Dunkirk rookies on their big break

Here's a guide to the young unknown actors in World War II epic Dunkirk

If you couldn't tell those young unknown actors with the enviable bone structure and tousled hair from Dunkirk apart, you are not alone.

Director Christopher Nolan took a chance on a bunch of British newcomers to lead his World War II epic, and the casting has paid off - to the tune of US$126.4 million (S$172 million) worldwide.

Dunkirk, which is showing here, revolves around the evacuation of Allied troops from the French city of Dunkirk before Nazi forces can take hold, and the movie is told from three perspectives - land, sea and air.

The protagonist, a quick-thinking British Army private on land trying to make it back home, is played by Fionn Whitehead, a 20-year-old who makes his film debut in Dunkirk.

His only other major credit is the lead role in the ITV drama miniseries HIM.

Another newbie to the movie scene is One Direction's Harry Styles, 23. He plays a British Army private.

Spending the majority of his scenes at sea is Tom Glynn-Carney, playing the preppy son of Mark Rylance's civilian who uses their boat to aid in the rescue of Allied soldiers.

"We spent a whole day shooting in the sea, on and off... You are so tired, but then it hits you that it is just a tiny slice of what the real thing must have been like."Fionn Whitehead, who plays Tommy, a British Army private

The 22-year-old has appeared in two episodes of the long-running BBC medical drama Casualty back in 2013 and theatre productions such as Macbeth.

Lastly, ruling the air as Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot is Jack Lowden, 27, whose fighter plane is shot down by the enemy.

He has starred in films such as '71, Denial and A United Kingdom, as well as the BBC adaptation of War & Peace.

Some of the fresh faces talked about working with acclaimed auteur Nolan on their big break.

What was it like meeting Nolan and what impressed you most about him?

GLYNN-CARNEY: It was his composure and how welcoming he was. I was intimidated by him for about only five minutes (laughs).

LOWDEN: It was kind of like meeting the (legendary football club manager) Alex Ferguson of the film world (laughs).

I found him remarkable to watch. It was phenomenal to see a guy in charge of a project of that size, with that big of a crew, and with full control of the concept, and yet still remain so focused on the characters and the actors. He commands such respect. I have grown up admiring his films and itching to see his next film, and I now know one of the main reasons why.

WHITEHEAD: Everyone knows he is the man. The thing that makes Chris so unique is that he has his own vision for this piece of art he is creating and he is completely in charge, which is an amazing thing for an actor.

It gives you more breathing room because you are not trying to tend to anyone else's needs.

How did it feel when you arrived on the set and saw the scope of the production?

GLYNN-CARNEY: It was just… wow. The scale of the thing was epic. You felt tiny in comparison to the huge production that was happening around you.

The first day I was on the set, we went out in the Moonstone (his character's boat) and sailed past a real destroyer.

That was just absolutely mental - like a baptism of fire. It was all pretty overwhelming.

At the same time, you felt like part of this machine moving towards making an exceptional piece of film, and you are just so giddy and excited, you don't really know how to process it.

WHITEHEAD: The whole first week I was on the beach made me realise the sheer magnitude of the operation - thousands of extras running around, explosions going off, a real Spitfire flying over your head.

It was epic, and there was no other way to do justice to the real Dunkirk evacuation.

Being on that beach and standing on the Mole (two long concrete jetties that protected the beach) that they built, it was like walking through documentary footage. I just felt really lucky to be part of the project...

The most physically challenging aspect was probably being in the water. We spent a whole day shooting in the sea, on and off... You are so tired, but then it hits you that it is just a tiny slice of what the real thing must have been like.

LOWDEN: It did feel like nothing I have experienced because Chris does everything for real on his films.

I have been swooping around over the Channel with real Spitfires, dunked under the water, hanging off a cliff on a gimbal (a support device).

I told Chris, 'Every single job I do after this will seem boring because it has just been one thrill ride after another.'

Do you have a feeling of responsibility, given that this film is telling the story of an event that happened in 1940?

GLYNN-CARNEY: Absolutely. I think it is difficult not to.

Even though the story we are telling is fictional and we are not playing real people, we are playing a situation that real people experienced - people our age. So you have to show respect for that.

As realistic as this film is, and as real as Chris made the experience for us, it is impossible to put yourself there because we have never been through anything like that and probably never will.

But it was important to all of us to invest in it as much as possible and do it justice.

WHITEHEAD: Definitely. I think that one of the best things, hopefully, about Dunkirk is that it is really trying to put you in that situation so you feel what it must have been like to be there and appreciate what those people went through and how brutal and terrifying it was.

I hope people take from this that we need to never go back to a place where something like Dunkirk can happen.

LOWDEN: It really was a country fighting for its survival, and what turned a defeat into a miracle was the sheer power of togetherness.

The people of Britain came together to make the Miracle of Dunkirk happen - not just the military forces, but all those civilians who had the courage to brave the barrage of enemy dive bombers and U-boats to save those soldiers.

It must have been an incredible thing to be part of - a terrible thing, but an incredible thing.