War is hell. Making “Dunkirk” wasn’t hell, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. The latest from Christopher Nolan is an immersive, intense film about the aftermath of the World War II battle, which ended with 400,000 English soldiers needing to be evacuated from a beach in Northern France. They were surrounded by the German army; home was just across the Channel. Nolan tries to bottle up that anxiety, that fear, and beam it onto an IMAX screen. That required its actors to feel just a little bit what the soldiers faced 77 years ago.
For Fionn Whitehead — who plays the closest thing “Dunkirk” has to a lead: an anonymous private named Tommy who tries to escape the beach by boat — that meant doing things almost for real, with real boats and real planes and real locations. The hardest part for him was spending so much time in the water.
“We were wearing full battle gear, which was made of wool,” Whitehead recalls. On top of being weighed down by a pack, by the heavy military boots that had nails on the soles, there was the cloth itself. “Wool just soaks up the water quickly.”
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Meanwhile, Jack Lowden had to get in an old-fashioned plane. The actor plays Collins, an RAF pilot who winds up being shot down, then has to be rescued as his aircraft sinks. The tiny, thin planes were good for claustrophobia.
“What amazes you is how little protection they had. It was like sitting in a wheelbarrow with an engine and a sheet of metal wrapped around you,” Lowden tells us. And they were noisy. “I don’t know how they spoke to each other. It’s like a washing machine thousands of feet above ground.
“It’s certainly not as glamorous as it looks,” he adds.
Not that they’re complaining.
“It teaches you not to moan about anything,” Lowden says of the experience.
“It was just about getting on with it, really,” Whitehead adds. “I was more than happy to be there.”
“Dunkirk” was Whitehead’s first movie. The young English actor’s only previous credit was as the lead on the TV miniseries “HIM,” about a boy who discovers he has telekinetic powers. Lowden is more experienced, if not as much as some of the bigger names in the cast, which include Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. An acclaimed stage actor, Lowden also played Nikolai Rostov in last year’s “War and Peace” miniseries, and arrived on the “Dunkirk” set two weeks after playing young Morrissey in the film “England is Mine.”
Though Whitehead admits he was starstruck when he first arrived on set, he found what Lowden found, too: That no celebrity acted like one. They were all there to do a job — even Harry Styles, who plays one of the privates.
“There was no diva-ness, no one wanted special treatment,” Whitehead recalls. “It put everyone on a level playing field.”
That neither Whitehead nor Lowden are well-known, especially among American audiences, helps the film. It makes their characters blank slates, easier to identify with.
“You’re forced to put yourself in the shoes of these young soldiers,” Whitehead says. “The way the shots are done means you’re practically walking with them.”
You never learn anything about any of the soldiers you see — where they’re from, where they’ve been, what battles they’ve fought before.
“You shouldn’t need a backstory with these characters. The moments they’re in are so raw and real, there’s no need,” Whitehead says. “You should just be able to experience it as they did.”
While Whitehead would never say he now knows what a soldier went through (“That would be disrespectful”), he does think the film gives an idea what living through hell is like.
“It’s such an alien thing to so many people, especially in the west — to always be stressed-out, always on high-alert, always fearful for your life,” Whitehead says. “It’s something we most people don’t experience much, luckily.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge