I came out of the cinema emotionally exhausted from watching Sam Mendes' latest award-winning film 1917 - in the best of ways. My heart was twisted and turned, water ran from my eyes and I felt like I was in the middle of a war I didn't want to be part of. But what a powerful experience! In addition to a beautiful script and very clever cinematography, one of the reasons I loved this film was Dean-Charles Chapman. You may recognise him from his role in The King, as Tommen in Game of Thrones or even from the stage as Billy Elliot (cute YouTube video alert), but with his performance in 1917, Dean really steps into the elite of young British actors.
Imagine getting the role of a lifetime. A role that makes you look at life differently. If you immerse yourself completely in an emotionally challenging role that makes you feel like you have become this person, that you are there - as much as the audience feels they are there - what marks would it leave on you? As we settle into the comfortable seats in an old-fashioned, velvet-stroked bar in Shoreditch, I'm dying to talk to Dean about this movie and learn more about him. Extremely down to earth, he gives me a real insight into his experience and how it impacted him.
We talk about growing up, being in the moment, how he bonded with his co-star George Mackay (something about eggs) and when he last cried. Some experiences paint your soul in lasting colour and 1917 was such an experience for Dean. This film is a powerful one and there are many reasons it is well-deserving of its 7 wins at the BAFTAs last night in categories such as Best Film, Director and Cinematography, 2 Golden Globes and 10 Oscar nominations.
Cinema has the power to change you. And from our conversation, I learn that it is not just the audience that is impacted by the story told, but those that deliver the story to us can be equally changed by the experience. And that, I thought, is a beautiful thing.
THE BELOW INTERVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!
How did you enjoy the shoot?
It feels like meditation because it's really laid-back, especially this kind of shoot in this type of surrounding. It just flowed. I really enjoyed it.
I'm excited you're here, as you're very much the man of the hour. Your latest film 1917, just received 10 Oscar nominations. How does that feel?
Honestly, it's the best feeling ever. I don't think it will actually sink in until we are at the Oscars. I had a similar feeling with the Golden Globes - we had all these lovely nominations, but it didn't actually sink in until we were there watching the show. It will be a dream come true.
I’m quite fresh from watching the film, so it is still very vivid in my head. It was quite a hard watch, as it was so realistic. War is never nice. I was emotionally exhausted after watching it. How was it for you?
It really was, I've never done a film like this. Every single inch of me was involved and stretched to my absolute limits, whether it was physical or emotional. Especially the nature of the way we filmed it with one continuous shot. It takes a lot out of you. Scenes would last on average about five minutes, and the longest one was almost nine minutes long. As an actor, you're not just doing it one time, you're doing it repeatedly. It was very exhausting, but at the same time, it's the most enjoyable experience I've ever had on a film set. I loved every minute of it! I love the material, I love the character and Sam Mendes, the director, is just amazing.
You co-starred as corporal Tom Blake, one of two World War I soldiers sent on a life-or-death mission. You hear that mission and you think ‘they’ll never make it!’. General Erinmore sends two young men on a mission that seems impossible - surely he knows chances are very slim that they will even make it - yet he trusts them to save the lives of 1600 men? That’s a lot of pressure for these two young soldiers!
It's weird because I remember the first time reading it, I didn't know what to expect. They didn't send me the full script; they only sent me one scene. It was about five pages long, so I didn't quite know where the story was going. I didn't get to read the script until the third audition, and then the first page of the script said it had been configured to be filmed in one continuous shot. And I was like: 'what the hell, that's mental'. You literally don't know if these men are going to make it or not. I'm holding the script and I'm on the fifth page thinking: 'are these men going to be alive or what?'. I've never read a script before where I've been so on the edge of my seat. There were times when I cried reading the script. I've never had that before.
Which part made you cry? *Spoilers below*
The ending, obviously there's a bit of a twist there and Blake's death scene, which was so beautifully written.
Ah, that's the part I cried too and I really want to talk to you about that scene. This was actually my favourite scene in the whole movie, I found it incredibly powerful! When Blake realises he is actually about to die, there is this full journey of thinking he’ll be okay, to ‘this is it’ and 'how do you spend those last seconds?'. Your performance here was simply incredible and so moving. How was that scene for you?
Aw, thanks! That scene was the longest we did as well, it was a nine-minute scene. It's the most beautifully written scene I've ever read. Just the words that Blake says in his dying moments is so heartbreaking because he's so young. But that's the reality of war. Even nowadays, you know, you've got young men dying for nothing. It's terrible.
I've just got so much respect for you because you have these subtle ways of acting that make for incredible storytelling and high impact. I can imagine everyone in the audience was thinking: 'what would I say in my final moments?'.
Thank you. Yeah, it was really hard to film that scene. We rehearsed for six months before we started filming, so the whole film is literally a choreographed dance between the camera and the actors. But the death scene of Blake was the one thing that we didn't rehearse.
Yeah, it was just me, Sam, the director, and George Mackay in a little rehearsal room and we literally just half-heartedly did the blocking and read the scene as it would be. And then Sam said: 'I don't want to touch it anymore. We're going to save that performance until the day. We don't want it to become robotic, and we want the emotions to feel warm on the day'. So we just left it. I remember turning up feeling quite nervous for that day of filming. The first time we did it and then they called cut, I couldn't stop crying. It's so weird as an actor to do these one-shot takes because you become so immersed in it.
As mentioned, we had rehearsed most scenes for six months. We knew the dialogue, we knew the steps like the back of our hands. So there was a point of just letting yourself go, be free and simply get lost in the scene. I genuinely thought I was dying. And after filming, it was weird for me, because every day for six months of rehearsals I was Blake trying to get to my brother, but then that suddenly stopped, and I was sat at home a bit incomplete. It sort of messed with my head a little bit. I actually felt like a part of me had died. I've never had that before. It wasn't until the first time we saw a rough cut of it that I was reminded of the fact that we were making a film. Obviously, I knew we were making a film, but I just got lost in the doing of it. The film is so immersive, even as an audience you feel like you're there - but when you're the one doing it, it's even more immersive. It was a really powerful experience.
I can totally understand, I had to take breaks and just close my eyes for a few seconds at the cinema to get a moment to relax. I can imagine where you would have been. How do you deal with that as an actor when you are done filming and back home?
I've played other characters before that have impacted me, but not quite like this one. I played Tommen Baratheon in Game of Thrones for three or four seasons. And that character was so weak. After a day of filming, I'd go back to my hotel and feel a bit pathetic. I enjoyed playing the character, but afterwards, I didn't feel that happy with myself and what I had done. Questioning if I had done it well enough. I was so wrapped up in the emotions of Tommen and how weak and pathetic he felt, but I realise now that I was judging me as the character. That's my job, to make my character live. So, I have definitely had it before but this was different. This was about death and on a darker level.
In 1917, your character Blake is a very warm character, so quite different from other roles you've played who have been perhaps less likeable characters. Like Thomas in The King.
Yeah, he was a jerk. Blake is definitely warm, one hundred per cent.
You've played so many strong roles already - at only 22 - and you're getting really good at dying.
Oh, thanks, haha! Yeah, in The King I died and obviously I died in Game of Thrones. Blake was a good death scene, yeah.
That is one of my favourite acting moments I've seen in a really long time. It was such a strong experience watching it.
Thank you so much. Bloody hell, wow. It was weird, I knew my lines and sort of had a good idea of how I was going to do it, but a lot of that scene was about living in the moment. Just reacting and being in that situation, because rather than planning everything, you just got to live it. That was a lot of what 1917 was, to just live and react to the situations. I think that is why the film comes across so real and has this ability to really draw people in.
There are so many war movies, but because it was filmed with this viewpoint as if you're almost there - which you achieved with the continuous shot - it makes it so much more realistic. Working with the continuous shot approach, how does it impact you as an actor? Does it make it easier or harder?
I guess in a way it makes it harder because you've got more things to think about. On a normal film set, you rehearse less and just step on the set. The first week of rehearsals we were walking in an open field. Sam, George and I - walking and talking through the scene. We'd walk and talk the scenes, stab stakes in the floor to mark out. There's the wall, there's the hole, there's the bomb crater that makes the characters slow down. And then see the speed that George and I would do it at to see if we needed more trench, less trench. It was all built around the scenes that we were creating. Rather than a normal film set, where you literally turn up on set to an already set up camera and an already lit up set, where you step into your spot that's already been lined up and you do the performance. Then they cut and you get around a 15-20 minute break while they turn the cameras and turn the lighting, which means you do have those moments to come out of character. For 1917, it was one set-up, one shot and we were using natural lighting. It was "go go go" every second of the day, so I guess in a way it was harder because you obviously had a lot more to think about. You were thinking about the distance between the camera, speed of the movements, the dialogue. You're thinking of everything in the scene, but also at the same time, it's easier because it allows you to become lost in the story. And the six months of rehearsals helped jam in all the stuff that we needed to remember.
I read that when filming you'd do 20 rehearsals in the morning and often 30-40 continuous takes on the day. I know with the long rehearsal times and the continuous approach used to film, you really felt like you were actually in the war and you never really stepped out of character. I understand that you found it quite hard to wrap your head around this after filming. Talk to me more about how you deal with this intense experience emotionally?
To be honest, we just got on with it. We didn't really have much time. When they'd cut, you would walk all the way back to the start position, which sometimes could be half a mile. By the time we got back to the start, we'd go again. We were fully immersed continuously. To be honest, that wasn't a bad thing. You just get on with it.
Now that you're done filming and you're not in that world anymore, has it left any emotional marks on you or changed you in any way?
Hundred per cent. I feel like I look at life completely different from how I used to look at it. I'm much more appreciative of the smaller things in life. Even just this glass of water. Those men would not have anything that clean, anything that pure, anything that tasteful. They were smothered in dirt and freezing cold. It was raining every two minutes. They were in the most uncomfortable situation you could ever put yourself in as a human being, but yet, they just got on with it. So, now I see things differently. Like, when we were outside earlier shooting and it was a bit cold, I thought, 'this is nothing'. There are people out there who haven't even got a coat and they are genuinely frozen.
Thank you, Sam Mendes, for making me a better person.
We talked about crying earlier. You mentioned that you cried when reading the script and whilst filming. Are you an emotional person?
Yeah, definitely. I can't remember the last time that I actually cried though. I think as an actor you have to be tuned into your emotions. I do try to keep myself strong when I have to be.
Masculinity is evolving. How you feel about mixing the British lad culture with being an actor that's comfortable with your emotions?
I just am who I am. I grew up in Romford, Essex, which is where I get my cockney accent from. You're right, times are changing. People have moved on a lot. I reckon in about 20 years time, all this toxic masculinity won't be as big of an issue as it is now. The new generation is listening to my generation. It's evolving over time.
Are you comfortable talking to your friends about your emotions?
I do talk about emotions and I definitely have a lot of real conversations with my mates.
We need to talk about your co-star, George MacKay. I heard that to bond together, you guys went to Belgium and cooked eggs. I don't know if both happened at the same time.
Yeah, that's right! I think we did cook eggs in Belgium, actually. The first time I met George was during the third audition. I had heard of George and had actor mates who had worked with him before. When we got the part, the production team sorted out a trip to France for a couple of days to look at the war graves and museums, and during those couple of days, we definitely bonded and got to know each other as people and how we looked at life. And then, a few weeks later, George had the idea for us to do our own trip to Belgium. He picked me up in his car and we drove to Belgium. But we didn't check the times and dates that the museums were open. So, we drove all the way there and it seemed really quiet. As I got out of the car, I said: 'it would be funny if this was closed'. I walked up and it was closed.
I know, I can't believe it! But, it was alright, there were other things open. And then, yeah, we cooked some poached eggs where we stayed. So yeah, it was good.
In general, throughout filming, we bonded through rehearsals and literally spending every single day with each other and going through stuff together that was new. I had never held a gun before or fired a weapon. Even just putting all the gear on and stuff like that. I love George, have you ever met him?
No, I haven't met him yet.
I can honestly say, he's the nicest person that I have ever met. He would do anything for anybody. It doesn't matter what you do or who you are - he would go out of his way for anybody. And as an actor, he is just so helpful and so amazing. I mean, you've seen the film. He is incredible in the film. He is just the best. One of the best actors I've seen.
I mean, his performance in the film is just so beautiful, so subtle and just so real. I thought that it's very rare that an actor can do it that well.
Yes, I thought his performance was stunning as well.
Really strong. George is the best.
I'm curious to learn more about you. How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as indecisive, laid-back and just a normal guy. Just chill. Yeah, chill, calm and indecisive. And happy.
That was my next question. Are you happy?
Yeah, I couldn't be happier. It's good, it feels like a weird time as well for me. I'm 22, and my mates and I are all grown up. My mate is only 23 and he's just got engaged! My other mate got a place for the first time. It's weird to see where we are at now; how our paths are different but we're all still close. I wonder what's next in the future. It's a weird age.
If you look back at yourself and compare the Dean you are now to a five years younger Dean, how have you changed?
I'm just a lot more aware of what's going on around me, in the world, in my family and in my work. And I think that I'm a lot more appreciative. I realise that I've been very lucky to be working all the time. The industry is very difficult, but it was something that didn't cross my mind at the time. I'm much more appreciative now of what I do and how lucky I am. Because a lot of it is luck. Of course, you have to be good at what you do, but you're definitely lucky.
It seems that you learned to have even more empathy. What are the things you are truly passionate about - those moments you live for?
Honestly, and I know this is pretty obvious, but it is genuinely that moment when I read a script and connect with it, or I'm just obsessed with the story, the character, a plot twist - whatever it is. Something that makes me excited and wanting to do the job. That's the best feeling. And then when you get the opportunity to do the job that you really want to do. Like 1917 for me was the dream job. I always wanted to work with Sam Mendes. The writing is the best writing I've ever read.
And that's what I want to do in life, work on stuff I really want to work on, and to work with people I really want to work with. When those two things align, it's brilliant. And when people receive the film well, it just couldn't get more perfect.
I want to talk about social media because it has created so much change for your generation. Everything is turning so bite-size in terms of information flow. We take less time to really sit down and be in one moment. Our focus is getting shorter. How do you think this is impacting us as human beings?
It's a weird one, isn't it? I wonder how we're going to be in 20-40 years time, and what impact that will have, especially on the younger generation. With social media, you only see what you're seeing. It's that sort of tunnel vision of not looking at the outside picture because it's all on that phone. And what you're seeing and reading is what you're taking for a fact. It's an amazing tool, and who would have thought we'd have this opportunity to click on an app, touch our phone and read all the news in one sitting. The opportunities are amazing, but at the same time, it can be a downfall. I think people sometimes spend too long on their phone. I mean, I'm a sucker for it. Sit down, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and you look up two hours later and you've wasted a day. Or you go to a concert where you have this beautiful view but everyone's got their phones out. Which is lovely and you can look back on it, but do you really look back on it? It's about the memory, not the picture. And I think that is what's sort of at stake: our memories. Our life is about experiencing stuff, and I think if you've got your head in your phone too much then you're not truly experiencing it.
How do you think we can best navigate that playground?
You just got to look up once in a while. I actually deleted Instagram and Twitter off my phone a few months ago, just for two or three weeks. It definitely helped me put my phone down more. You check your phone as a habit, don't you? So, yeah, you just got to be in the now and live.
That's beautiful advice. I feel like this is a really interesting time to talk to you in your career, as UK audiences have known you for years through your role in Game of Thrones, as Billy Elliot on stage and as Timothée Chalamet’s brother in The King. Now, with this film and all these nominations, people will know you on a global scale. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, it's quite cool. As an actor, your job is on that set and you just do your job, and when the cameras stop filming, that's it. The rest is out of your control. Whether the film gets responded to well, whether people hate it or love it, there's nothing else you can do.
How does it make you feel when you get positive feedback on a performance?
It's nice because a lot of people can say, whether they mean it or not, that they loved your film, but sometimes you think, did you? But with 1917, everyone's reaction has felt so genuine. You can see that they're actually affected by it in some way. They experienced a feeling, and whether it was good or bad, at least they're speaking from their heart. And coming back to social media, I don't think people talk using their own opinion a lot of the time. If one headline is trending on Twitter, everybody seems to have the same thing to say about it. Back to 1917, with the response from the film, the compliments have definitely felt very genuine and every single one of them warmed my heart because it does mean a lot.
I think our readers would love to know what it was like to work with Timothée Chalamet in The King?
Yeah, Timothee is cool! I was really interested to see what it was like to work with Timothée because he has done so well. Everybody loves him. He's a very good actor. I mean, his performance in The King is so good, because it's so downplayed and everything is so minimal. And then there are points in the film where he really goes up there and that's why it's so effective. But yeah, he's great. Just like a normal kid, you know, really nice, welcoming and cool. A very, very talented actor.
I also want to talk about your upcoming film project Here Are The Young Men, because you're co-starring with Finn Cole. I was so excited when I saw this, as I worked with Finn previously for Boys by Girls. Tell me a bit about the film.
Here Are The Young Men is based on a book called Here Are The Young Men.
Amazing. I like what they did there.
It's set in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003 and is about a group of friends: Matthew, Rez, Kearney and Jen. We had some brilliant actors including Anya Taylor-Joy, Finn Cole and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. It was quite intense because that was actually my first lead role in a film, and the schedule was so tight. We were doing like six scenes a day because it was an independent film with a lower budget, so we really had to finish the scenes by the end of the day. The themes were pretty dark; like these young kids graduate from school and they spiral down this black hole full of drugs and violence - all the bad stuff. Basically, you wouldn't want your kids growing up around what these kids were growing up in. Finn plays a psychopath, so that's pretty cool. He does a very good job with it. His character is so messed up, but I couldn't help but laugh during the filming of it because Finn is just so good.
Pairing the two of you to play against each other seems like a little bit of a match made in heaven - a stroke of genius, one might say. I feel like your acting styles really match, you both have this great ability to very subtly create a great impact. Finn is great at this.
He downplays a lot of it.
But it's so effective, and you have the same ability. What was it like to work with him?
Amazing. I mean, I just love these characters so much. Obviously, I love my character, but Finn's character was amazing. He's just a complete nutcase and Finn does it so well. Like so scary, weird and disgusting.
That's a great teaser. I literally can't wait to watch it!
Yeah, it's really good to watch. But yeah, working with him was brilliant and a lot of my scenes were mainly with Finn. Getting to know him and working with him when our characters kind of hate each other was quite cool. He is a great actor.
And a very lovely guy.
Yeah, he is.
What moment in your acting career has taught you the most about yourself and what was it?
It was probably when I played Billy Elliot in Billy Elliot the Musical in London. I started when I was seven and played three roles in Billy Elliot. When I was seven, I played a small character called Small Boy - I think he had only two or three scenes. But I was there. I did that for a year and a half, and then I came back to play Michael, which is Billy Elliott's best friend, for six months. While I was playing Michael, I was training for Billy for two years, and then I played Billy for two years. In that period, I had to live away from home in Ealing with about 14 other kids, because our schedule was so full-on. We'd wake up in the morning, have school for three hours, lunch and then we'd go out to London to do three hours of training. We rehearsed ballet, tap, acro, acting and singing, and then we'd do a three-hour show. And that was a weird point because growing up as a kid, from 10 to 14, that's a childhood - and my childhood was in a West End show, living away from home, away from my mum and dad. I remember feeling homesick for like the first year, ringing my mum every night. That was quite difficult but at the same time, I learned a lot about yourself, the world and being independent at such a young age. I also learned so much about acting and what it means to be an actor, what goes into it, and the craft of acting. I always look at that period in my life very fondly.
Last night when preparing for this chat I found a very cute YouTube video of 12-13 year old you dancing in a pink skirt on This Morning. Very adorable.
Oh did you, haha? God. It's intense. It was a very good show.
It feels like you've reached your dream for any actor at only 22. What comes after this?
I just want my next project to be something that I really am excited about. At the minute, I'm reading a lot of scripts to sort of see what's next. Hopefully, it will be something really cool. But also, a personal thing I want to do as well is to write a script. I've never written anything before, and it might be a lot of rubbish, but I'd like to give it a go. I would love to write a Western.
That's a nice dream. The world is yours, Dean.
Yeah, it's everyone's.