Fionn Whitehead, 19, acted on stage and in a miniseries before Christopher Nolan selected him for the lead role in Dunkirk. He spoke to Senior Editor Paraag Shukla of World War II magazine about the film, which opens in theaters on July 21, 2017.
How did you first become involved with this project?
My agent got me an audition. They had an extensive process, and I was luckily enough to make it. They were casting far and wide in the UK, because it is integrally a “very British” story, and they wanted to do it justice by getting British and Irish actors.
Christopher Nolan actually told me that very thing—the studio did not try and force him to cast Americans.
[Laughs] I really do feel ridiculously fortunate, to be honest! I really landed on my feet with this one. For the audition process, we went in blind—we didn’t know about the script or the people involved. We just heard that Christopher Nolan was doing a film about Dunkirk—what a match made in heaven that is—and everyone jumped in.
Chris Nolan told me that for British people, the story of Dunkirk is a massive part of the culture. How familiar were you with this particular story prior to coming aboard?
It’s impossible not to be familiar with it when you grow up in Britain or Ireland. It’s part of our culture, our history, and it’s such an incredible story. There is a lot of interest about the time and the topic.
What kind of research did you do for your character and the story?
We did a lot of research about people from the time. So, we read history by Joshua Levine—firsthand accounts from soldiers to get the ground perspective of how it was to be at Dunkirk. A lot of the characterization of it is based in human nature, because it is about humans reacting to a time of crisis.
When you look at the screenplay, which is only 76 pages, there’s not much dialogue. How detailed were the action descriptions? Or did you primarily rely on Chris’ directions?
Chris had a lot of control over the entire project. He really did create these worlds around us, and it was our job as actors to react. As simple as that sounds, there wasn’t a whole lot of imagination needed to act in this film. Chris is also a really respectful guy. Everyone on the cast and crew is there because they want to be there; they respect him. We could all be at ease with each other.
And to speak of the opposite of being at ease, what was it like to film with Chris’ preferences for practical effects over CGI?
It was completely insane! The pure scale of his sets is amazing, even to just look at. There were 1,300 extras on the beach, Spitfires flying overhead, warships at sea—they even rebuilt the mole right out into the ocean. It was such an incredible, strange experience for me. Chris really wanted to do the story justice, and he really did that.
Details do matter, and even though your character is fictional, he represents the thousands of young soldiers on that beach. Did you do military and weapons training?
Yeah! I did two weeks of training in Dunkirk. I did a lot of physical training to get in shape to withstand the role. I think they recognized I was very scrawny. I trained a lot with the stunt team, and a lot of them were military or ex-military—they really put me through my paces. It was a really interesting thing to do, because you’re surrounded by people telling you to swim or run, so there’s no reason not to get in shape, which I really needed…and actually enjoyed! Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard jumped on board the second week, as they were busy beforehand.
On the subject of details, Chris Nolan really got to know everything he could about this topic.
Oh, Chris is a stickler for detail. It’s one of the things I respect most about him. In the film, we’re wearing military boots, and they had been laced the wrong way, in a way that wasn’t how the British would’ve laced them at the time. And Chris noticed it! I have no idea how he spotted it, but he did! And they re-laced them all. He is incredibly detailed in his approach. The film is completely his vision, and he really wants to do it justice. I can totally understand and respect that.
What surprised you the most about the history and the experience of making this film?
The way humans are so resourceful when we need to be. The human urge to survive can be such a strong thing, which is evident when you read accounts from Dunkirk. People did all kinds of crazy things to stay alive. It really is an incredible story.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
First and foremost, this film is a hell of an experience. It’s not something you can take very lightly when you’re watching it. I really hope people will enjoy it.
We often talk about heavy subject matter, so we’d like to end on a lighter note with a creative question. If it was 1940 and you had to join a military branch, which would you choose?
I have a feeling the choice would’ve been taken out of my hands. It’s a thankless task. If I had to choose, I’d probably end up being one of the ground boys, like my character. It’s a tough question to answer! ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.
Dunkirk opens in theaters on July 21, 2017.
Check out our other Film Recon interviews for Dunkirk: