It doesn’t matter if Harry Styles can act. The real question is should he?

Following a summer of sold-out shows and one viral press tour, Harry Styles is back on our small screens with My Policeman now streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Don’t Worry Darling streaming on HBO Max. The question at the top of everyone’s minds has been, “Can Harry Styles act?” We propose a second, much more important question: “Should Harry Styles be an actor?” 

Our answer might disappoint the Harries, Stylers, Directioners, and cinephiles who are emotionally invested in his Hollywood career, since we argue that the only acting he should be doing is the silent variety. 

In order to explain, Mashable tech reporter Elena Cavender and Mashable social good reporter Chase DiBenedetto — proud Directioners and resident British boyfriend aficionados — discuss the rise of the award-winning musician, wannabe actor, and internet obsession.

Everyone’s talking about Harry Styles… still

Elena: Some of us have been talking about Harry Styles every single day for 10 years, but now that the mainstream news cycle has caught on, it’s impossible to escape Styles discourse. We’ll give you a rundown of why his name is on everyone’s lips.

Chase: To start, no one could avoid the ongoing on- and off-set drama surrounding Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling. Did our guy really spit on Chris Pine at an international film festival? (He has denied the allegations, and whether he did or didn’t isn’t really the point.) Last year, he caught the eye of Marvel fans and film critics with his surprise appearance in a post credits scene after Eternals. He won a Grammy (and we both cried). Not to mention, he’s been a constant Twitter and TikTok trending topic thanks to his massively successful worldwide Love On Tour (which is reaching a ridiculous number of shows). Now, as Styles’ latest on screen performances in My Policeman and Don’t Worry Darling hit streaming platforms, he’s back on the general public’s radar for his acting chops. 

Elena: At the same time, he’s been solidifying himself as a huge global brand, Harry Styles™, with the launch of his 2021 venture, a beauty brand called Pleasing and his collaboration with Gucci, HA HA HA.

TL;DR: Styles is everything, everywhere all at once.  

Chase: Essentially, Styles has reached his peak saturation point, and it’s hindering his attempt at being a leading man. His name on marquees is also a product of a decade-long career, something that a lot of new fans and onlookers might not understand. But don’t worry: We’re diving into the history of Styles’ industry and fanmade personas.

Harry Styles the Actor™ 

One Direction’s music video muse

Elena: In order to get to the root of Styles’ attempt at becoming an actor, let’s dive into his public relationship with cinema. During the One Direction days, Styles was hopelessly devoted to being a rom-com lover, often citing either The Notebook or Love Actually as his favorite movies throughout the years. On his first solo project, Harry Styles, he maintained that stance with the iconic intro to the song “Woman”: “Should we just search romantic comedies on Netflix and see what we find?” 

Chase: The best song he’s ever written… But beyond these remarks (and as far as his fan-facing identity went), Styles was never really aligned with cinema as an art form. He seemed solidly a music guy, clearly the industry’s favorite member of 1D, and any acting was done to serve those purposes. 

One Direction’s music videos and commercials convey that explicitly. He’s the heartthrob who gets the girl in their first music video, “What Makes You Beautiful,” and again in “Gotta Be You.” He was the group’s unofficial center, often taking the coveted middle spot in the group’s “choreography,” and he was the main focus of every commercial, from perfume ads to car promotions. In their 2012 primetime TV debut for the XLVI Super Bowl, Styles took the acting lead in fighting Drew Brees for a Pepsi — giving the athlete a run for his money with an army of fangirls. Unfortunately for us Louis girls, the other boys were just kind of there. 

This photo is dedicated to touching.
Credit: Kevin Mazur / WireImage

Elena: Shout out to that Pepsi commercial for giving me and my dad something to talk about. 

In Styles’ first role on the silver screen with the boys, he also had the spotlight. I am, of course, referring to One Direction’s cameo on Nickelodeon’s hit show iCarly in 2012. He had the most important guest role in the episode and did more acting than the other boybanders, as a diva version of himself where he pretended to be sick to get doted on by Carly. He’s not exactly flexing his acting chops, but the episode was a fever dream and cultural moment made possible by Styles goofily leaning into his Harry Styles persona. 

Chase: The music video for “Best Song Ever,” which came out only a year later, finally shows off a bit of acting skill. His character, Marcel, was perhaps the perfect blend of Harry’s band persona, his goofy personality, and a glimmer of some kind of acting talent.

Elena: Completely agree. It was the first time he was playing a character completely removed from his public-facing persona, and it worked! He was the least costumed character, but simultaneously the most convincing. Styles was so effective as this character that there is a separate genre of One Direction fanfiction devoted not to Styles, but to Marcel. 

Chase: The fan response was genuinely impressive at the time! 

One figure that’s been behind a lot of Styles’ onscreen moments is director Ben Winston. He not only directed several of the band’s iconic music videos, like “Best Song Ever” (with, it must be said, the help of James Corden), but he also became the pop star’s really close friend. Winston and Styles even went on to produce a single season of an autobiographical TV show called Happy Together in 2018, based on their own relationship. 

Styles commits to the bit… even when that bit is being friends with James Corden.
Credit: Terence Patrick / CBS via Getty Images

It was these post-band ventures that showed Styles might have an interest in things other than music, but only his core fans were interested in his post-1D career at the time. 

Elena: Strangely enough, neither of us have watched Happy Together. It is our singular blindspot. 

Dunkirk era, the actor that could have been

Elena: The stars were really aligned for Styles’ success in Dunkirk. His role in Dunkirk was the first thing we saw him do after One Direction. He literally disappeared and reemerged in a WWII movie?!

Chase: I was absolutely shocked when I heard Styles would be in a Christopher Nolan film. What a bold choice for his first out-of-the-band project. 

Elena: He was in the process of reinventing himself post-One Direction. His persona was really malleable, which made the career move really exciting, unlike with Don’t Worry Darling, My Policeman, and his potential Marvel projects because he’s so overexposed right now. 

But in 2017, Styles was earnestly trying to make a name for himself outside of the boy band he was known for. His debut album, which came out two months before Dunkirk, saw Styles experimenting with different rock sounds. The promo cycle was very introspective and complimentary toward his fans, who, at that point in time, were still largely the One Direction fans that had stuck by him.

Chase: And that fed into the fans’ desire to get more content out of him, but without the same oversaturation the band faced in its final days (and which Styles would later also contend with). He certainly wasn’t the star of Dunkirk, so he took a backseat in interviews and on red carpets that was both charming and at a scale proportional to his expertise. He appeared to have genuinely bonded with his castmates, and he talked frequently about learning from the greats alongside his young co-stars.

Lad time on the red carpet!
Credit: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

Elena: We can’t talk about Dunkirk without talking about The Haircut. Dunkirk required Styles to chop off his characteristic long hair, which ushered in a new era of Styles. 

Chase: The rebrand and potential career move away from music was also way more palatable to fans at this time. Post-band hiatus, solo music projects were a terrifying reality, a kind of death knell in the band’s reunion, but an acting career didn’t seem like as big of a threat.

I think a lot of fans would agree that this is one of their favorite Styles “eras.” And he actually did well with the limited lines he had in the film! But somehow, the Nolan of it all got to his head.

Elena: It helped that the premise of his role was looking incredibly English. 

Late Night Talk… Show

Chase: OK Saturday Night Live double-duty time. 

Elena: Some of his best work, for real. All of his charm and charisma is on full-display. It goes to show that Styles’ greatest strength is being a good sport. 

Styles leaves it all on the SNL stage.
Credit: Rosalind O’Connor / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Chase: This is what we deem the tipping point in Styles’ public appeal and acting future. While not his first time on the show (he even botched one of his earlier appearances), this was hands-down his most impactful late-night appearance, and it won him points in the public eye. 

Elena: Finally, everyone caught on! (The 1D girls always knew.)

Blockbuster movie central

Elena: Dare I say Dunkirk and smashing SNL made Styles a little too confident in his acting abilities?

Chase: You can and should say that. Post SNL, Styles released his second album Fine Line, and the rest of the world shut down. The pandemic really catalyzed his non-music endeavors — he openly said he was struggling during that time, and we think he was battling life without copious amounts of onstage attention. It eventually leads to his end credit “surprise” appearance in Chloe Zhao’s 2021 film Eternals. Was he even acting in that clip? I don’t think so! The line delivery was… how do I say this succinctly… lacking.

Elena: The conversation around Styles being in Eternals confused me. Zhao had him in mind for the role, which is mind-boggling because he’s not an actor. But she also wants him to essentially play himself in the role, which is not where he’s shined previously. He’s shined playing really hammy characters like Marcel and in parodies on SNL

Chase: Simultaneously, Styles was rumored to be in the running for multiple other movies (mind you, he had ONE acting credit to his name at this point), including Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid and Elvis in the Baz Luhrmann biopic. 

Elena: Why was his name even in the hat for those roles? He’s literally not an actor. I guess at least in those parts he would be singing.

He’s the spitting image of a movie star.
Credit: Andreas Rentz / Getty Images

Chase: Then we get The Announcement: Styles landed the lead role in Don’t Worry Darling opposite Florence Pugh, followed closely by a second lead role in My Policeman. It’s where the general public starts to get a little wary. 

Elena: Some fans, like us, were wary as well because we love him for his music and want more music, not movies and nail polish. 

Chase: I think it’s clear that Styles wasn’t taking this time to hone his acting craft. He was taking advantage of his rising fame to get his name attached to blockbuster films. And each film also acts as a way to expand his audience beyond the core fans that had followed him into Dunkirk. A Marvel franchise ushers him into a male-dominated space that also has broad general audience appeal (his Coachella appearances around the same time also solidified this). Don’t Worry Darling pushes his identity into an explicitly “sexy” and dramatic role — completely disregarding the public distaste of that marketing — that appeals to old and new thriller fans, and maybe even to a generation of older women. And My Policeman is his attempt at being a serious actor, playing an introspective LGBTQ character in a movie that is also a meta take on his public relationships and accusations of queerbaiting. 

Elena: It’s giving mastermind, but his strategy has partially backfired because both Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman were shrouded in controversy. Directors and production companies don’t mind that because there is the guarantee that Styles’ devoted fanbase will show up for their king. I mean, we did. Don’t Worry Darling has made over $86 million at the worldwide box office, which is pretty good for a non-Marvel movie.

Chase: And the fact that he doesn’t see any repercussions for a bad role just reinforces that he should be considered for even bigger roles. 

Harry Styles the Character™

Chase: The conversation surrounding Styles’ acting performances isn’t happening in isolation; it’s prompted by our perception of him as a teenage heartthrob and global pop star. 

Elena: Weirdly, the most interesting part of this whole thing is that Styles is playing characters that fans have already written for him. Just scroll through the fanfiction sites, and you’ll see that two popular fan-created versions of “Harry Styles” are referred to as “Dark Harry” and “Larry Harry.”

[Mild Don’t Worry Darling and My Policeman spoilers ahead.]

In “Dark Harry” fanfiction, Styles is written as dramatic and abusive, and an early trope found in fics at the time was female characters (sometimes original characters, known as OCs, or self-inserts, known as Y/N or “your name”) being sold to or kidnapped by One Direction. This is eerily similar to what happens in Don’t Worry Darling

On the other end of the spectrum is the way he’s often depicted in Larry Stylinson (a portmanteau of Harry Styles and bandmate Louis Tomlinson) fanfiction. There, Styles is portrayed by fic writers as closeted, hiding behind his heartthrob image, similar to the plot of My Policeman. There are still fans who believe this depiction of their relationship to be real, a contentious faction of the fandom which Tomlinson has spoken out against

Someone is writing about luscious locks and green orbs as we speak.
Credit: Kevin Winter / BMA2015 / Getty Images for DCP

Chase: Those are essential characterizations of Styles within the fandom and their cultural resonance might be one reason why fans are quick to dismiss actual film criticism or broader industry context when discussing Styles in these roles. He’s not unaware of these identities, either, and he’s gotten ample criticism for feeding into those stereotypes

Elena: And it’s important to note that fans often have to reckon with these fictional identities whenever they see him. That’s more than 10 years worth of context. For goodness sake, there have been not one, but two movie adaptations of Harry Styles fanfic. The latest is The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway. I just don’t see him overcoming that as an actor. But I’m all for him taking on goofy comedic roles moving forward. 

Chase: The Harry Styles™ brand is also a character in itself — the way he has become a face of Gucci, a “business owner” with brands like Pleasing, his investment in various music venues, and his identity as one of the so-called kindest men in the industry also feed into another version of Styles. His attractiveness is plastered everywhere in such recognizable ways. 

Elena: The line about “ordinary faces being the best to paint” in reference to Styles’ character in My Policeman completely lost me. 

So the question is: Should he continue acting?

Chase: Based on the burden of his own musical, acting, and fan-dictated history… no. 

Elena: As a fan, it already takes a lot of brain power to sit in the theater and not think about Styles and who he is. It’s exhausting to then have to follow the actual plot of the movie as well. 

Chase: He was set up to fail with this recent film cycle, following incredibly prominent music and business ventures (and a very public relationship) that made him already oversaturated. If he is really dead set on acting, he should stick to comedies, maybe even musical theater, and understand that he’s not an auteur of film or acting. He shines when you can see that he’s having fun or not taking himself too seriously. Because in all of these roles there’s an obvious elephant in the room — him!

Elena: Better yet, let him star in a silent film! 

Chase: Absolutely agree. Those moments without dialogue, where he’s relying on his physical acting both seriously and comedically, are where he succeeds. Just picture a silent movie era renaissance helmed by Harry Styles… His music video for the Fine Line song “Treat People With Kindness” was actually a perfect example of that! 

No more blockbusters, no more indies, but maybe he can do some “regular” roles first to get his movie legs?

Elena: He’s no Timothée Chalamet or Josh O’Connor! Honestly, if he wants to expand outside of singing, he would make a good variety show host. Too bad he’s addicted to touring. 

Our own Tinker Bell, Harry thrives with a live audience.
Credit: Terence Patrick / CBS via Getty Images

Chase: If you’re reading this Harry Styles, go on a vacation and practice self-care. You can’t do it all!

Elena: Please don’t bring the pop to the cinema ❤️.

Mashable