that as a valid or useful comparison?
I guess it is a valid comparison, because it’s two stories of sexual awakening or sexual suppressing in very poverty-stricken areas. I guess it is valid, for sure.
Did you like Moonlight?
I loved it! I watched it towards the end of me shooting Beach Rats. I was in New York and I watched it and it’s amazing, it’s such a beautiful piece, the fact that you’ve got the three stages of it, as well. It has a lot more of a resolute ending to it, without it being like a fairy tale ending, which I think is beautiful. And I guess the similar thread is the fact of how harmful it can be. To have those pressures and also how toxic it can be and all the different coping mechanisms, the different ways of dealing with it.
The sex scenes are used really well in the film – they each advance the story or comment on the story in a really interesting way. How did you approach those with Eliza?
Yeah, they do, they all have their separate importances and their separate notions, that flow with the narrative and mirror what’s happening in scenes behind and before. It’s almost like they develop in terms of intimacy and they also go back and forth from being intimate or aggressive and they just foreshadow Frankie’s psychology, really, throughout the film. She handled them very delicately and it was a very nice, assured process. She wanted it to feel right and she wanted us to feel comfortable, but she also knew that at times it wasn’t about being comfortable, because that uncomfortablity plays a big part in Frankie’s psyche. I think we just found a groove and found a rhythm – sex scenes are like dances, man, you rehearse them, but then, I don’t know, you have to just see where they go, as well. And if both actors have their characters right, then they normally go in the right direction. And then hopefully it can be more than just a sex scene or an exploitative thing of like bodies – it doesn’t have to be sexual, and I think Eliza and Hélène Louvart, our DOP, shoots so beautifully that she captures just body parts and skin and shapes and it feels like this very poetic kind of discovery of Frankie, as well.
What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
I think it was the social balance of the scenes where he’s interacting with his friends and he’s dancing on the line of exposing, or testing the waters of telling them and that was difficult because you just want it to be grounded in reality and you also want it to read for the audience, but not read for the people in front of you and it’s just so difficult, so you have to just be really careful and it’s like the smallest, smallest movements, you know, they look away and your eye flickers – you have to really just pay attention and analyse those moments very carefully, otherwise you shoot it and the moment might not work. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get those scenes right.
The film is being released on VOD as well as in cinemas this week. How important do you think video on-demand is to the future of independent cinema?
I guess it’s just accessibility, isn’t it? I mean, people that either can’t get to the cinema or don’t want to go to the cinema, prefer a home viewing experience. It’s vital to that audience, really. Yeah, I think it’s the way the movie industry and the TV industry is progressing, really, with all the streaming services – it’s just the way that it’s moving, and hopefully, that can co-exist with theatrical release and continue to play a major part in it, but also not over-take it, because I think the cinema experience is unique and important, man. It’s what spiked my interest to be an actor and a filmmaker, it’s what inspired me, being in that environment, in the darkness and the huge screen and then coming out and feeling like, you know, that feeling, I think everyone gets the same thing, it’s almost like an inspiration or this rush, I don’t know.
You don’t get that when you can pause it in your living room and go and make a cup of tea…
You don’t get that! You don’t get that when you pause it, or your phone rings, or your front door knocks and someone wants to tell you something, it’s a different experience. And not to say it’s less effective, but I think it’s less immersive. And immersion can also help retain your interest, I think.
Having said that, are you much of a VOD fan yourself? What have you watched and enjoyed on VOD recently?
Stranger Things 2? I haven’t watched a lot of TV lately, man. I’ve been working, all year. I haven’t watched a lot, I haven’t had a chance.
But you’ve seen Stranger Things 2?
Yeah. I loved it, it’s brilliant.
What’s your next project?
I’ve just finished filming Danny Boyle’s series, Trust, which will be out in March, on FX and some other services. And The Darkest Minds will be out next year, which is a dystopian trilogy of films, and then I’ve got an indie film coming out from the BFI, called Postcards From London, by acclaimed writer and director Steve McLean. But yeah, it’s all good, man, and then I’m just chilling for Christmas.
Are you in all three of the dystopian trilogy movies?
Which is the one where you get tackled to the ground by Gwendoline Christie?
That one! The first one, yeah [laughs].
What was that like?
That was fun, man. We had a good day’s filming and we had this whole action scene and she had to tackle me and yeah, it was cool. I’m a big Game of Thrones fan, so I was like, ‘oh my god, you’re Brienne of Tarth, just tackle me and do whatever you need to do!’ It was great.
Beach Rats is available now in UK cinemas and on VOD.