RINGING THE CHANGES
After dancing his way to stardom via Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell chose to shum the limelight. Now 21, he tells Leigh Singer about his stifling hometown, living in NY and his starring role as a teenage voyeur.
August 27 – September 2 2007
“It’s not difficult to become a movie star. It isn’t anymore. I used to think, oh that’s a level I don’t know how you get to, when it’s really simple. It really is. But the risk factor is huge. And also, it’s just not that interesting. The movies are really crappy.”
There are few cases where a 21-year old can sound off so blithely about his chosen profession and not sound like a complete dilettante. Possible exceptions, however, might include a) when you’re discussing the insane, childhood-sucking film industry and b) when you’re Jamie Bell.
At thirteen, Bell pirouetted his way into cinemagoers’ hearts as the plucky Northern ballet boy in hit film Billy Elliot. Overnight a shy, bullied dancer from a single-parent family in Billingham became the toast of Hollywood, winner of a Best Actor BAFTA (beating out, among others, Tom Hanks and Michael Douglas), name-checked in Russell Crowe’s Oscar speech. There hadn’t been so much fuss over a twinkle-toed performer since John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever.
Some seven years – one-third of his lifetime – later, mainstream audiences still probably link Bell only to Billy. True, they may have seen him scurrying across Iwo Jima as a US marine in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers; or fleeing a giant digital ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. But in terms of obvious leading roles, Bell’s been notable by his absence – and very much by his own choice.
“There was definitely an opportunity where the timing would have been right to go to LA to take those meetings,” he continues. “You know, new kid in town, did well with this movie, we could put him on a plastic lunchbox and basically sell it. But you get known for what you put out there. And I would hate for it to be the case that someone came up to me and said, ‘You were amazing in that Killer Vine movie’. ‘Thanks…’”
It’s fascinating to watch Bell assess his own fledgling-yet-somehow-veteran career. Genial, quick-witted company, there’s no obvious dramatic physical change from the youthful prodigy we first saw. He may sound more worldly-wise but in the flesh he’s just a slightly larger version of “wor Billy” and the foolish urge to add a patronising “aww, bless” has to be checked. Just don’t think he’s not aware of it.
“People have this idea,” he counters good-naturedly, “and then they see me, and it’s like, ‘Oh I see, you’ve kind of got broad shoulders. You still kind of have those big ears but you’re a little bit taller now’. That’s always really refreshing.”
Bell’s point is that he’s in this acting business for the long-term. It’s clear he sees the blockbuster or “lunchbox” route – and the lifestyle it often entails - as a quick fix with serious risk of overdose.
“It’s like, what’s [Sixth Sense star] Haley Joel Osment doing? Where is he?” he quizzes, well knowing the answer. “He got pulled over for DUI recently. I look at people like Christian Bale, who I guess like myself had big success as a young kid [in Empire of the Sun]. He worked consistently but he learned how to act, he didn’t capitalise until Batman [Begins]. There’s a time when you can do that and I don’t think that’s until your late 20s.”
Despite multiplex perception, Bell’s actually been very busy, mainly honing his craft on smaller-scale, independent films. The draw hasn’t been the pay cheque or profile, but rather the talent. Filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier (Dear Wendy) or David Gordon Green (Undertow) who, he’s adamant, genuinely stretch a young actor.
“When you make these kinds of films, you realise that’s there’s a very specific and usually very small audience who sees it. To me that’s totally fine. I get to embody the person, work with a talented young filmmaker who has a vision. I feel much more rewarded as an actor doing these kind of Hallam Foe roles.”
Ah, yes, Hallam Foe, the reason for our meeting. Promoted as Bell’s first UK film lead since you-know-who, it’s an intriguing study of a disaffected Scottish teenager, a voyeur who lives in a tree house, wears a badger head as a hat, suspects his step-mother murdered his mother and runs away to Edinburgh, scuttling along rooftops and clock towers, spying on the young woman (Sophia Myles) who reminds him of his late ma.
Bell’s in practically every scene as a character who couldn’t be any further removed from Master Elliot. “I read the script, and by page 1, it’s like, ‘Hallam takes off his shirt and draws rings around his nipples with lipstick’”, he grins. “I was like, ‘I’m in.’ That’s very different from dancing on top of a toilet, essentially.”
A spoonful of spiked sugar in the British film industry cuppa, neither the film, adapted from Peter Jinks’s novel and directed by David Mackenzie, nor the character, court our sympathies. The humour is near-the-knuckle but genuinely funny; Hallam’s voyeurism, understandable but never excused. It’s a cult movie in the making, yet one with real breakout potential, all of which appealed to Bell even more.
“By page 20, I thought, I don’t know why we like this character, he’s a bastard,” he reflects. “And I responded to that because if you can make an audience like a character like that, it’s a real challenge.”
Two particular challenges stood out. Firstly, Hallam’s predilection for Spider-Man-style antics, when, as Bell confesses, “I fucking hate heights. Never been into climbing. Most kids climb shit when they’re…eight? I was in dance class when I was eight through thirteen, so I really had to kind of get in touch with my lost boy childhood.” Proudly, he points out that he does all his own climbing in the film.
Perhaps even, er, harder, was his initiation into love scenes, again something at which he sheepishly admits he had “zero experience”. “You go through a couple of stages, like, what happens if I get a boner?” he recounts, of his racy scenes with co-stars Myles and Claire Forlani. “What happens if I don’t get a boner? Is she going to be upset?”
“We’re outside in a tree house - and it’s fucking cold in Scotland - cut to me standing up, literally covering my balls, going ‘Is that alright?’” He chuckles. “There are a couple of things you really don’t take into account when you’re reading the script.”
Heights and fake sex aside, it was after shooting the film that Bell found himself thinking “how much I actually am like Hallam, just by nature.” From school onwards, teased by classmates about his ballet lessons, through to the success that precisely his dancing helped him achieve, he talks of growing up in Stockton-on-Tees as being, “an alien, essentially”, even more so after Billy Elliot came out.
“I was so disconnected from school when I got back there,” he remembers, “I couldn’t really walk the corridors. Everyone’s looking at you, it’s weird, their dads have shown them the cover of the Daily Mail over the weekend and you were on the cover. You’re constantly trying to reassure them, ‘I’m still me’. Of course the more you do that, the more they’re like ‘Yeah yeah yeah…’”
“I truanted from school for months. I used to phone the school pretending to be my mother, saying ‘Oh Jamie’s in LA doing something.’ I stayed at home. It was just easier that way. I got away with it for months until my mum caught me and I got bollocked.”
You realise how much life has changed when Bell delights in detailing his current domicile in Chelsea – Chelsea, New York, that is - where he’s lived alone for over a year, and explains the transatlantic burr in the Billingham accent. “It suits me right now,” he says simply. “It’s like a big community, a lot of actors and musicians and wannabe filmmakers…”
And dancers? “I can’t dance in clubs, I really can’t,” he quickly insists. “But yeah, everyone’s doing their own style. It’s a city where you’re allowed to be that. Very different from my roots, which were ‘don’t be yourself, don’t express yourself in any way.’”
Noting his enthusiasm at having found a niche, it’s hard not to link back to the end of Billy Elliot, with the adult Billy happily ensconced in London. And yet there’s also a nagging echo of the restless Hallam Foe, stalking the Edinburgh streets.
“I’ve definitely walked around a city by myself and been like, ‘what’s going on? Why am I here?’” Bell admits. Without pausing, he adds, “he’s kind of in touch with himself a lot although he doesn’t understand it. He’s good at being alone which is actually fucking hard to do.”
Further parallels go unmentioned and that’s about right. Clearly more sure-footed than his latest alter ego, it’ll be interesting to see where Jamie Bell’s next few years take him. For now, it seems he’s still a few steps ahead of those Killer Vine movies.
Hallam Foe is out on August 31st