British actor Fionn Whitehead, 20, is a rising star in the film industry after his big screen debut in Christopher Nolan’s newest film, “Dunkirk”, which follows the story of Tommy, a young soldier portrayed by Whitehead, throughout the evacuation of British troops from the beach in Dunkirk, France in 1940.
Fionn’s other credits include TV mini series Him and Queers, along with the film The Children Act, which he filmed shortly after “Dunkirk”. He is currently filming the movie Caravan, which will premiere in 2018.
Fionn was raised by his parents Tim and Linda Whitehead, in Richmond, United Kingdom, alongside his two sisters, Maisie and Hattie, and his younger brother, Sonny. At age 13, Fionn started acting with the Orange County Theater in London.
Fionn talked about his experience auditioning for “Dunkirk”, saying, “It was a pretty classic process to be honest…He (director Christopher Nolan) was kind of getting as many young guys as he could, but no one really knew anything about it. No one knew the script, no one knew what roles they were going for, how many roles there were, the age of the different people, so you were going in very blind.”
He sent in his audition tape but heard nothing for over a month. Fionn explains how after believing he simply hadn’t been what they were looking for, he was called back. He said he then had several more rounds of callbacks before finally booking the role.
When asked about the day he learned he had received the role, Whitehead said “it was just unbelievable really … I did a lot of shouting.” This reaction is to be expected when booking your first role in a film as the lead with a director as renowned as Christopher Nolan.
Whitehead describes renowned director Christopher Nolan’s directing style as hands on. He shares how he had heard many horror stories about uninvolved directors, and how he was quickly relieved, as Nolan was fully involved in the entire process.
“It’s completely his vision,” Fionn explains. “He was never more than, kind of, eight feet away…and it puts you at ease so much quicker…you’ll always do better work when you’re relaxed.”
Aside from working under a brilliant director, Fionn had to do quite a bit of research to prepare for the role. He explains how he researched the battle at Dunkirk on the internet, went to museums, and read a book by author Joshua Levine.
The entire cast read this book, Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, which is a collection of letters and diary entries written by the soldiers stationed at the beach, at the time of the battle. Whitehead said how this book was “kind of our Bible for the shooting process, and it also catalogs the entire period, from the invasion, right up to the end of operation dynamo.”
The movie was filmed almost entirely on the actual beaches at Dunkirk where the battle took place. The actors described how they could still see how the town was destroyed by looking at the buildings, comparing which were old and which were new.
“I think in general, just being in Dunkirk was very educational,” Fionn said. He also shared how most of the many extras were local citizens of Dunkirk, making the whole experience that much more real.
Several of the actors explained how the detail of the set, number of extras, extreme weather conditions, and lack of computer-generated imagery, CGI, all made the filming process much easier. They didn’t have to imagine much, because everything was there.
“There was a day when I walked out, and the beach was completely set dressed,” Fionn explains.
“There [were] thirteen to fifteen hundred extras dressed in soldier uniforms, spit-fires flying overhead, they have re-built the mole, there’s war ships in the background, and that was a moment where I was like wow, I did not think of this when I thought of filming a film.” He then went on to explain how “this is as close to reality as you can come really. As [close as] you can make it on a filmset.”
Fionn Whitehead is about to be overwhelmed with stardom, not because he is looking for the public’s eye, because quite frankly that isn’t what he wants at all, but merely because of his overwhelming talent as an actor. He has portrayed a character that is given no background and few lines so well that anyone watching the film can relate to Tommy and imagine himself in his position, which is ultimately what determines the good actors from the great.
Whatever his next project may be, it is clear that this is not the last we will see of rising star Fionn Whitehead