When making Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan wanted a group of young, fresh-faced actors to play the British soldiers stranded at the Dunkirk harbor in France during the early days of World War II. He cast newcomer Fionn Whitehead, a 20-year-old who was working in a London coffee shop two years ago. Whitehead stars as Tommy, a British private.
Whitehead has just four credits to his name – Dunkirk, the TV mini-series Him, the BBC4’s Queers and another movie that hasn’t come out yet. He does not have an official Instagram or Twitter pages, but he already has fan pages dedicated to him. The actor does not have a girlfriend, or at least hasn’t been publicly seen with a girlfriend.
Here’s a look at Whitehead and how he got the role of Tommy in Dunkirk.
1. Whitehead Worked in a London Coffee Shop 2 Years Ago, Before He Auditioned for ‘Dunkirk’
Whitehead has always had dreams of becoming an actor, studying at Richmond College and attending a National Youth Theatre summer course, Screen Daily notes. When he was 13, he started acting with the Orange Tree Youth Theatre in West London.
But before he found sudden fame as the face of Nolan’s Dunkirk, he was working at a London coffee shop, “washing dishes and taking orders from angry businessmen,” he told the Los Angeles Times in April.
In that same interview, Whitehead said that there was one part of that life he enjoyed though. He liked having a quiet life, but everything changes when you star in a movie with One Direction’s Harry Styles.
“I like to think I’m fairly grounded, and I have friends who will very happily tell me if I’m ever being big-headed,” Whitehead told the LA Times. “I know things will change. But I’m hoping it’s nothing too drastic.”
2. His Parents Named Him After Irish Folk Legend Fionn mac Cumhaill
Whitehead, whose first name is pronounced “Finn,” is named after Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary Irish hunter and warrior. His first name can be translated to blond, fair, white or bright.
“He was an Irish hero in their folk tales. He was meant to have burnt his finger while cooking the salmon of knowledge, so he licked it and got very wise and slayed giants,” Whitehead told The Standard.
Whitehead’s father is Tim Whitehead, a jazz saxophonist, notes Screen Daily. He grew up in Richmond, London, where he still likes to hang out.
“There’s a restaurant I go to whenever I can called The Richmond café,” Whitehead told the Standard. “It’s a little Thai restaurant owned by a group of Thai women — I think they’re all a family and they’re just really, really nice and they make amazing massaman curry.”
3. He Made His Television & Film Debut in the ITV Mini-Series ‘HIM’
Dunkirk is only Whitehead’s second project. He made his on-camera debut in HIM, a three-episode mini-series that aired on ITV in the U.K. last year. The series was written by Paula Milne (I Dreamed Of Africa) and centers on a teenager struggling with a difficult family life while also learning about a supernatural power he inherited from his grandfather.
In his Standard interview, Whitehead said he found the title character to be similar to his own personality.
“My character in HIM is a fairly typical teenager from a broken family,” Whitehead told the Standard. “It’s a time of life that I remember well — obviously, I’m only 19 — but a lot of stuff happens when you’re that age. You have people treating you like a boy but expecting you to behave like a man. The awkwardness is a big one that I identify with. I’m still quite awkward now really.”
In his Guardian review, critic Sam Wollaston wrote that Whitehead gave a “nice performance” in the series.
“It’s a very unpredictable piece,” she said. “I think it will really be for some people, and it won’t be for others – but if you like it, I think half of the enjoyment will be that you haven’t got a clue what’s coming up next,” KAtherine Kelly, who played the mother of Whitehead’s character, told Digital Spy.
4. Whitehead & Harry Styles Became Best Friends While Making ‘Dunkirk’
Whitehead now has at least one famous friend he can always count on – One Direction singer Harry Styles. Although Styles is much more famous than Whitehead, Dunkirk marks the film debut for both of them.
In an interview with Australia’s The Project, Styles said they formed a “brotherly bond” during the making of the film. The two have also been promoting the film together in joint interviews.
“It was nice to not be the only newbie on set,” Whitehead told USA Today. “We were thrown into the same boat, really.”
Whitehead told Entertainment Weekly that he learned he got the part for Dunkirk while making HIM. He couldn’t tell the show’s cast and crew that he was about to make a movie with Nolan and Styles.
“I felt so guilty,” Whitehead told EW. “Everyone was commiserating with me. ‘Never mind, mate. You’ll get the next one, aye? Not to worry.’”
5. He Spent 2 Weeks in ‘Boot Camp’ to Prepare for Playing Tommy in ‘Dunkirk’
“One of the key things you came across, reading first-hand accounts of Dunkirk, was how young and inexperienced these soldier were,” Nolan told Entertainment Weekly. “It felt very important to me, especially for Fionn’s part, to find somebody very new.”
After he got the part, Nolan put together a “boot camp” to get Whitehead in shape because he was so scrawny. He had to wade through water in full uniform and wore weighted stretchers while running on the Dunkirk beach.
“They just blasted me for two weeks,” the actor told GQ U.K.. “My bone structure has actually opened out.”
“I did a lot of swimming in a water-sodden wool uniform, hobnail boots, and with guns,” Whitehead told Entertainment Weekly. “It was hard work, but I really enjoyed it. What’s life without a bit of a challenge?”
Whitehead’s next film is The Children Act, an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel which will star Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci. It will open in theaters before the end of 2017. He’s also signed on with UTA for U.S. representation.