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Most actors would fear a movie like Beach Rats, but not Harris Dickinson.

At 21 years old, the actor is riding a wave of critical success for a film that demanded on-screen nudity, casual drug use, queer themes and sex scenes from its lead star. But Harris, by fate, wound up with this as his first big screen role: a young lad from London, diving in at the deep end.

A runaway hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where its writer/director Eliza Hittman won the Dramatic Directing Award, Beach Rats tells the story of Harris’s character Frankie: an 18-year-old, sexually explorative boy living in South Brooklyn. Over the course of a sweltering summer, he spends his days by the boardwalk, smoking pot, chilling out with his girlfriend and watching the fireworks as night falls. Under the cover of darkness though, his conventional life takes a turn. Fearing what his friends might think, Frankie spends his nights at home, secretly exploring gay cruising sites and speaking to older men.

“I don’t really know what I like,” Frankie says, to a dude stripping naked on webcam to him. There’s this blank-faced expression that he wears throughout the movie: fascinated, lost, perhaps unsure of what this world really means to him. It’s this brilliant portrayal of the point queer existence and toxic masculinity meet that has earned the film — and Harris — so much love from critics.

A few days after he nabbed a Best Lead Actor nomination for his performance at the Independent Spirit Awards alongside Hollywood heavyweights like James Franco and Robert Pattinson, Harris and Highsnobiety sat down to discuss being young in Hollywood, masculinity, and how Beach Rats schooled him on sexual identity.

Congratulations on your Independent Spirit Award nomination! How did you find out?

I was on the train the other night and I needed to pee really bad, so I was wriggling around waiting to get to my stop. My agent called me and was like “Congrats on the Independent Spirit Awards,” and I was like “Oh, thank you so much! I’m just on the train, I’ll speak to you in a bit,” not really paying attention to anything!

All the nominees suggests there’s a young Hollywood renaissance happening: the majority of those who are nominated are in their twenties. Do you feel like roles for actors your age are more exciting and progressive now?

They are! It seems like there’s a lot of hope for young character roles — and diverse stories, too. Looking at all the ones that have been told in that category is pretty incredible. I’m not too stressed about whether I win or lose, though. It’s just awesome to be in that category with those people.

So, let’s talk about Beach Rats. We meet your character in this strange and suspended moment where he’s exploring the world around him, and the suppressed parts of his personality. Were you at all similar when you were growing up?

I was a bit, but I don’t think I was always so aware of myself, or what I wanted to do in life. Through acting, I discovered a new confidence and came to terms with who I was. [Frankie and I] are very different though: I’ve always allowed myself to explore my own desires, and had a nice support system. Bad things have happened in my life, but I still feel quite fortunate.

High school shapes us a lot. What was your high school experience like?

It was strange, because I was really into acting and always have been, and I never got any sort of stick about it. I think it’s because I was very happy and content that this was something that I loved. School sometimes tries to tell you to fit into society in a certain way; it sets you up for what they think you should do. I don’t want to sit here like, “Boycott the education system!,” because I’m not an anarchist, but the system doesn’t cater to creative minds. By 15, I was ready to leave, and I was dreaming of other things.

This is a bold role for your first film. Were you always confident you could play Frankie? Did you have any hesitations?

I was always confident [about] the character and the material. Eliza’s script gave me a really strong sense of his struggle, and what he was trying to come to terms with — but it was a huge amount of pressure. I was scared to navigate that and do it all justice: he’s a walking paradox. But once I got started and had Eliza’s trust, it got a lot of easier. [She taught me] just to go for it and not think about it on a wider level. Doing that can be pretty dangerous for an actor.

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This is a film about a boy who lives out with a “sexuality shoebox.” It has been dubbed a “gay film,” but it feels much more complex and layered than that.

You’re watching a battle; a suppression of character. Sexuality is a major part of it but I’d say it’s more than a “gay film.” So much of this film is about confusion, and society, [similarly], is moving in a much more progressive direction, in terms of how we label people and identify who we are.

Do you think the environment that Frankie lives in plays a part in why he’s unwilling to put himself into one of those boxes?

Hugely. He grows up in such a morally-set and masculine [neighborhood], where these expectations are concrete, and breaching them is frightening. That’s a huge part of his culture: to not have that acceptance or support system from his family. His friendship groups, his area, his upbringing — it’s everything to him, and it’s what makes him.

People say that these roles are being taken from queer actors by straight actors, who are given shine for playing them. Do you agree with that at all?

As actors, we play characters. For us to categorize [actors] and say, “That person has to be gay to portray a gay character,” I think that’s a little absurd, but I do I agree that it’s fair to pose the question because there’s a huge community of gay actors who could do — and deserve to do — this story justice. I think that as long as the actor comes and handles it with as much respect, sensitivity and accuracy as possible, that’s all that matters.

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How do you think we should define masculinity nowadays?

I’ve always said that I never really felt the pressure to be a certain kind of man. I’ve been through stages where I’ve been the tough guy in gym class, but I’ve also jumped around listening to musical theatre! I dunno, man — diverse, perhaps?

Yeah, that works! Did making Beach Rats school you in any way?

It taught me a lot about empathy, the importance of not suppressing your identity, and how alone I could feel. I wouldn’t dare say I felt the same level of isolation and alienation [that Frankie went through], because I’m just an actor. But I tried my hardest to be in his mindset, and I felt very alone in that.

Talking about it now has helped me see the changes we need in society to push forward and make everybody more open-minded. Hopefully, the film shines a light on the pain that these experiences cause: that hate crimes are happening, and these prejudices still exist.

Beach Rats is in theaters and on VoD platforms in the UK and U.S. now.

Next up; here’s why you should think twice before laughing at Black Friday “poverty porn.”

  • Photography: Neon
Words by Douglas Greenwood
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