When he was cast as the lead in Christopher Nolan’s behemoth war flick Dunkirk, 20-year-old Fionn Whitehead hadn’t spent much time as a struggling actor—but his resumé suggested otherwise. “I was a barista and a childminder,” he says, “and a boat driver on the River Thames in London.” The theater-kid son of a jazz musician, Whitehead left high school at 17 with the intention of attending drama school—to no avail. “I applied to loads of different schools, really kind of desperate to get in,” he says. “I was told to reapply but didn’t have enough money.”
But Whitehead wasted little time paying his dues in odd jobs, searching casting calls online. “I was just logging on at work whenever I had free time [to send] my crappy, homemade CV with a really grainy photo taken on my laptop,” he says, “and getting no response.” But onward he slogged. “Once I left college … I kind of knew that I wanted to do it. It’s kind of hard to describe. But it’s just an urge or a compulsion. So I just pursued it on my own; quite viciously, I suppose.” Then, a monumental break: after appearing in the UK miniseries Him, he scored an agent who arranged his Dunkirk audition. “It was a series of very lucky events in a strangely small space of time,” says Whitehead, who beat out thousands for the top-billed role of Tommy.
For the five-month shoot, Whitehead immersed himself in Nolan’s sweeping set. “There was very little postproduction, so a lot of it was real and rigged to look as real as possible on camera and in the moment,” he says. “To be on the beach with real spitfires overhead and 1,300 extras dressed as soldiers… It was really incredible.”
Like the effects, there was nothing fake about the bond that developed onset between his band of brothers, which included Harry Styles and Barry Keoghan: “We were the middle of nowhere so you kind of have to let people in, otherwise you’ll go insane.” But unlike most 20-year-olds, Whitehead abstains from social media. “I think that my absence on [it] is just a reflection of my own slightly awkward shyness,” he says. “I’ve always been kind of a private guy and it would be nice to keep it that way.”
Main image credit: Rokas Darulis