This article first appeared in Attitude issue 288, October 2017.
For a hyper-masculine teenage boy from an area offering few opportunities, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that you are gay. So believes Harris Dickinson, star of the new film Beach Rats.
Talking about his closeted character, 21-year-old Harris adds: “It comes from expectations created around him. Frankie’s assimilated this idea of masculinity from all his friends, and strikes up a heterosexual relationship because that’s the ‘right thing to do’ in society.”
Beach Rats is set to make the rising British star bankable in Hollywood, and while the film’s storyline may seem familiar to gay audiences — muscled Brooklyn teenager Frankie secretly surfs gay websites for sex with older men — Dickinson’s performance is remarkable: a nuanced portrait of a young man lost in modernity.
Bereft of his buzzcut and laconic Brooklyn drawl, Dickinson cuts a very different figure in London’s Shoreditch House: more rakish student than beach rat, with his indie hair and oversized t-shirt.
“I wanted to do the area and accent justice because I didn’t want there to be that pantomime of a British actor playing a boy from Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time with the boys in the film because they’re not actors; they were cast from the street. And a lot of it involved secluding myself, putting myself in a mind frame.
“Quite a lot of my friends grew up struggling with their sexuality, so it’s something I observed from a close distance.”
This indirectly answers one of the questions I was instructed not to ask. Three days before the interview, I received a polite, if puzzling, request from the Beach Rats PR not to enquire about Dickinson’s love life. In more unenlightened times, this would have equated to the raging closeted homosexual horn-honking and alarm-flashing. However, it may simply be a straight, liberally-minded young actor wanting to protect his privacy. And it isn’t for us to ask.
Harris certainly wasn’t worried about taking on a gay character. “I’m interested in portraying characters and telling a story,” he explains, staring with those deep blue eyes that Sundance-winning director Eliza Hittman glorifies on celluloid.
“There has to be a predicament they have to overcome because it allows you to dive into something that is unresolved, something very interesting. With Beach Rats, it was apparent how much pressure is involved in the character of Frankie and how much toxicity builds inside himself as a result of repressing his inner identity and sexuality. That was something intriguing and tragic to try to portray.”
In certain ways, Beach Rats will make audiences think of a white Moonlight, focusing as it does on poverty, sexuality and masculinity in America. Arguably, the success of the Oscar-winning film helped build a buzz around this movie.
“There have been many moments in cinema where the struggle of sexuality has been glamorised or glorified in a very easy way,” says Harris. “But what is interesting about this film is there’s not a resolute ending. It’s not a coming out story because Frankie never comes out. There isn’t the moment where the audience can sit back and think, ‘oh, brilliant, he’s come to terms with his sexuality,’ because that isn’t the reality.”
I’m reminded of Benn Moore, the victim of an acid attack in 2014, who I interviewed for Attitude last year. He stayed in the closet well into his twenties because of struggles with his masculinity. Coming out may still be a significant issue for many men.
Harris is rather more optimistic about the society in which he lives. “I’ve never experienced that difficulty in anything in my area. But there’s a severe case of it in Frankie’s story, isn’t there? I think people’s minds continue to be broadened and I’ve not really been around anyone who’s restricted me in the development of myself and my identity.”
“Racism and homophobia often stem from a family,” he continues. “You get taught these things, they are things people tell you to feel, people in societies contribute to creating these views. So if you’re in a school where it’s demonised in a way, then of course you’re going to be more inclined to have a negative inclination toward a gay person. It really depends on the values and morals of the family.”
For Frankie though, the homophobia stems more from his friends. All three are from the same impoverished area: jobless and aimless, with nothing to do except smoke weed.
Maybe this inequality contributes to the boys’ prejudices against differences such as being gay, to make themselves feel better about their own situation?
“That’s interesting,” Harris says. “I think with hatred and prejudice, if people are not happy inside themselves and they’re displeased with their circumstances, from impoverished areas, a lot of it is down to ignorance and the unknown, and when something exceeds their parameters they don’t know how to react. That produces fear, and fear produces violence, which is sad.” He adds that there needs to be “more education about same-sex issues in schools.”
He continues: “I don’t have a generalised view of a gay man or a gay woman. When I was 16 one of my best friends came out to me and I said, ‘OK, are you happy?’ and he said he was. ‘That’s all you need to say about it then,’ I replied.”
It’s a nice response: accepting, tolerant, open-minded, but it’s also oddly demonstrative of a modern, masculine desire not to talk about issues; a trait depicted beautifully by Harris as Frankie.
“There are lots of problems with the traditional idea of the macho man,” he says. “About the pressures of having to be something which actually makes us weaker.”
If this contemplative young man is representative of a new generation’s attitudes towards masculinity, then perhaps the future is laced with hope.
I ask what drew him to acting initially. “I love being a different person. Maybe that means I’m not happy with who I am.”
He laughs. “That’s a joke.”
Soon, we’ll also see Harris in Danny Boyle’s new TV show, Trust, opposite Brendan Fraser, Donald Sutherland and Hilary Swank, in which he plays John Paul Getty III, the son of the oil tycoon billionaire, who was kidnapped in Rome at the age of 16 in 1973.
“If I can do this for the rest of my life and make enough money to eat and live and have clothes on my back, I’ll be the happiest man in the world,” he says.
Beach Rats is out in cinemas now.