From meeting director Michael Grandage in the weeks before the pandemic to weeks of rehearsals with Emma Corrin and David Dawson, here's how Styles kitted up for his biggest performance yet
In June last year, filming for My Policeman — Amazon's multi-million dollar adaptation of Bethan Roberts' '50s-set gay romance novel, centring on the ill-fated romance of Tom, the eponymous lawman, and Patrick, his museum curator lover — took musician-turned-actor Harry Styles and the hitherto unknown David Dawson to Venice.
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They were there to shoot a series of scenes in the movie's third act, when the clandestine lovers embark on a sojourn to the ancient Italian city. They have a wonderful time, unshackled from the prejudices of their native England, but it percolates with tragic inevitability: the sense that this is a dream, that it is a finite moment, weighs heavily in the air.
Of course, shooting a film with the most famous pop star on the planet comes with its own set of hurdles. “We did a lot of pre-planning to disguise the name of the film, to do all sorts of things to [prevent fans from turning up],” says director Michael Grandage. But not much of that did happen — until Venice. “Suddenly, we realised there was a lot of interest at the end of the canals. We could hear all sorts of screaming going on. But we actually managed to have a pretty successful shoot,” he says. “I'll say this about Harry's fans: they are phenomenally respectful people. If a fan is a mirror of the person they are following, that doesn't surprise me.”
If My Policeman remains one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, ahead of its release in cinemas in mid-October (with a Prime Video drop to come in November), it's for one man: Harry Styles. It all began in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic sent the world into stasis – and, atypical of the Hollywood casting process, it was actually Styles who offered his services. “So I took a meeting in my office in London,” recalls Grandage. “The person who arrived was incredibly informed: he'd not just read the novel, at least once, he'd read the screenplay many times. I was sitting opposite somebody who was making a case for why they wanted to play Tom Burgess. I didn't have to sell it."
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Prior to that meeting with Grandage, we'd only seen Styles on the big screen twice — no, not counting One Direction: This Is Us, or sequel Where We Are – and both were minor roles. His most affective part came in Christopher Nolan's epic war drama Dunkirk as a perennially anxious English soldier. Later, a 30-second bookend cameo as Eros, the latest MCU goodie-among-goodies, after the credits in Eternals. “It was really about the risk of somebody who at that moment had only done [Dunkirk],” Grandage continues. “For me, it's about whether you see something that excites you, or interests you in what they're saying. And I did with him.”
My Policeman is less about a duo of beleaguered lovers than it is a trio of individuals caught in an unfortunate, thunderous maelstrom – a result of societal intolerance. Between Styles' Tom, Dawson's Patrick, and Emma Corrin's Marion — the wife of Tom, under whose nose the affair rages on — there isn't a villain, only victims. It's a powder keg of fractious tension, and eventually, something has to give. Key to getting it right on screen, then, was to ensure the three leads could convincingly play up to their complex emotional predicament.
“We had a lot of rehearsal time, which is amazing — I think a lot of things were discussed there," recalls Corrin, speaking on the morning of the global premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. “But then you inevitably discover something along the way.”
Before a single shot was planned, Grandage — whose background in theatre far precedes his work on screen, My Policeman being his second feature film — gave the trio three weeks of rehearsal time, uncommon of film pre-production. “We bonded and had chemistry as the three of us, as a team,” says Dawson, sat alongside Corrin. “Emma and Harry would have their sessions, Harry and I would have ours, so you had those conversations you weren't party to — kind of secrets — which were very effective when we came to shoot.”
My Policeman comes at a time when a new wave of mainstream British media is casting an eye to the tragedies of our queer past: think of Russell T Davies' mega-hit historical drama It's a Sin, which shone a light on England's AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s. “It completely broke my heart [when It’s a Sin came out] last year,” says Dawson.
“And now more than ever, I think it's really important for everybody to look back and learn from our past, if we truly want to move forward and make progress. But until I looked into the talking heads of the time, and did my own research, I didn't know an awful lot about [this period].” With all of the social and political victories enjoyed by the LGBTQ+ population in the UK, it's easy to forget just how recent they were.
“There's always room for looking over our shoulders and remembering what this was like,” says My Policeman author Bethan Roberts. “From my research, for a lot of people, it was a very lonely, violent, traumatic time.”
Grandage, for his part, reckons a certain pop superstar can play a significant role in bringing the history undergirding My Policeman to a new generation. “There's one key element to this, which is Harry Styles and Emma Corrin, particularly,” he says. “Because they're in it, a very large demographic of people will come to see this film. I don't know that they all know about what has happened in our recent past, back in the 1950s. But I do know that this group of people, that generation, are the least prejudiced generation that have probably lived.”
Following that first meeting, a photo of the My Policeman novel poking out of Styles' pocket did the rounds on Twitter. Sales of the book — based on this one-off pap shot alone — skyrocketed. “I guess it was then that I got my first real experience of the magnitude of his appeal,” Grandage recalls. Presumably any lingering doubt will be extinguished by the massive viewing figures that feel all but certain.
My Policeman comes to UK cinemas on 21 October, with a streaming release on 4 November via Prime Video.