Actor Harris Dickinson: ‘I’m a silly person. My goal is to have a laugh’

Swapping the marines for the movies has paid off for the young British star of Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning Triangle of Sadness. He talks about the tragic death of his co‑star and his unusual route into acting

When Harris Dickinson was recently cast in the film role of a character named Carl, he was briefed that he was playing a car mechanic who was scouted on the street to be a male model and sent to the shows in Paris. Dickinson, a 26-year-old actor from north-east London, knows a bit about the fashion world – he’s a favourite of the designers at Dior – but less about fixing cars. “When I do a character or a project, I really want to get into the role,” he tells me. “So I was doing a lot of research around cars and being a mechanic.”

I have to interrupt: there’s nothing whatsoever in Triangle of Sadness, the new film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, about the lead character Carl being a mechanic. “Yeah, I remember getting on set and everything just got stripped about that story,” says Dickinson. “I felt like a bit of an idiot.” That he’d wasted his time? “Listen, I work in a garage on Saturdays,” he jokes, “so that’s how successful it was.”

In another scene in the script of Triangle of Sadness, Carl turns up at a casting for a fashion campaign holding a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Östlund suggested he swot up on the text in case it was useful for improvisation. “So I read it, and it’s a fucking slog,” says Dickinson, aware that we both know, with comic inevitability, where this story is heading. “It’s a lot to get through, that book, and I was looking at studies on it. Then we get in on the day and Ruben says: ‘Nah, don’t take the book in.’ And I’m like: ‘Fine, yeah, good idea!’ Clenching my jaw: ‘Fuck!’”

The late Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in Triangle of Sadness.
‘The fragility of life is a real thing’: the late Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson in Triangle of Sadness. Photograph: Neon/Allstar

Östlund, whose previous film, the 2017 art-world satire The Square, also won the top award at Cannes, is known to be an exacting film-maker: he considered 120 actors for Carl before bestowing the role on Dickinson. The average takes per scene in Triangle of Sadness was 23.

Oof, sounds exhausting, I say to Dickinson. “No, never!” he counters. “I loved every minute of it. Honestly, it was hard, but I think it’s what film-making should be: it should be tough and it should be relentless. Sometimes as an actor, there’s a lot of sitting around. A lot of, you know, there’s a closeup on a hand and then you go back to your trailer. And I’ll be honest, it’s a bit boring. There are days where you feel silly. You feel: ‘What am I doing as a job? This doesn’t feel entirely fulfilling.’

“But then on a film like Ruben’s, you’re being used all the time and you’re striving to be great in every way,” he goes on. “Your energy is depleted at the end of the day, you feel shattered, but it feels worth it.”

We are having a mid-morning coffee in a cafe in Clapton, east London, not far from where Dickinson lives. He has recently broken a toe and is walking a bit stiffly, so is trying to keep it local. It’s also not far from where he grew up in Walthamstow. “I’ve probably moved two miles,” says Dickinson, who wears a Palace skateboards sweatshirt, North Face shell jacket and YSL cap with a stiff brim. “It’s that point where you move just far enough so you don’t have to bump into people in your local Tesco. Because I was bumping into teachers and schoolfriends and it’s: ‘Oh, how are you doing?’ And you have to have that obligatory chat about life. So, far enough that it doesn’t happen all the time, but close enough where you’re still somewhat close to a homely feeling.”

Dickinson, who is a gentle, solicitous sort, probably worried that he was sounding boastful, because his career has been going pretty much flawlessly for a while now. His breakthrough came in Eliza Hittman’s 2017 film, Beach Rats, a big winner at the Sundance festival, in which he played a Brooklyn teenager struggling with masculinity and his own sexuality. He backed that up with eye-catching performances in blockbusters: 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, with Angelina Jolie, and last year’s The King’s Man, alongside Ralph Fiennes. This summer, Dickinson has been in cinemas in Where the Crawdads Sing, the adaptation of Delia Owens’s bestselling novel, and the ensemble murder-mystery caper See How They Run, in which he makes an unlikely but entertaining Richard Attenborough.

Pearl Chanda and Dickinson in See How They Run (2022), with Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan reflected behind them.
Pearl Chanda and Dickinson in See How They Run (2022), with Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan reflected behind them. Photograph: Searchlight Pictures/Parisa Taghizadeh/Allstar

It is, though, the “bonkers” – his word – Triangle of Sadness that shows best what an adept and adaptable actor Dickinson is. Östlund’s film opens with a deft skewering of the fashion industry, but quickly moves on to a luxury yacht and takes aim at a bigger target: the super-rich. Carl and his girlfriend, a social media influencer called Yaya (the South African model and actor Charlbi Dean), are the links through a morality tale that ultimately winds up with a core group of mainly billionaires stranded on a desert island, struggling for survival. Triangle of Sadness manages to be both silly and profound, scatological and thought-provoking. Or maybe Dickinson was right to call it simply bonkers.

Carl, in some ways, is the most relatable, even sympathetic, character in the piece. He doesn’t come from a world of privilege and is the closest to hinting that its excesses can be repulsive. But Östlund doesn’t spare any characters his searing contempt, and as Carl slowly unravels he is shown to be as insecure and spineless as the rest.

What made Östlund pick Dickinson out of the 120? “Probably because he saw something pathetic in me that he would be able to bring out in Carl,” says Dickinson with a smile. “Just someone who’s immoral and unstable.” Then he turns serious: “I hope to God I’m not Carl.”

On a desert island, at least, there should be a clear distinction between the character and the actor. Carl is basically hopeless, while Dickinson spent his teenage years in the Royal Marines Cadets. “On the island, I would be much better than Carl, I know I would,” says Dickinson. “I grew up camping, I grew up making fires, so there were times on set where my ego was struggling, man. I was like: ‘I’m so shit. I’m so pathetic. I’m so useless right now.’ And all I wanted to do was jump in and help in some way and I just couldn’t!”

Triangle of Sadness has clearly resonated with many: there was an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes that went on so long that Dickinson was embarrassed, unsure where to look. But there was a tragic coda to the film when, in August, it was announced that his co-star Dean had died, at the age of 32, from an unexpected illness. Hers is a wonderfully vibrant performance, and she and Dickinson were clearly very close.

As Frankie, right, in his breakout role in Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Beach Rats (2017).
As Frankie, right, in his breakout role in Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Beach Rats (2017). Photograph: handout/Handout

“We were in it together. We were in the mud together throughout the whole thing,” he says. “So hearing that news was shocking and terrible. It took me a while to comprehend it. Everyone on the film is really broken by it, but I just feel like the performance that she gave and the body of work that is now there, representing Charlbi and for us to remember her by, is something that her family should be so proud of.”

In the aftermath of Dean’s death, there was speculation on social media that she had had a reaction to the Covid-19 vaccination. Her brother was quickly forced to clarify that she had had a lung infection that may have been complicated by the removal of her spleen after a car accident in her late teens. “There’s often a thing with the film industry that it’s untouchable, that everything’s guaranteed to just be fine and go on,” says Dickinson. “But the fragility of life is a real thing.”

* * *

Dickinson’s path to this point makes him almost an outlier in British acting these days: no public school, no Oxbridge, no drama school. His dad was a social worker, his mother a hairdresser and he has three older siblings. He was serious about the marines, being in the cadets for four years and was all set to join the senior ranks at the age of 17. His decision not to sign up was clearly a fork in the road and one he still thinks about: his debut short film titled 2003, which he wrote and directed, and was released last year, is about a teenage soldier’s final day at home before deployment.

It wasn’t immediately obvious that Dickinson had made the right call by choosing acting instead of the armed forces. He had attended a performing arts club called the Raw Academy in Walthamstow from the age of 11 to 17 and landed a part in Angels, a play by Father Ted actor Pauline McLynn, at the National Theatre when he was 18, which led to an agent. He then took a film studies course at college but didn’t enjoy the assignments and fell out with one of his teachers. This convinced him not to apply to drama school, and instead Dickinson took shifts in a bar, picked up litter and was a sales assistant in the clothing store Hollister Co while continuing to go up for acting roles.

In The King’s Man (2021).
In The King’s Man (2021). Photograph: Lifestyle pictures/Alamy

“I remember, I’d be in the basement folding clothes and I’d get a call from an unknown number,” he says. “And an unknown number always meant it was my agent. So every time, I thought: ‘This is it! I’m out of here!’ And I’d rush upstairs and listen to the voicemail and they’d be like: ‘Yeah, you didn’t get it.’”

Dickinson moved on to working in a hotel in east London, saving up money to finance trips to Los Angeles to audition for pilot season, where studios shoot tasters of new TV shows that may – but usually don’t – go into production. “I got some pilot and I told the hotel: ‘Sorry, guys, that’s me! I’m off to Hollywood!’” he says laughing. “Then two months later I had to waddle back in and ask for my job back.”

Beach Rats, which required Dickinson to nail a Brooklyn accent when he’d never even been to New York, was landed from a self-taped audition recorded in his childhood bedroom in his mum’s house. “It’s kind of a miracle,” he says. “But there was something about the script that I related to: the suburban area and the boys within that world I felt I knew a little bit. Kind of repressed, a lot of aggression. I saw something in it that I guess Eliza [Hittman, the director] saw in me, maybe.”

There’s not much dialogue in Beach Rats, but the camera lingers on Dickinson, trusting that his quiet intensity will draw out the interior wrangling and sexual confusion his character, Frankie, is experiencing. That he is half-naked for a good part of the film may, for some, have added another layer of intrigue. But while Dickinson could clearly rely on his imposing looks – he’s 6ft 2in, with pale-blue eyes and soft lips – his short career is impressive for the variety of roles he has taken. For every The King’s Man and Triangle of Sadness, which do not shy away from putting his model physique on display, there are his performances in Joanna Hogg’s 2021 sequel The Souvenir Part II and 2019’s County Lines, a British indie drama about teenage drug mules.

Another example of Dickinson’s skilful swerving of typecasting is his goofy turn in See How They Run. “I’m not an obvious choice for that,” he accepts. “But I’m a silly person, so I just like doing silly. I want to do more comedy, I really do. It’s such a fun experience to just go to work every day and the goal is to have a good laugh. That’s the dream!”

Working with the American actor Sam Rockwell on See How They Run clearly made a big impression. “He puts the work in and he’s serious about it, but he doesn’t take himself seriously,” says Dickinson. “There’s a misconception that you need to be serious, overly into the craft, into yourself. And that’s not necessary, I don’t think. You can be hardworking, diligent and also relaxed and fun and nice to everyone.”

Dickinson finds he isn’t having to hustle as much for roles these days, which suits him. “I am a hard worker, but I’m also good at chilling,” he says. “I’m good at having time off.” In the past five years he’s got into surfing, making regular trips to Cornwall, and further afield to the US and the Philippines. There’s always something to do in his house and garden, which he shares with his girlfriend, the musician Rose Gray. And they have a high-maintenance cat, a British shorthair called Misty Blue with a livid coat and piercing stare. “So he’s someone we have to think about,” says Dickinson, proudly pulling up a photo on his phone. “He’s a lot of work – he’s a prince, but he’s worth it.”

Watch a trailer for Triangle of Sadness.

Next up for Dickinson is a trip to Louisiana to shoot The Iron Claw, alongside Zach Efron and The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White, about three brothers from a real-life pro-wrestling dynasty, the Von Erichs. He has also written a feature film, which is now in development, that he plans to direct. Beyond that, Dickinson would like to do a role that requires him to learn useful life skills. He’s done enough sword fighting and horse riding; what he really needs is help with more practical matters. More like the research he did into being a car mechanic, but something that ends up on screen this time.

“I’d like to learn how to do my own accounts or something,” says Dickinson. “That would be a nice skill. Maybe there’s an Aaron Sorkin film out there about an accountant.” He stands up to leave; broken toe or not, he has to go to wrestling training. “Can you put a word in?”

  • Triangle of Sadness will be released in UK cinemas on 28 October


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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