There are two notable archetypes that flourish in disaster films and war epics: the Leonardo DiCaprios, and the Billy Zanes. The former are willing to put their life on the line to save the many; the latter would happily sacrifice a moral compass for survival. Heroics are for fools.
Chrisopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has no shortage of Dicaprios–it’s the sort of rousing, patriotic drama that will no doubt be screened in history classes for decades to come–but only one Billy: British private Alex, a “good” guy who is in fact a bad egg. Alex’s resolve to make it back to the cliffs of Dover takes on a dark and dangerously desperate intensity. When the stakes rise, his benign arrogance turns violent and xenophobic. He lashes out at the braver souls who have saved his skin.
“Survival’s not fair,“ he snarls, waving a gun in his fellow soldier’s face. "This is the price.”
We’ve seen this type before; the twist is that, here, he’s played by Harry Styles–the same Harry Styles whose boy band roots and reigning heartthrob status would have, presumably, earmarked him for the heroic, and oftentimes tragic, dreamboat parts that send young fans sobbing into their pillows. The Sal Mineos. The River Phoenixes. The Leonardos.
That the singer chose instead to make his acting debut as a villain for whom even the most devout 1Der would struggle to root–and that he did so in a Christopher Nolan film–defies expectations. He hasn’t just won over film critics with his capable acting chops; he’s demonstrated that he’d rather carve out a more unconventional career path than his pin-up pedigree might suggest.
In Nolan, Styles has found the perfect filmmaker to hitch his proverbial wagon. Though Nolan has said he wasn’t aware at the young star’s level of fame, he’s a dab hand at helping former teen stars slough off their squeaky-clean selves. Inception and The Dark Knight Rises took Joseph Gordon-Levitt from geeky guy next door to action hero with leading man potential. Inception also saw a post-Juno Ellen Page play a confident intellectual who didn’t speak in soundbites. And who else could envision earnest Princess Diaries alum Anne Hathaway as Catwoman?
But it was Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight that established a new benchmark for how the YA crowd could reinvent themselves without alienating audiences. Prior to taking on the role, Ledger was best known for teen comedies (10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight’s Tale) that demanded little more than a cheeky wink and the right hair styling product. With The Joker, the late actor–who had his own Leonardo moment with the 2000 Revolutionary War epic The Patriot–was able to channel the sinister underbelly of that charm. He was wicked and witty, repulsive yet riveting. He was iconic.
Nolan has acknowledged that it’s no accident that, as with Ledger, he avoided pigeonholing Styles on the big screen.
“Ever since I cast Heath Ledger as The Joker and raised all kinds of eyebrows, I’ve recognized that this is my responsibility and I really have to spot the potential in somebody who hasn’t done a particular thing before,” Nolan told Business Insider. “Because whether you’re talking about Harry Styles or Mark Rylance you don’t really want to cast them in a position where they are doing something they’ve already done. You want to give the audience something different. So you’re looking at their talent and how that can be used.”
In terms of meaty, serious roles, Styles couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious entry to Hollywood. The star has been coy when asked about his future acting ambitions, but his Nolan connection might hold yet another clue as to where he’s set his sights. The same director famously once pursued another British crooner with an elaborate, androgynous style for a past film: David Bowie in 2006’s The Prestige. The role, as famed inventor Nikola Tesla, was small, but significant–yet another standout, performance for the music icon’s eclectic but intermittent crossover into film.
Bowie’s influence has already been imprinted on Styles’ fashion sense–the purple satin suits, the heels–and his burgeoning solo career. If the 23-year-old is looking to emulate his IMDB profile as well, he’s chosen wisely–even if that means playing an asshole.