Conducted By: Scott Bates
LGBT coming of age story Beach Rats follows Frankie, a Brooklyn teenager struggling with his sexuality in the face of a typically “masculine” society. Frankie is played by 21-year-old British actor Harris Dickinson in a star-making turn, and I talked to him about what he brought to the role from his own life, what he thinks of the expectations today’s teens have to live up to and his own take on the film’s theme.
How did you become involved with the film?
I got sent the script from New York and I was told it was a very small indie from Eliza Hittman, I looked up Eliza and watched her film and then I read the script – really enjoyed it, really loved the character’s struggle and thought it would be a challenge to portray and an interesting psychology to jump into, you know, something far away from myself, something with a lot of weight. Then I just put myself on tape for it, sent it off, we had a very good Skype chat, and then that was it.
This is a very “masculine” story, but it’s directed by a woman – do you think she brought something to the story that a male director might not have?
Maybe she brought a certain amount of sensitivity to it, that a female director inevitably brings to a story, a certain amount of accuracy in the sensitivity. She grew up in that area, she knows all about that. But I can’t really isolate one thing.
Was this your first lead role in a feature? What had you done before this?
Yeah, I’d done some shorts and I’d done some TV and I’d done some theatre.
So how did you find doing a feature?
It was hard working every day I guess! I mean, I love theatre, and I thrive off working and doing what I love, so I feel very lucky, but at the same time it was momentum and stamina I think, keeping it up, having to deliver and be in every scene was a new challenge for me, but I soon got used to it. Working so intimately with the camera was a new experience, so many of the shots are close and Eliza liked to keep it very small so it remained a very intimate set.
How did you approach a character who is struggling with his sexuality, and also his home life? Were you able to bring anything from your own life into it?
I guess what I had to do was try and tackle the notions of being a part of a very masculine friendship group, and that being very genuine but also being kind of forced, and also living up to expectations of what’s around you – what’s expected of you. Being a teenager, growing up in a very working class, very masculine, area, they are traditional expectations and then having the pressures inside you of reaching out of that. He tries to strike up a heterosexual relationship, which is “the norm” in an area like that, if anyone’s ever struggled with their sexuality and they’ve tried to be straight, which is heartbreaking, the fact that he has to try and strike up a relationship with a girl, which then becomes this very toxic, very backwards relationship because he doesn’t even know who he is, he hasn’t come to terms with who he is himself yet. So we meet him on the brink of discovery, and I think that brink of discovery is something that everybody’s experienced, be it sexuality or just personality or interests. But obviously sexuality is a lot more difficult to come to terms with, especially if you’re from a family that’s not so accepting. I can’t say I struggled with my sexuality, had any issues in my family like that – they’ve let me do what I’ve wanted to do and were very supportive and lovely to me, but things have happened in my life that have given me experiences to work with.
How were the relationships between yourself and Madeline (who plays Frankie’s girlfriend) and the guys who play your friends?
Well, Madeline who plays Simone is amazing, she’s done a lot of theatre and is an incredible actress, so me and her, we got along wonderfully, we spoke a lot about our scenes and we had an understanding. She did such a job in creating this character who serves a purpose as not just a girlfriend, she had this very beautifully nuanced character, it played such an important part in the story and was so grounded in reality – it was heartbreaking to see her get treated like that – and I think it’s really difficult to do that when you haven’t got loads of scenes to develop your character. She is amazing, and I think she’s wonderful to work with. We had a very nice relationship. The boys are also amazing, they’ve never acted before, they were cast off the street in that area. They’d never worked in any film or television production, so they were just playing versions of themselves. Yeah, they were amazing, they loved it and they really enjoyed the experience. I think only halfway through they really realised what they were doing! They really helped me too, they helped me with the authenticity of the area.
The film says a lot about toxic masculinity and expectations of young men – what was your take on these themes?
We’re in a world, nowadays, that is moving away from prejudice, racism, homophobia, sexism, we’re moving away from that and becoming more open-minded and accepting. But there is still, there is still still still corners of society that aren’t open to things like that and are racist and homophobic and sexist and xenophobic, and hate crimes are still going on, you know, in the film we portray that, so it’s evidence of people’s mindsets still being very rigid, and masculinity kind of serving, playing a big part in that rigidness. The expectations set by, whoever it is, society, by figures, by major figures, whoever it is who tells us “to be a man means to be like this”, they can be very toxic and they can be toxic outside that environment as it means that people are scared to go beyond that and question and challenge that. Especially when that’s inside your own family, say when you’re sitting round your dinner table with your uncle, your dad, your brother and they’re what a man “should” be, and you’re kind of struggling with your sexuality it’s extremely difficult. I think the film covers it in a very important way and a very poetic way.
Would you want to write and direct yourself?
Yeah, I have done! Yeah, I’ve written a couple of short films and I used to make them – I got a government grant when I was sixteen, and I wrote and directed a short film called Who Cares?, about a young carer, and it went to a couple of film festivals. It was a very low-budget film, but I was determined to do that and am still, to continue doing that. I just haven’t had a lot of time lately, but I’m still young, still learning, still growing.