THE first time Harry Styles appears on the windswept, grey beaches of Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take.
Yes, it is the former boyband heartthrob, only this time his famous good looks have been scrubbed off him in favour of WWII grittiness.
In Dunkirk, his customary position centre-stage has been ‘cast off’ in an ensemble of heavy-hitters (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy) and promising newcomers (Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan).
That’s probably the point for Styles. In the 18 months since One Direction split, Harry has stridently moved on from the fresh-faced, teenage image of yore.
His solo album, released in May, showed a maturity that elicited a grumble of “fair play” at worst, and this weighty role is some start to a budding film career.
It’s a clear signal to those who might have considered him for, say, Pitch Perfect 3’s self-effacing British love interest, that he’s capable of so much more.
But ask him why he picked this project, and he gently insists that he wasn’t looking for a part that repositioned him.
“I’m such a massive fan of Christopher Nolan’s that when I heard about him making this film, I really wanted to get involved. I didn’t think too much about it being different from me,” the 23-year-old says, in a slight Cheshire droll.
“But it does feel the opposite to music. In music, you’re trying to put so much of yourself in it, and, with this, you’re trying to remove everything of yourself.”
We meet in a hotel the day after Dunkirk’s London premiere, and, given the positive reviews, it’s no surprise he’s in good spirits.
Cracking the odd joke, not an air or grace on him, the only sign of fame is in his attire: around these parts, not many can get away with wearing a baker boy hat and a half-buttoned shirt that exposes a low-dangling crucifix.
How was it, I ask, to go from top of his game in music to novice in the film industry?
“Really fun. Everyone who was on it was so amazing at what they do, and being around passionate people is a privilege,” he says. “You want to soak up as much as you can and use it as a learning experience.
“In terms of being out of my comfort zone, you have to do new things and not get comfortable. I mean, you can if you want, but it can get boring — not boring, sorry, music isn’t boring, that’s not what I meant — but it’s important to challenge yourself all the time.”
Indeed, that was the premise behind One Direction’s split. Rather than run the band into the ground, they left on a high (all five albums reached number one in Ireland) and ventured forward to pursue their own passions.
Zayn Malik, the first to go, is now a Vogue cover star with girlfriend, Gigi Hadid.
Liam has become a dad with Cheryl Cole, and Louis Tomlinson is pursuing both an industry and solo career, having just signed to Epic Records. Our own Niall Horan has reinvented himself as a singer songwriter, leaving Harry as the only member to venture into acting.
There’s no denying Styles’ appearance in Dunkirk helps its publicity, though he auditioned like everyone else (“I prepared a monologue from Legally Blonde.
I do a good Reese Witherspoon”) and he suggests it was the need for a rake of young actors that was more influential in landing him the part than his name.
Ask Christopher Nolan, and he insists that the casting was merit-based. “I’m well-used to dealing with famous people. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years,” he says later. “My job as a director is just to see potential. In this case, for me, Harry fit the part perfectly. I’m very excited to see what he’s done with it. I think it’s a great performance.”
Written and directed by Nolan, the passion project weaves together three gripping stories of the effort to evacuate British forces surrounded in Dunkirk, France, as the country falls to Nazi Germany.
Tom Hardy protects the skies, Mark Rylance navigates his civilian boat, and Harry is one of the 400,000 young soldiers trapped on the beaches, just 26 miles from home.
“I love the way that it’s so intimate and focuses on the human aspect of the operation,” Harry says. “When you learn about war as a child, at school, a lot is about numbers of how many people died, and, in this case, how many people got home. But this film looks at every one of those numbers as a human rather than a statistic, which is incredibly important to remember.”
Of course, it’s a lucky actor whose first film is with Christopher Nolan, a Midas-touch director who built his commercially and critically successful career on fantastical films like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception.
“On set, I was very much in awe of him,” says Harry. “He’s very much the conductor, but he knows how to play every instrument. It’s easy to trust someone like that.
“The first day I was on set, he told me that my laces were tied wrong; the British laced them a different way. He’s amazing. I think that’s why he doesn’t churn out films every year; he wants to do it justice. Especially with this being an important event, he wanted to really nail it.”
If the devil is the detail, the movie skilfully employs a number of tactics to ensure the tension is relentless. It’s filmed with a combination of IMAX and 65mm film, inviting an all-encompassing experience, and Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack only adds to the drama.
“I can’t say I’ve ever been affected by a score as much as this one,” says Harry. “It’s difficult to match the emotion of the movie with the music, but Hans has done it. It keeps you wired in. It gets you as much as the movie does.”
The viewer feels as if they were there. And seeing the choices made by all the players in the film, it begs the question of how we might act in their place.
“It’s so impossible to put yourself in that situation,” Harry says. “Everyone has an idea of what they think they might be like, and maybe what they hope they would be like, but I don’t know if you could ever have your being stripped away more than that. I think everyone was very aware of that, when we were filming.
“As much as you can’t get there emotionally without having gone through it, we were lucky that Chris was able to create the physical world around us,” he adds, referring to Nolan’s preference for real-life sets over CGI.
“Imagining being in that situation is hard enough, so not having to imagine lots of things flying around is a gift from him.”
All the signs point to a promising Hollywood career for Harry, if he wants it. But it turns out that he’s not particularly interested in one.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much, to be honest,” he says, with a shrug. “I was lucky to be involved with this one and I loved it. I’d absolutely do this one again. But, after this, I don’t know, really.”
No matter. Even if he never steps foot on a film set again, Dunkirk has proved a pivotal move in his career: it should make critics hesitant about doubting his abilities again, because he’s a man of many talents.