Christopher Nolan had never tried to tackle a true story until the story of the miracle at Dunkirk obsessed him enough to make the event the subject of a feature length film. But to tell the story, he enlisted Harry Styles, who, as a pop singer, would hardly seem like a “real” actor to audiences who know him for his teeny-bopper hits with the vocal ensemble One Direction or his brief romance with Taylor Swift. But Styles auditioned for the role that he was eager to play—Alex, a young soldier who is desperate to get home after being stranded on the beaches of Western France during a siege by the German Air Force.
When it was revealed earlier this spring that Styles would star in the film, Nolan was quick to assert that Styles had not received the role because of his previous pop music stardom (which would guarantee that every fourteen-year-old girl on the planet would want to see the movie). Nolan asserted in an interview with the Independent that “for the guys on the beach, we really wanted young unknowns. He’s not that unknown, but he’d never done anything as an actor before. So he auditioned. I auditioned literally thousands of young men with different combinations of young men. And he had it.”
But whether he was cast for his previous stardom or not, pop stars, like Styles or Rihanna, who is currently starring in Valerian, turning to the silver screen isn’t a new trend. In 1956, Bill Haley, who many call the father of Rock ‘n Roll, starred in a hastily-written movie named after his hit song, “Rock Around the Clock,” that was filmed in three weeks and directed by B-movie king Sam Katzman. It was one of the top grossing movies of 1956 despite its plotless script and shoddy scenery. It was only meant to showcase Haley’s hit song. Also, in that year, Elvis Presley, at the age of twenty-one, began his movie career with Love Me Tender, for which the lyricist Ken Darby wrote the famous ballad of the same name.
Peter Guralnick, in his biography of Presley, Last Train to Memphis, writes that when Elvis came to Hollywood, he decided that any formal acting lessons would suppress his natural talent. His portrayal of Clint Reno in Love Me Tender was basically a convenient way to display Presley’s incredibly popular music; for much of the film, Elvis lip-syncs to four pre-recorded songs and radiates sexual energy towards Debra Paget, his love interest.
Young people in 1956 flocked to the theaters to see Elvis sing beautifully and act nervously on the silver screen. But when One Direction fans came to the movies, they did not see Harry Styles break into song, nor did they see him run his fingers through his newly-shorn hair with an ironically bashful smirk. In Dunkirk, he squares his jaw and gives a realistic performance as a private in the British Army who attempts to act vicious and cutthroat as he tries to flee across the English Channel. When he returns home, however, he betrays his fragility when he realizes that his survival has meant little to the British war effort.
It is a dynamic performance that has nothing to do with Styles’ talents as a musician. And unlike other musicians-turned-actors, such as Mark Wahlberg, who, after his career as a rapper and front man with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, starred in the comedy Renaissance Man, a flop that lost sixeteen million dollars at the box office, Styles took on a difficult dramatic role and succeeded. He acted with a conviction and power that caused Nolan to say in an interview that Styles “is an extraordinarily talented actor.”
Even if, like Elvis, Styles is so good-looking that he distracts some moviegoers, he should be lauded as a true actor whose first appearance may signify a long career ahead on the silver screen instead of merely a Hollywood novelty. His performance in Dunkirk suggests someone capable of delivering performances of depth and bravery. That’s rare enough among professional actors, to say nothing of pop stars.