Bale. DiCaprio. McConaughey. And now, Fionn Whitehead.
The 19-year-old Brit (whose Irish first name is pronounced “Finn”) joins elite ranks as the lead actor in a Christopher Nolan joint, headlining the acclaimed filmmaker’s upcoming ensemble war, Dunkirk.
At this point Whitehead doesn’t have clearance to say anything about his character, Tommy. But if you happened to catch the intense seven-minute tease Warner Bros. unspooled on Imax screens in front of Rogue One, you’ll recognize him as one of the two poor chaps charged with hauling a stretcher over a decimated dock as enemy warplanes whiz by overhead. (While plot details on the film are also scant, we have WWII history to tell us the film is about the 1940 rescue of Allied soldiers cornered by the German army on a French beach.)
“It’s a suspense thriller,” Whitehead told Yahoo Movies. “It takes you there and you see this world through my character’s eyes and ears. And it kind of explores what it would’ve been like to be there at that time, on sea, land, and air. It’s all about survival, and the human urge to survive.” Whitehead was in Los Angeles this week where we got to know the fresh-faced star of Nolan’s fiercely intense-looking battle film. Here’s what we learned:
Dunkirk will mark Whitehead’s movie debut. The actor, who grew up in an artistic household (his dad is jazz musician Tim Whitehead) on the southwest edge of London in Richmond, performed on stage at the National Youth Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre, and was in the process of applying to drama school when he booked the lead role in Him, a three-part U.K. miniseries about a teen with supernatural powers. The casting director for Him referred Whitehead to agent Sophie Holden, who put him in contention for Dunkirk.
Related: Christopher Nolan’s WWII Drama ‘Dunkirk’: On-the-Set Photos Posted from France
His hair almost got in the way of his dream role. Whitehead auditioned for Dunkirk over an extensive three-month period, with Nolan present at every tryout after the first. “For Him, they made me grow my hair out, and then they’d straighten it out every day because I’ve got quite curly hair when it grows out,” Whitehead explained. “And I remember turning up to do one of these auditions and I had this straight long hair, it just looked so ridiculous. And they’re like, ‘Um, Chris has asked if you could push your hair out of your face this audition.’ So they gave me a tub of wax and I’m slicking my hair out of my face in this ridiculous fashion.”
He was put through the ringer before production even started. “I was quite scrawny when I started out, so they saw that and realized that they might injure me in the whole process of shooting,” Whitehead laughed. So the upstart was dispatched to Dunkirk (where the majority of filming would be completed on location) two weeks early to work with the stunt team. Along with costars Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard, Whitehead was put through a boot camp of sorts. “I did a lot of circuit training, did a little bit of boxing, did some weapons training. Then I went to the beaches and I was swimming in full war gear, which once it got waterlogged was about 60, 80 pounds. Running up the beach with stretchers with weighted dummies on them. It was quite a lot.”
Speaking of Mr. Styles… The One Direction singer also makes his film debut in Dunkirk, and Whitehead had nothing but props for the pop star-turned-actor. “He’s a lovely guy. Really hard working. There was no preferential treatment, and he didn’t ask for any. He was just a great asset to the team, one of the crew, no differentiation.”
Related: Harry Styles Shows Off His Short Hair on the Set of ‘Dunkirk’
The grueling shoot put things in perspective for the young actors. “Physically it was quite demanding,” Whitehead said of the five-month production. “So the toughest part was just keeping the energy up. Every night, as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out… But that made it easier to step into the shoes of these people, knowing what they had to deal with and how they kept going.” Despite somber subject material, the cast tried to keep things light by riding bikes around set and playing the occasional game of rugby. They also learned quickly, though, not to pull any woe-is-me moves. “Any time any of us complained, somebody would say, ‘Well, at least you’re not actually there.’ And then everyone would feel so guilty and be like, ‘Oh yeah, sorry. I’m just going to crawl into a hole.‘”
Whitehead abstained from fanning out over Nolan. Make no mistake, the actor was over the moon to work with the director of Memento, the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. “He’s so present as a director,” Whitehead said. “He’s behind every shot and he creates this family-like vibe on set which really puts you at ease. It’s a very collaborative environment. I was quite apprehensive going in but that was gone straightaway because you’re in this safe space where you feel comfortable to try different things, and encouraged.” But he made it a point not to geek out over the filmmaker. “Nah, I kept it in,” he said. “I tried to play it cool.”
Dunkirk opens July 21. Watch the trailer: