As Harry Styles makes the transition from music to film, what lessons can he learn from his heroes?

·8-min read
 (AP)
(AP)

What does the pop star who’s done it all do next? You can buy a trout farm (à la Who frontman Roger Daltrey), or start metal detecting (like Rolling Stones rocker Bill Wyman). You can do stadium tour after stadium tour until you get so bored you daydream about the trout farm and the metal detector years to come.

Or, like Harry Styles, you can choose the third option, and launch a second career as A Very Serious And Credible Actor. Enter Don’t Worry Darling.

It’s easy to forget there’s a film attached to all the palaver that has been doing the media rounds. There have been behind-the-scenes tiffs, Chris Pine dissociating during junket interviews and Styles’ phantom spit into Pine’s lap which became the meme de nos jours. But in Olivia Wilde’s Americana-drenched conspiracy thriller, Styles plays a small town company man who won’t tell his wife what shady business he’s mixed up in (Styles’ favourite thing about the movie, he told bemused journalists at a press conference last week, is that it feels like a movie).

Next month, he’ll make his second outing as a 1950s copper wrestling with his sexuality in My Policeman, which screened at Toronto Film Festival this week.

Sure, he’s acted before. But playing a plucky everyman Tommy in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, surrounded by the massed ranks of Brit thesp royalty and poking his head over the parapet occasionally is one thing. Carrying relationship dramas opposite talents like Emma Corrin and Florence Pugh is quite another. Don’t Worry Darling has taken a bit of a booting from critics, but two-star reviews across the board won’t stop Styles. He’s going legit.

All at sea: Harry Styles in Dunkirk (AP)
All at sea: Harry Styles in Dunkirk (AP)

Fortunately, enough musicians have jumped into film before him that Styles needn’t leap blindly. There’s a pattern to which pop-star-to-actor leaps work, and which ones go awry. So, Hazza – buddy, pal – here are some dos and don’ts.

Do stick to what you’re good at

That doesn’t necessarily mean playing it safe, but a knowledge of what works about your persona is key to getting the right part.

Directors absolutely love leveraging pop stars’ vibes for their films. Most often they’re in straight pop-stars-doing-pop-star-things roles because, sometimes, you just need someone to convincingly belt out tunes and command a stage.

Think of Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, for instance, or Lady Gaga – who came up playing drag bars but had just taken a rootsy turn with her album Joanne – being plonked wholesale into rootsy drag bar regular Ally in A Star is Born.

Some directors dig out something more playful and imaginative. Paul Jones of Manfred Mann was a messianic pop star-cum-opiate of the oppressed masses in Peter Watkins’ excellent Privilege, but the king of intriguing (if not always successful) acting gigs is regular Styles touchstone David Bowie.

Right at home: Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (Warner Brothers)
Right at home: Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (Warner Brothers)

He started with an uncredited role in The Virgin Soldiers – he’s barely visible as a soldier rugby tackled in the background of a bar scene – before Nicolas Roeg spotted the singer in the documentary Cracked Actor. He realised the ethereal, otherworldly Bowie would slot straight in as parched starman Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

It wasn’t much of a stretch for coke-and-red-peppers era Bowie to float about looking deathly ill, and likewise for John Lennon to be chippy and Scouse as chippy, Scouse Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War. Or, even, for Mick Jagger to play a depraved but sexy rocker in Performance. It all just worked.

Best of all is to do what Prince did as The Kid in Purple Rain, and use the big screen as a platform for your pyrotechnic musicality. But beware, prospective pop stars, for here is another lesson: Prince also proved that while creative control is good, too much creative control is extremely bad.

Don’t assume you know anything about actually making films

After Purple Rain went supernova, Prince had carte blanche for whatever film he wanted to make next. He wanted to direct and star in something set during the Jazz Age on the French Riviera and shot in black and white. Needless to say, Under the Cherry Moon tanked.

A similar fate met Paul McCartney’s 1984 hodge-podge Give My Regards to Broad Street. It started with McCartney meeting director Peter Webb at Abbey Road studios, where he described from a crumpled-up bit of paper what he wanted the film to be.

Oh dear: Rihanna in box-office bomb Battleship (Battleship)
Oh dear: Rihanna in box-office bomb Battleship (Battleship)

“It begins with me in black tie, with my guitar at the Royal Albert Hall,” Webb remembered McCartney saying later. “Then the background will change into a medieval plain, with knights on horseback.” The plot, involving some missing master tapes, several dream sequences and some bonus Ringo, didn’t end up making much more sense. It was one of Macca’s few  disasters.

Clearly, going along with what your manager reckons is a good idea has its pitfalls too – just watch Elvis Presley’s Stay Away Joe from 1968, in which he’s a Navajo cowboy trying to find a bull randy enough to replace the one his mates have killed and eaten.

But the presumption that you know what you’re doing with a film simply because you’ve had a few hit records persists, despite the evidence. See Sia’s misguided film Music from last year, which she didn’t star in but wrote, directed, produced and cameoed in as a character called – brace yourself – Pop Star Without Borders. Music is about a girl with autism, but autism advocacy groups quickly rounded on it as a shallow caricature. The whole thing turned into a fiasco, and may have permanently bumped Sia down the pop pecking order.

Don’t make a beeline for blockbusters

Making the best of a bad job: Taylor Swift in Cats (AP)
Making the best of a bad job: Taylor Swift in Cats (AP)

This should be another hard and fast rule for pop stars going into film: no blockbusters. A massive summer tentpole is deeply unlikely to play to a pop star’s strengths, and failure is extremely public. Rihanna made her debut in the board game adaptation Battleship which was nearly cancelled before it left port, and after being torpedoed by critics lost Universal and Hasbro $150 million.

Taylor Swift made her feature debut in the dystopian drama The Giver with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges – good choice, Taylor – and it didn’t matter that much when nobody really liked it. Then she was in Cats. She’s one of the better things in Cats, but that’s like saying she’s one of the comfier chaise longues on the Titanic’s observation deck.

A small indie drama like My Policeman (which stars Styles alongside Corrin and David Dawson) is a far better bet. Awkwafina, rapper and Ocean’s Eight co-star of Rihanna, made the leap to acting with acclaimed indies Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell. Audiences were ready to see her in thoughtful dramas which explored the Asian-American experience; audiences were not ready to see Rihanna fighting off an alien invasion, much as they loved her. The ‘uh?’ factor was just too strong. Styles’s extremely brief appearance as Eros/Starfox in the mid-credits scene of The Eternals came at a point when his performance didn’t much matter (by that stage most of the audience was impatient to get home) but it remains to be seen whether when the sequel arrives (expected to be 2025) his charisma can power him through when his unique sense of style is being obliterated by a vaguely Viking breastplate.

Do know when to jump

Momentum is everything. Knowing that you’ll be propelled through any critical humming and hawing by the general feeling that most people reckon you’re a good thing and want your film to be good is gold dust for the pop star making their first film.

Big smiles: Styles at the premiere of My Policeman (AFP via Getty Images)
Big smiles: Styles at the premiere of My Policeman (AFP via Getty Images)

It can shift incredibly quickly too. Spice World wouldn’t have worked if it had arrived even three months later than it did in December 1997, when Geri Halliwell was agitating to move on, and their delirious energy – so powerful it moved Nelson Mandela to declare the Spice Girls his “heroes” when they met in Johannesburg around that time – had started to evaporate.

It’s all looking pretty rosy on that front for our Harry, even if it sounds like making films has put him off making films. “A large part of acting is the doing nothing, waiting thing,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “Which if that’s the worst part, then it’s a pretty good job. But I don’t find that section of it to be that fulfilling.”

Spit or no spit (Chis Pine’s agent has hotly denied the whole affair and let’s face it, it does seem wildly out of character for the generally amenable Styles), he’s about as red hot right now as it’s possible to be, and he’s ticked off most of our dos and skipped the don’ts. That trout farm might have to wait.