Culture

Dunkirk spirit: Aneurin Barnard on this summer’s most hotly anticipated movie

Aneurin Barnard’s role in Dunkirk has been kept hidden from view ahead of today’s opening. The Welsh actor talked exclusively to The Jackal about the most extreme film he’s ever made

Photography by
Florian Renner
Interview and styling by
Aleks Cvetkovic
Grooming by
Sam Basham

Aneurin Barnard cuts an intense figure. From his end of the sofa in a plush suite at The Curtain hotel in Shoreditch, he projects a strange combination of youthful energy and the gravitas of someone twice his age. With dark tousled hair and a rakish jawline, there’s something of the old master about him, even though he’s only 30 years old.

It’s not hard to figure out where this gravity comes from, even when he’s sipping coffee opposite you in a brick red suede bomber jacket. Barnard has covered an intimidating amount of ground for someone who’s only been acting professionally for eight years, as he puts it, ‘there’s nothing like getting into the skin and bones of another person.’ His career took off when he was cast as Melchior, the male lead in West End musical Spring Awakening in 2009. He originated the role when it transferred from Broadway and won an Olivier Award for Best Actor, aged just 23.

Since then, the barnstorming performances have racked up. He played a young David Bailey for BBC4 film We’ll Take Manhattan, a portrayal Bailey himself described as ‘so good it was kind of spooky’. He followed that up by getting under the skin of Richard III in BBC1’s The White Queen and Boris Drubetskoy in War and Peace. He’s embodied a troubled Mozart in feature film Interlude in Prague, and had to get his head around playing an agoraphobic single father in tense independent film Citadel. No flimsy teen-romance shortcuts to A-list in sight.

The reward for all of this is the role of Gibson in Dunkirk, which opens today and has already been dubbed the summer’s big-screen smash hit. Gibson is one of 400,000 young British soldiers stranded on the beaches of northern France in May 1940.

The movie follows three separate narratives, pursuing the storyline from land, sea and air. The threads trace different timespans and collide in a deliberately tense, disorientating experience. Critics have said the edge-of-your-seat unpredictability this creates brings home the terrifying reality of the evacuation brilliantly. They’ve praised the film’s performances, too. Audiences will be treated to the cream of British acting talent – Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot, Mark Rylance a stoic civilian sailor, and Barnard the plucky soldier.

But the secret, says Barnard, is that Nolan kept his cast firmly in the dark. ‘He gave the actors the very best gift they could get,’ he proffers, shooting another pointed stare along the sofa. ‘He asked us to “just react to what’s around you.” There was no green screen, no “pretend things are there, pretend you can see this,” and we worked on giant sets while the action happened around us. You’d get half way through a scene and Chris would throw a surprise into the mix that you had no idea was coming. We just had to know our characters and stay in the moment.

‘It was extreme filmmaking, but incredibly rewarding. You didn’t have to worry about where the camera was, there were no lighting changes, no looking for marks – the majority of the film was shot handheld, so the cameras just moved with you.’

Aneurin Barnard, Dunkirk movie, The Jackal magazine

Blue tropical worsted suit, navy striped cotton T-shirt, silk printed pocket handkerchief, all by Gieves & Hawkes

Barnard grew up in rural South Wales, his father a coal miner and mother a factory worker. He got into acting young and landed his first TV role when he was 14. Spurred on, he left school at 16 to prepare for drama college. It was an all-consuming challenge, and as we talk through his journey into the industry his trademark steely focus intensifies.

‘When it came to getting into acting, there was no one that I could just pick up the phone to and ask, “Hey, can you give me a job?” I used to think, “how do I now break this? How did other actors get to where I want to be?” I practised every day, spent time researching writers, directors, producers, agents and what kind of colleges were making what kind of actor.’ It paid off. He got into the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and after 13 gruelling auditions was cast in Spring Awakening in his third year.

This same drive helped him to land Dunkirk. ‘I had a conversation with my agent before I got the job, saying “I’ve played all these different roles, the one thing I’d love to do now is a studio movie with a really good story and a fantastic director. I knew I needed to do that next to keep growing as an actor. When I got the call to audition for a Christopher Nolan movie I was beside myself. I knew I had to show him something to prove that I was worthy of joining his cast.’

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Gibson is suspiciously absent from the film’s trailers. All Barnard will say is that this is because his character is closely linked to a twist in the film’s narrative. ‘That’s the point,’ he says, a knowing twinkle in his eye for the first time during our interview. ‘Gibson is a treasure because you’ll discover his story as the film progresses. So, the less I say the better.’

Dunkirk is out today in cinemas nationwide. Visit dunkirkmovie.com