Atop the cobbled streets of Brighton, hundreds of fans and paparazzi swell like an impending storm cloud around the set of My Policeman, David Dawson’s latest—and, perhaps, largest—film. Dawson likens this particular day of shooting the 1950s forbidden love story to the experience of performing onstage, in that the film set transformed into a sort of outdoor theatre before an eager crowd. “That was the only day where it felt like you were playing a theatre like The Globe,” Dawson reflects. “You’re performing outdoors. People are watching. There was no noise, so it was like performing a play.”
Dawson’s deferral to the stage is fitting for an actor whose career has been steeped in theatrical performance—having starred in plays since his professional debut in 2005, performing for companies as varied as The Old Vic to The Globe, while concurrently starring in over 24 works of film and television. It’s where he met My Policeman director Michael Grandage some eleven years ago, on the set of Luise Miller at Covent Garden’s Donmar Warehouse. Grandage also produced 2015’s The Dazzle, which Dawson cites as one of his favorite plays he’s been a part of. With My Policeman, this friendship enjoyed a dynamic diversification.
Dawson solidified his acting journey in 2002 after being accepted into the acting program at RADA. After leaving in 2005, he starred in his first role on the stage in Richard II for The Old Vic, going on to appear in 14 plays while scooping up roles on television shows Doc Martin, Peaky Blinders, and many more.
Brighton is not, however, The Globe Theatre (shocker!). It’s about fifty miles south. There are no icosagon-shaped stalls. Neither is there a River Thames just beyond the bank. This particularly frenzied scene was, in fact, engendered by a very unfamiliar circumstance: sharing this cobbled stage with one of the most famous people in the world. The fans had come—most of them, at least—to see Harry Styles, Dawson’s co-star. “That was one of the only times that you were reminded you were working with someone very, very famous,” he says, noting that, throughout filming, Styles made this easy to forget.
While this might have been easy to forget on set, Styles’ stature is front of mind for many of those keenly anticipating the film. While this frenzy might offer a potential distraction from the story, Dawson sees value in the attention it brings to the film. “It’s wonderful that, hopefully, it will mean that a lot of younger people will watch the story,” he says earnestly, “and get to learn about a time in our past when things were very different. I think it’s good if it brings people to the project, that perhaps wouldn’t have [watched] before.”
Dawson first met his co-stars Emma Corrin and Harry Styles in a sound booth, where they recorded the song from a scene in which the trio is getting “a little bit drunk” and rowdy in a restaurant. Singing for one another upon first meeting threw them into “the deep end” Dawson recounts. This was, he acknowledges, quite clever. “It meant any nerves or awkwardness with meeting new people goes out the window,” he laughs. This ice breaker, combined with a longer-than-typical rehearsal period of about three weeks, enabled the actors to create a sense of trust between themselves, to look after one another. “Because some of it is emotional scenes and vulnerable moments,” Dawson recalls. “We had each other’s backs—it made it quite special.”
This bond was only heightened by the fact that the actors were in COVID bubbles throughout filming; they never even met the actors who play the primary characters’ older likenesses before the premiere, save for via one-on-one phone calls. Yet the trios’ stories weaved together seamlessly on-screen—a coming together Dawson describes as a joy to watch. “I think that’s always my biggest treat,” he says of the experience of seeing his colleagues and new friends’ work on the film for the first time.
At the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Dawson and Gina McKee (who plays the elder version of Corrin’s Marion) got the chance to make up for lost time while stuck in a lift. “TIFF gave us a best ensemble award and we were going to collect it, and we very nearly didn’t make the stage!” he laughs. “It was one of my favorite moments from Toronto,” he adds with a smile. Nothing will bond two actors who have never sat down for a drink together like cozying up in a claustrophobia-inducing lift for a perennial period of time.”
The film is, in part, traumatic, in that it’s set in a time where being oneself was, for many, defined as a criminal act. “I think that when you go into a project like this,” Dawson elaborates, “as a gay man myself, I can research into this period. I watched a lot of talking heads of gay men that lived in that time. And your initial response can be one of upset and anger at the way that the country you live in had treated people like you.” But this was far from Dawson’s main takeaway from his time as Patrick. Instead, what made the biggest impression was his character’s strength. “He’s incredibly proud of his sexuality,” Dawson says, “and is determined to thrive in this world which he occupies.”
To Dawson’s character, Patrick, it’s not about surviving in a society built for you to fail. It’s about finding ways to thrive, and to find joy, “in art and music and love,” the actor says with a knowing smile. Dawson adds that Patrick does not see himself as a victim of society. “Far from it,” he argues, adding: “And I admire that in him.”
Dawson continues sharing on his learnings in the process of playing Patrick. He references the scene in which Patrick goes to a gay bar, which prompted the actor to research the history of gay bars as safe spaces. “It made me ask the question, what do you do if you live in a world where you are seen as an outsider—where you are other? Where is your safe space?” For many in fifties Britain, gay bars offered a semblance of sanctuary. “I wonder what that feeling would have been, when you walk into a place,” Dawson shares on the finding refuge from the harms of society, “when you have no affirmation in the world that being you is good and right, to walk into a room full of people who are just as intelligent as you, just as passionate, as ambitious? That must have been an incredible feeling.”
Though Dawson doesn’t operate in this same world as Patrick, he’s cognizant of the fact that the circumstances in which he operates aren’t inherently protected—or necessarily that much safer. “It makes you appreciate that the rights that have been achieved are vulnerable,” he considers. Dawson cites recent BBC documentary, Illegal to be Me, where Olympic diving gold medalist Tom Daley exposes the threats and discrimination that LGBTQ+ participants face in the Commonwealth Games, whereby he visited countries where being gay can cost people their countless rights, and sometimes, their lives. “It’s another reminder that in many societies, fifties Britain—the world which our characters occupy—is a lived present.”
In this ambivalence, there’s room for celebration—the actors’ joy upon sharing their hard work was clear in all of the photos from TIFF, where the film premiered in September. It was Dawson’s first red carpet—an experience the actor describes succinctly as mad. “It’s something that will stay with me forever,” he says fondly. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I just thought that was really touching that people wanted to support [the film].”
Dawson asserts that it’s important to take time to revel in the madness—to pocket these little moments, to one day remember as an old man and go, “That was fucking cool,” Dawson says with a smile—before getting back to work. Currently filming a new Paramount+ thriller series, The Burning Girls—adapted from a C.J. Tudor novel where central characters attempt to overcome grief by relocating communities—Dawson can’t share too much, save for the fact that it’s going well. He’s wanted to work with the actress Samantha Morton (Minority Report, The Walking Dead) since starting his own career, so is thrilled to be working with her. With the new project comes a new set, a new cast, a new crew.“You make a little family unit,” Dawson says of one of acting’s biggest challenges, “and then you have to start again.”
Despite the transience of his chosen craft, Dawson carries with him the special people he’s had the opportunity to work with. And in the case of My Policeman, the cast mates don’t seem to be going anywhere. Harry Styles gifted Dawson tickets to his Brixton Academy One Night Only album launch concert, for instance. “That was amazing,” Dawson says, “to go and see the showman and to experience him as a live musician. He then adds that he also saw Corrin at the West End in Anna X—“They were stunning,” he says proudly. With the way things are going, perhaps the two might one day see Dawson perform on a stage of his own once again.
Styled by Meg Leila Summers
Written by Madeleine Schulz
Location: Casa Loma, Toronto