Last January, one of the most talked-about movies to emerge from Sundance was a dark and uncommonly explicit film called Beach Rats. It tells the story of Frankie, a young, queer man who’s unmoored from any easily categorized identity struggle. White and working class, Frankie lives in an unhip neighborhood on the outer rim of Brooklyn and rolls with a group of friends who spend most of their time talking shit and brutalizing terrified gay men on the boardwalk. But in Frankie’s case, the rage is a cover for his own repressed sexuality. When his friends aren’t around, he arranges furtive and sometimes violent sexual encounters with older men he meets in online chat rooms. (He’s so removed from gay culture that he’s never heard of Grindr.)
At first glance, Harris Dickinson, the young actor who plays Frankie, seems like an unlikely choice to play the role. A slight, fair-skinned 20-year-old with a crooked smile, Dickinson grew up in a grimy suburb of London that is not dissimilar to the Brooklyn backwater where his character lives. When Dickinson recorded an audition tape for the movie, he affected his best Brooklyn accent without any prior training. The tape so impressed writer-director Eliza Hittman and her casting chief that they immediately awarded him the part. It took weeks before they learned that Dickinson was not actually from the New York borough.
Drawn to movies early in life, Dickinson turned out to be a prodigy. In 2014, backed by a British government grant, Dickinson wrote and directed Surface, a well-reviewed movie that explores a teenager’s struggle with mental illness. But although he had appeared sporadically in plays and commercials in England, his IMDB page was fairly light on credits. When he landed the leading role in Beach Rats, he was more surprised than anyone. His agent had submitted his reel to the movie’s producers almost as a lark.
When he first read the screenplay two years ago, he was living at his mom’s house in the London suburbs. He was immediately captivated by the story and its tone. “The subdued, poetic, flowing nature of the script immediately drew me in,” he says. “Frankie was fighting this inner battle that I could immediately figure out, and I knew I’d enjoy portraying that struggle within him.”
Once he secured the role, Dickinson was hell-bent on perfecting his South Brooklyn accent, a tall order for someone who’d never actually been to the borough. He sat in on auditions for supporting roles, many of them by neighborhood locals, in order to study the nuances of the regional accent—one so specific that even New York natives have a hard time mimicking it. He remained in character for the entirety of the filming, a feat his girlfriend described as “crazy and extraordinary.”
Thanks to the rapturous critical reception that of his performance and his smoldering onscreen sexuality have received, Dickinson is suddenly a hot commodity. When he showed up for our shoot, it was clear that Harrison was no ordinary hipster. Outfitted in a pair of wide-bottom jeans and fierce-looking Doc Martens, he had the vibe of a hippie-cum-raver.
Dickinson was in New York when we spoke, appearing as a featured guest at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films festival. A few days later, he flew to Atlanta to shoot The Darkest Minds, the big-budget film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s post-apocalyptic YA novel series.
Last year, he appeared in Steven McLean’s Postcards from London, the follow-up to Postcards from America, McLean’s seminal 1994 film about the American gay experience. The movie, which is based on the edgy work of artist David Wojnarowicz, comes to theaters later this year. Once again Dickinson plays a gay youth, a hard-partying British boy in the thick of London’s gay club scene. Next, he’s reportedly joining the cast of Danny Boyle’s forthcoming FX series Trust, about the kidnapping of oil heir John Paul Getty III.
Dickinson’s ascent happened so fast that he’s still living with his mom, which he admits with a hint of embarrassment. But he insists that his housing situation hasn’t hampered his romantic life: He’s been dating the same girl since he was 15, a striking young singer who frequently accompanies him on his trips abroad. “It’s good to have her around, because it keeps me grounded,” he says. “She doesn’t let me think I’m some kind of movie star.”
Though London is half a world away from Frankie’s home in Beach Rats, Dickinson is familiar with working-class neighborhoods. His childhood suburb has much in common with the slightly down-at-heel community where the movie was filmed. “The traditional values, the expectations of masculinity—I saw it all,” he says. Although Dickinson identifies as heterosexual, he drew on personal experience to play Frankie: Growing up, he spent most of his time with his two best friends, both of whom happened to be gay.
The movie’s explicit sexuality would have given many young actors pause, but Dickinson was unfazed. “I mean, yeah, nothing is hidden,” he says with a smile. “You see everything—full frontal. But to be honest, the gay sex wasn’t an issue for me. Baring my body was more the issue. It’s a sort of vulnerability that, as an actor, you have come to terms with. Being 20 years old, once you expose yourself like that, then it’s there for everyone to see forever. It feels strange to have my body out there like that. But in context of the artistic value of the film, you realize how valuable it is to normalize these kind of performances.”
Not every straight man can pull off the full gay monty on-screen—though some are more convincing than others. (James Franco taking it with gusto in director Justin Kelly’s King Cobra set a new standard for the genre.) “Portraying gay sex, my only issue was just making sure I was doing it justice,” Dickinson explains. “But it came pretty naturally to me, just by being comfortable with the other actors, feeling the moment and the characters’ chemistry. You’re not thinking, ‘I’m kissing a guy or a girl.’ For me, my character wants to be there and wants it.”
That said, Dickinson points out that in some ways, being slightly alien to the gay experience helped his performance. “You want to portray a character struggling,” he says. “There’s a point where maybe being too comfortable isn’t such a good thing.”
What distinguishes Beach Rats is its unflinching portrayal of life’s complex ambiguities, especially as they relate to sexuality. The film doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Frankie’s life or the motives that drives his friends to perform acts of extreme brutality. When it comes to sexual violence, Frankie is both a victim and a perpetrator. By refusing to look away, Beach Rats succeeds in addressing issues of class, race and sexuality in a way that seems authentic and honest rather than preachy or forced.
Dickinson was encouraged by the enormous success of Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, which explores strikingly similar themes of gay self-discovery and self-hatred. But while the boys in Moonlight managed to somewhat surmount the sadness and struggle of their youth, Beach Rats reminds us that not everyone does. Whether Frankie can ever become truly comfortable with his homosexuality is the central question posed by the film—one that is never fully answered.
Dickinson points out that even at a time of greater openness about homosexuality, alienation and violence are still an inescapable fact of life for many young gay men—especially those who struggle with poverty as well as prejudice. “Bad things are still happening to people, and it’s extremely important to show them,” he says. “It’s incredibly moving that I got to be a part of depicting that reality. The relationship between sexual identity, class and race is so fraught. In a world where there is still so much division and hatred, we have to keep making films like this.”