Maleficent Man, King’s Man, Tomorrow’s Man
From Beach Rat to Disney Prince: the remarkable rise of Harris Dickinson, east London’s next acting star.
Harris Dickinson’s journey from who’s‑he? newcomer to franchise hero – via indie film festival catnip and Peak TV breakout – will make your head spin. Imagine, then, what it’s done to his.
In the last two years the 23-year-old east Londoner has portrayed: a Brooklyn teen struggling with his sexuality in the Sundance-wowing Beach Rats; the charismatic, druggy, hippie heir to the Getty fortune – and real life 1970s kidnap victim – John Paul Getty III in Danny Boyle’s sensational series Trust; part of the all-star ensemble in Kingsman origin story The King’s Man (set for release early next year); and a hard-nut drug dealer in powerful low-budget Brit drama County Lines (also due in 2020).
And that’s just for starters. Still, if the pace and the variety are getting to him, Dickinson isn’t showing it. When we meet in the super-swank Mandarin Oriental hotel by London’s Hyde Park, the comfortably dressed-down actor shakes his head in embarrassment when I float the idea that his in-demand status puts him handsome head and broad shoulders above his peers. He modestly maintains this fiction even as he stares down the barrel of his first proper blockbuster moment: playing Prince Philip (not that one) (we don’t think) in Disney sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.
It’s the morning after the premiere night before. At the previous evening’s European unveiling of the second outing for the Angelina Jolie-led Sleeping Beauty reboot – in which he stars alongside Elle Fanning (as Princess Aurora), Michelle Pfeiffer and Chiwetel Ejiofor – Dickinson took his family. His mum, in particular, loved it, giving the exact reaction you’d expect to seeing her lad becoming – finally! – a Disney prince: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done!” Harris says with a laugh as he impersonates her delighted response.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve done is a bit darker,” acknowledges the actor who spent half of Trust either high or in chains, and then had half his ear cut off. “And while she enjoys and appreciates it, in this film she gets to see me be nice and noble”.
You can understand Mrs Dickinson’s joy. It wasn’t that long ago that Dickinson was studying acting at the RAW Academy in Waltham Forest in northeast London, and working in a hotel bar to make money between auditions. “I didn’t get anything for four years,” he recalls with a rueful shake of the head. “But then I got Beach Rats and things just started coming my way a little faster.”
Eliza Hittman’s film, a critical rave when it was released in 2017, opened the floodgates for Dickinson. He went straight into last year’s Trust, in which he was effectively the co-lead alongside acting legend Donald Sutherland.
“It was a serious challenge because if you look at pictures of [Getty] from the time, he’s actually 16-years-old, but he looked like a young rock star of 20, like a Jim Morrison or a Robert Plant,” said Boyle at the time, adding that he also needed to cast an actor “who had that facility and the physical attributes but retained a sense of… sympathy because of all he goes through. We actually cast [Harris] first and he’s a real prospect. A great British actor who quite literally vanished into the part.”
Dickinson happily returns the compliment. “Danny Boyle is someone who I truly admire,” he enthuses of the director that he coincidentally met when he was 14, the age at which he started making what he’s described as his own “silly little short films”.
“I told him I wanted to be a performer and he was like: ‘Just keep going, man, just keep going’. Six years later, I’m on his set on my 21st birthday. He really pushed me out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to be brave.”
County Lines, which premiered at the London Film Festival this month, is the latest example of the young actor confidently jumping between forms and genres. The debut feature from Henry Blake fictionalises the powerful, eye-opening, very current story of children and teenagers being used to traffic drugs from cities to rural and smalltown Britain.
“I feel like I’m a quite rounded person, so I feel lucky to be given the opportunity to traverse between different characters. I was filming County Lines as I was finishing up Maleficent so I was having to step in and out of these very different people, which is weird.”
How difficult was it to move from the character of a drug dealer and into a squeaky-clean prince? Harris laughs. “I’d turn up on the set of Maleficent and be like: ‘Yeah bruv, what you sayin’?’, and they’d be like ‘sorry?’, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, God, sorry!’ I just got obsessed with trying to keep [each] person with me. My girlfriend was like: ‘You alright? You need to chill’.”
Even appearing in a star-studded and effects-heavy fairytale adaptation, Dickinson was intent on remaining true to his own path. He admits he was keen to do Maleficent: Mistress of Evil because of its fresh take on what a Disney prince stands for. This time, at last, a square-jawed hero isn’t the key to a happy-ever-after for a Princess. In that regard, his leading lady led from the front.
“Angelina sat me down and we spoke about the ways in which we can break boundaries with this film, ’cause it’s important for kids and adults alike to see a different guise of this and break stereotypes of masculinity.
“Storytelling is a pretty powerful medium,” he continues. “That’s why people like going to the cinema. You get the opportunity to move conversations forward and you get the chance to challenge perspectives. If kids are going to watch a film like this and see characters like Aurora’s and my own that do break boundaries within stereotypes, then great – ‘cause I think film and music are the cornerstone of formation of views.”
Equally, beyond the messaging, actually playing the part has pushed him in multiple new ways as an actor.
“It was a lot to take in,” Dickinson admits. “I was learning how to ride horses and sword fight. Then, there’s so many people on set, it’s like a festival! You turn up and there’s hundreds of people, there are cranes, there are animals are walking around. It’s worlds away from something like Beach Rats. Worlds away,” he marvels.
And is he ready for the recognition that will come with starring in a family-friendly blockbuster? Harris Dickinson, self-effacing to the last, squirms and, at first at least, dodges the question.
“It’s scary and it’s weird but I feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing,” he begins by way of reply. “There’s fucking terrible jobs, and terrible lives that people are living, and I’m just grateful I’m alive and doing what I love. If people recognise me, fine. But I don’t think they will. I’m wearing a wig in the film and it’s gone now, man. It blew off!”
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in cinemas from 18th October