My Policeman director Michael Grandage never would have known Harry Styles had done so few films — one to be exact, 2017’s Dunkirk — after observing how well the pop star played Tom Burgess from acting drunk to intimate lovemaking in the film, which had its world premiere Sunday night (Sept. 11) at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
“No time did I ever feel I was working with any newcomer or beginner or novice,” Grandage tells Billboard. “He’s somebody who is adept at going out in front of thousands of people a night, and he knows that that isn’t just about walking out and going up to a microphone; it’s about walking out and performing. All that happens when you take on a role like Tom Burgess. You just have to take all of those skills of trying to play to an audience and bring it into a very different arena. But he’s got all the skills, Harry.”
“Innocence combined with a curiosity” is how Tom is described at one point during the film which could well apply to Styles in his commitment to performing the role. Styles plays a closeted gay policeman in a secret affair with Patrick, a museum curator (David Dawson), but courting and eventually marrying Marion (Emma Corrin) in 1950s England when gay sex was a crime.
The Ron Nyswaner screenplay is adapted from Bethan Roberts’ 2012 book, which took its inspiration from the real-life 40-year affair between author E.M. Forster and policeman Bob Buckingham. The film, which won a Tribute Actor Award for ensemble at TIFF, is a beautifully shot, subtle and sad story about love, regret and freedom. It opens in theaters Oct. 21, then globally on Amazon’s Prime Video Nov. 4.
Grandage spoke to Billboard about working with Styles, who gets back to completing his 15-date residency at Madison Square Garden tomorrow (Sept. 14), then continues the tour with multiple dates in other cities. The director has not yet seen a show, but hopes to catch Styles on the next European leg.
How is Harry at taking direction?
Very easy at taking direction. In fact, very open and asks for it a lot. He takes great care in checking I’m happy. The way most directors work is you tend only to give notes if something is not working — but Harry loves the dialogue, just to check everything is going okay. And, as soon as he realizes, and he did quite quickly, that part of the way of taking direction is to wait for a dialogue about shifting something, then he’s completely open to that as well.
There’s a scene where his character is drunk, which is not easy to do without looking fake. How were you able to get that out of him, a natural drunk?
That’s a very tricky question to answer. I never gave him a single note on how to be drunk or what to do because he seemed to effortlessly understand what was required in the scene and just delivered it. I can certainly confirm he was 100% sober when doing it. [Laughs.] He obviously knew what it was like for Tom to be drunk at that moment, and the fact that he relied on drinks so heavily to get through quite a lot of the part of the early part of his life. We never discussed it.
I do remember a couple of the people on the camera team whispering for the first take of that scene, “He does drunk really well.” Best thing to do when somebody does something well is not to talk about it, because then they probably end up doing it badly because they become self-conscious. All I would say is he does drunk acting very well.
Harry read the script and agreed to do the film, but were you concerned at all about how he might feel doing the sex scenes?
No, because remember — he’s an actor, and actors are required to do what is in the script. But it’s just worth saying that all the stuff surrounding all of the intimacy in the film was done on the basis of a very strong level of trust. I told all the actors that I would never ever put anything in the final edit that they haven’t seen and approved of.
We had, obviously, an intimacy coordinator working with us, who was a very wonderful facilitator about making sure that the language we were using was very much what I wanted to use in the film — which is a choreographic language, almost sculptural, the way the hands and flesh all interacted. There was a vision for the sculptural nature of that right from the beginning, because it isn’t just about intimacy; it’s about the way you portray hands, generally, throughout the film.
There’s a brief scene where he’s singing in the film. Was that in the original novel or did you write it in because Tom is played by Harry?
That existed before Harry was cast. It was written in the script originally that three of them go out on the town for the night in London and start singing at the end of it. So that was just the fact that Tom Burgess sings in the thing, and we happened to end up casting somebody who does sing. If anything, he probably had to sing like Tom Burgess rather than like Harry Styles.
At the world premiere Sunday night there were a couple of instances where the audience laughed, and they probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t Harry in the role — such as when Tom says, “I’ve never been asked to model before.” Did you expect that?
I was at the Tribute Awards [instead], and I wish I wasn’t now, because it sounds like it was amazing opportunity to see how audiences do react. And yes, I guess, thinking about the model [line] — that must have been because of who was playing it, I suppose.
The only thing I will say is that there comes a point in the film where you have to start investing in the character over the actor, and that point has to occur in any film, no matter how famous the actor is playing. That moment is quite early on in the film, that’s when he is being drawn by [Patrick]. I have to tell you one thing: I never knew that there were any laughs in the film, because it’s not that kind of film. I’m delighted to hear that people found certain bits funny.
Lots of Harry fans in the audience are seeing an important film they might not see if not for him. They will learn about a time in history when gay marriage wasn’t legal, and you could be arrested (and worse) for being gay. Is that your hope, that they get a history lesson?
That’s possibly the single most important and positive thing that might come out of this entire endeavor, is that a massive fan base of both Harry and Emma — who are young — are going to be exposed to a story that shows something that they may not know. I’m not going to suggest for the second that a lot of them will know a bit about political gay history of the past, but a fair amount of them, it’s worth assuming, probably don’t know anything about what it was like in 1957 England.
And I have great confidence in that generation of people. I think they are some of the most forward-thinking people that have ever been living, frankly. They’re very, very open. They’re very, very accepting. And they’re the first seriously unprejudiced generation I’ve been aware of. And if that amount of people with that amount of belief system see that this is the place we could return to then, for me, they may be part of a debate that makes sure that doesn’t happen. And for that reason alone, My Policeman becomes a very significant part of the story.