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Actor Harris Dickinson the film role of a character named Carl

Actor Harris Dickinson the film role of a character named Carl

When Harris Dickinson was recently cast in the film role of a character named Carl, he was briefed that he was playing a car mechanic who was scouted on the street to be a male model and sent to the shows in Paris. Dickinson, a 26-year-old actor from north-east London, knows a bit about the fashion world – he’s a favourite of the designers at Dior – but less about fixing cars. “When I do a character or a project, I really want to get into the role,” he tells me. “So I was doing a lot of research around cars and being a mechanic.”

I have to interrupt: there’s nothing whatsoever in Triangle of Sadness, the new film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, about the lead character Carl being a mechanic. “Yeah, I remember getting on set and everything just got stripped about that story,” says Dickinson. “I felt like a bit of an idiot.” That he’d wasted his time? “Listen, I work in a garage on Saturdays,” he jokes, “so that’s how successful it was.”

In another scene in the script of Triangle of Sadness, Carl turns up at a casting for a fashion campaign holding a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Östlund suggested he swot up on the text in case it was useful for improvisation. “So I read it, and it’s a fucking slog,” says Dickinson, aware that we both know, with comic inevitability, where this story is heading. “It’s a lot to get through, that book, and I was looking at studies on it. Then we get in on the day and Ruben says: ‘Nah, don’t take the book in.’ And I’m like: ‘Fine, yeah, good idea!’ Clenching my jaw: ‘Fuck!’”

Östlund, whose previous film, the 2017 art-world satire The Square, also won the top award at Cannes, is known to be an exacting film-maker: he considered 120 actors for Carl before bestowing the role on Dickinson. The average takes per scene in Triangle of Sadness was 23.

Oof, sounds exhausting, I say to Dickinson. “No, never!” he counters. “I loved every minute of it. Honestly, it was hard, but I think it’s what film-making should be: it should be tough and it should be relentless. Sometimes as an actor, there’s a lot of sitting around. A lot of, you know, there’s a closeup on a hand and then you go back to your trailer. And I’ll be honest, it’s a bit boring. There are days where you feel silly. You feel: ‘What am I doing as a job? This doesn’t feel entirely fulfilling.’

“But then on a film like Ruben’s, you’re being used all the time and you’re striving to be great in every way,” he goes on. “Your energy is depleted at the end of the day, you feel shattered, but it feels worth it.”

We are having a mid-morning coffee in a cafe in Clapton, east London, not far from where Dickinson lives. He has recently broken a toe and is walking a bit stiffly, so is trying to keep it local. It’s also not far from where he grew up in Walthamstow. “I’ve probably moved two miles,” says Dickinson, who wears a Palace skateboards sweatshirt, North Face shell jacket and YSL cap with a stiff brim. “It’s that point where you move just far enough so you don’t have to bump into people in your local Tesco. Because I was bumping into teachers and schoolfriends and it’s: ‘Oh, how are you doing?’ And you have to have that obligatory chat about life. So, far enough that it doesn’t happen all the time, but close enough where you’re still somewhat close to a homely feeling.”

Dickinson, who is a gentle, solicitous sort, probably worried that he was sounding boastful, because his career has been going pretty much flawlessly for a while now. His breakthrough came in Eliza Hittman’s 2017 film, Beach Rats, a big winner at the Sundance festival, in which he played a Brooklyn teenager struggling with masculinity and his own sexuality. He backed that up with eye-catching performances in blockbusters: 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, with Angelina Jolie, and last year’s The King’s Man, alongside Ralph Fiennes. This summer, Dickinson has been in cinemas in Where the Crawdads Sing, the adaptation of Delia Owens’s bestselling novel, and the ensemble murder-mystery caper See How They Run, in which he makes an unlikely but entertaining Richard Attenborough.

It is, though, the “bonkers” – his word – Triangle of Sadness that shows best what an adept and adaptable actor Dickinson is. Östlund’s film opens with a deft skewering of the fashion industry, but quickly moves on to a luxury yacht and takes aim at a bigger target: the super-rich. Carl and his girlfriend, a social media influencer called Yaya (the South African model and actor Charlbi Dean), are the links through a morality tale that ultimately winds up with a core group of mainly billionaires stranded on a desert island, struggling for survival. Triangle of Sadness manages to be both silly and profound, scatological and thought-provoking. Or maybe Dickinson was right to call it simply bonkers.

Carl, in some ways, is the most relatable, even sympathetic, character in the piece. He doesn’t come from a world of privilege and is the closest to hinting that its excesses can be repulsive. But Östlund doesn’t spare any characters his searing contempt, and as Carl slowly unravels he is shown to be as insecure and spineless as the rest.

What made Östlund pick Dickinson out of the 120? “Probably because he saw something pathetic in me that he would be able to bring out in Carl,” says Dickinson with a smile. “Just someone who’s immoral and unstable.” Then he turns serious: “I hope to God I’m not Carl.”

On a desert island, at least, there should be a clear distinction between the character and the actor. Carl is basically hopeless, while Dickinson spent his teenage years in the Royal Marines Cadets. “On the island, I would be much better than Carl, I know I would,” says Dickinson. “I grew up camping, I grew up making fires, so there were times on set where my ego was struggling, man. I was like: ‘I’m so shit. I’m so pathetic. I’m so useless right now.’ And all I wanted to do was jump in and help in some way and I just couldn’t!”

Triangle of Sadness has clearly resonated with many: there was an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes that went on so long that Dickinson was embarrassed, unsure where to look. But there was a tragic coda to the film when, in August, it was announced that his co-star Dean had died, at the age of 32, from an unexpected illness. Hers is a wonderfully vibrant performance, and she and Dickinson were clearly very close.

“We were in it together. We were in the mud together throughout the whole thing,” he says. “So hearing that news was shocking and terrible. It took me a while to comprehend it. Everyone on the film is really broken by it, but I just feel like the performance that she gave and the body of work that is now there, representing Charlbi and for us to remember her by, is something that her family should be so proud of.”

In the aftermath of Dean’s death, there was speculation on social media that she had had a reaction to the Covid-19 vaccination. Her brother was quickly forced to clarify that she had had a lung infection that may have been complicated by the removal of her spleen after a car accident in her late teens. “There’s often a thing with the film industry that it’s untouchable, that everything’s guaranteed to just be fine and go on,” says Dickinson. “But the fragility of life is a real thing.”

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