Harry Styles interview: Dunkirk, power and politics

Global pop icon turned jobbing actor Harry Styles talks about acting, history and the reality of living in a post-Brexit world...

With One Direction on hiatus, Harry Styles has dabbled with a little career diversification, taking on his first acting role as a soldier, Alex in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The film’s stellar cast includes five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar from his first nomination, as well as Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and hundreds more. But the enormous buzz created by Nolan enlisting Styles makes it seem like the best casting decision ever.

You walk on set the first day and get taken aback by everything

“It’s hard to know what to expect walking into an environment like that – and it was amazing,” says Styles when he sits down with The Big Issue. “The first surprising thing was the scale of the production. You walk onset the first day and get taken aback by everything.”

Wearing a black short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned to the bottom of his sternum where a silver crucifix hangs, five rings on 10 fingers, his hair defies description. Such good hair. But there was no pop star pretensions as he jumped straight in the deep end. “[Nolan] never makes you feel like you have to try too hard. He wants it to be like you’re saying stuff for the first time and doing stuff for the first time – because you are. In terms of first-day memories, we finished one shot and he said, ‘Congrats on your first close-up’. It was good.”

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The joke, then and now, is that no man in modern times has been subjected to more close-ups and scrutiny from millions of Directioners and their mothers: just 16 when he entered the pop fray, auditioning for The X Factor in 2010, today he has 15 million Facebook fans, 21.2 million on Instagram and 30.8 million Twitter followers. One Direction sold more than 20 million albums and Styles’ self-titled debut album, released in May, achieved the highest first week sales by any British male solo artist.

But, while he may be one of the most famous men in the world, Styles auditioned like everybody else. Fellow Dunkirk co-star Jack Lowden, who plays RAF pilot Collins, is full of praise for his co-star’s screen debut. “It’s admirable that the guy’s having a pop, I guess he’s today’s equivalent of a Beatle. I think he got on well.” Lowden (who plays polar opposite pop idol Morrissey in forthcoming Smiths biopic England is Mine) points out Nolan would not cast anybody who might prove a liability: “That man knows what he’s doing.”

Nolan acknowledges he made a conscious decision to employ a young, mostly inexperienced cast, to reflect the vast majority of soldiers involved in Dunkirk also being young and inexperienced. “I think it’s impossible to ever feel what everyone involved was going through,” Styles says. “It’s tough to say we know what it was like because we don’t but I think in terms of the environment you are in, it helped us get a sense of how uncomfortable it might have been.

“There was one day when we were filming, where we were swimming nearby one of the larger boats – I think that was the day there was the most amount of things going crazy. There was a boat blowing up as you were swimming, there were bullet noises everywhere, there was fire, people screaming and cameramen screaming… There was a lot going on. There was a bit where you’re like, are we filming? What just happened?”

By not revisiting a celebrated, straightforward victory, Styles thinks it provides a more important history lesson. “All of history is why we are where we are,” he says. “And I think when you can tell a part of that, a part that is often overlooked, it’s important to do that rather than focusing on the end chapter, which obviously seems much more significant. But a lot of things happened to get to those places, so I think focusing on a very important set of events in history and telling that part of the story is really important.”

There is a lot of bad stuff that happens in the world right now

While Dunkirk and the subsequent Allied victory paved the way for international co-operation that led to sustained peace, it is easy to be pessimistic about life in our post-Brexit world. Britain’s international relations are increasingly strained and there is a creeping rise in nationalism and isolationism, the kind that preceded the Second World War. The signs of the times are not good but Styles remains optimistic. “It’s easy to see it that way but I think you can focus on either side,” Styles reasons.

“There is a lot of bad stuff that happens in the world right now. If you choose to focus simply on the negative then obviously it appears much more that way. But there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things as well.”