Billy Elliot turned him into a ‘brat’. But playing Tintin, in Steven Spielberg’s eye-popping new film, has made Jamie Bell realise what he really is – a lost child.
“I lost my mind at 15,” says Bell of his hype-induced meltdown. He went back to school and managed to finish his GCSEs. But, “I’d been shown a world where there were no boundaries, where everyone gave me all the power. And I was like, ‘This is great!’ Then that was gone. But I was like, ‘Yeah, but I still want that.’ I’d lost my humble, very quiet, introverted sensibilities which I think I definitely had as a kid. And I…” Became a brat?
“Yeah, I became a little a-------,” he smiles. “And, you know, you’re a 15-year-old kid so it’s your world. And I was a b------ at 16! But still, looking back on it now, it was worrying because it is very persuasive, and you have all these grown-ups who it seems are encouraging it. And that’s unhealthy.” But unlike so many child stars before him, Bell’s spin-out was short-lived.
His mother, his manager and Stephen Daldry, the Billy Elliot director who became the mentor and father figure that Bell had never had, helped steer him right. (Bell has never had contact with his father, who left before he was born.) He chose parts in a few indie films, and turned down parts in American teen movies, “which focused on me as a kid. I wanted to still be a kid, but I came from the north east of England. I didn’t really sympathise or empathise with those kinds of characters.” And so he quietly got on with building a decent career as an actor. The rampaging ego retreated.
Since then he’s had a busy, buzzy career working with edgy(ish) directors such as Carey Fukunaga (in last month’s Jane Eyre), Kevin MacDonald (in spring’s The Eagle), David Mackenzie (in 2007’s Hallam Foe) and Thomas Vinterberg (in 2005’s Dear Wendy) as well as marquee names like Clint Eastwood (Flags of our Fathers) and Peter Jackson (King Kong). But he is still, to many cinemagoers, That Kid Who Was In Billy Elliot. So when, a couple of years ago, he was asked to call to try out for the lead in a blockbusting superhero franchise, he thought he’d be a fool to say no.
Even though “I never really sympathised with Peter Parker,” Bell agreed to audition for the title role in director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man.
“Well, no, I definitely sympathise with him,” Bell hastily corrects himself. He’s still only 25, yet having made his award-winning acting debut 11 years ago, he’s Hollywood-savvy enough to know he should never rule himself out of any role or character or idea of a character. “But I’ve just never seen myself as Peter Parker,” he says. “I’ve always been more of a Batman person.
“But, you know, it is the biggest franchise in Hollywood for a young male actor. When you’ve got Sony [the Spider-Man studio] saying, ‘We really want you to come and screen test,’ of course you’re gonna do it — it’s a very flattering position to be in. Especially when you consider the other people that are also doing it.” One of those other people auditioning was Andrew Garfield, the fellow Brit (although he’s American-born) acclaimed and famed for his role in The Social Network. Bell and Garfield — who is the “nicest guy” — “had a great time” in what Bell calls “Spidey school: a great exercise, a great workout, learning all these fight routines.
“Then we were at this dinner — and this was right before [the casting] got announced — and a salt shaker fell off the table. And Andrew and I both instinctively went like this” — Bell shoots out his arm in a web-slinging, catch-a-falling-child move — “and there was a look in both our eyes: ‘We’ve been to Spidey school too long…’”
In the end Garfield got the part; Spider-Man swings into cinemas in July next year, and Garfield’s life will never be the same again. But Bell understands, and claims not to be bothered. “I think they made a great decision. He’s a really great actor. And I’m really excited about the movie.”
When this kind of thing happens — when Actor X is chosen over Actor Y — do studio bosses ever bother to tell the loser why he’s not The One? Bell thinks for a minute. Is it impolitic to reveal such behind-the-velvet-curtain machinations? “Well, it’s just like, eh,” he eventually stutters. “No, they never usually do that. Marc sent me a very nice email and was really thankful for all the work I’d done. But I think it’s just simple — when the studio heads and producers and directors sit down, they see something and go, ‘That’s the version of the movie we want to make.’ They didn’t want to make my version — totally fine,” he shrugs, slapping his thigh. “I have no issue with that.” Ultimately, he concludes, “you can’t really be analytical of the decision-making process. You just can’t. You have to move on.” Luckily, Bell had something great to move on to.
The youngster from Teesside is now the living embodiment of another boy-adventurer, one even more storied than Peter Parker: Tintin. And Bell’s new cinematic collaborators are every bit as famous as the character, if not more so: Steven Spielberg, the most successful populist film-maker ever, and Peter Jackson, helmsman of the box-office-busting Lord of the Rings trilogy and forthcoming Hobbit two-parter.
The Adventures of Tintin is directed by Spielberg and produced by Jackson. Responsibility for adapting the adventures of Hergé’s heroic Belgian cub reporter to the big screen 80 years after his first print appearance fell to a triumvirate of multitasking British writers: Steven Moffat (now showrunner on Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Versus the World) and Joe Cornish (radio personality director of Attack the Block). They based their script on an amalgamation of three Tintin books: The Crab With the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure.
The cast is equally weighty and inspired. Daniel Craig is villainous Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, Andy Serkis is Captain Haddock, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are Thomson and Thompson, and some brilliant computerised jiggery-pokery “is” Snowy the trusty terrier. But Bell is obviously front and centre.
Much of the filming took place over eight weeks in a California studio almost three years ago, while animation and effects teams in Los Angeles and New Zealand spent 18 months working on 1,240 camera shots. But such are the groundbreaking technicalities of this new kind of film-making process that The Adventures of Tintin was still being worked on mere weeks before its worldwide premiere.
It takes a long time to digitally conjure up Saharan deserts, boiling oceans and nameless middle-European cities at some indeterminate point in the mid-20th century. Judging by the footage I was shown, one thing was clear: this Tintin doesn’t stint on old-fashioned adventure. And it’s set in 1940, in Nazi-occupied Belgium, which, says Bell, “helps us make the film much more of a film noir, makes it more of a Hitchcock thriller versus just a kids’ action film”.
The director and Bell first talked about him playing Tintin a decade ago. Back then the idea was for a completely live action film, with Stephen Daldry behind the camera. But Bell is glad that didn’t work out, for in The Adventures of Tintin — at this point, it’s planned as a three-film series — he gets to be a franchise superhero no one will recognise. For the young actor intent on maintaining some semblance of a normal life, what could be better than “a 3D animated film driven by motion-capture performances”.
Come again? “The world, everything that you’re really looking at [in the film], is manufactured. Nothing is real,” explains Bell. Using the same technology that brought the Lord of the Rings character Gollum to life, Bell and co act out their scenes wearing suits and facial sensors that record their movements, and this is used to animate the characters. Thus we see Tintin in his familiar form, blond, bequiffed and snub-nosed. Maybe over the course of the whole film it will be obvious that it is Bell in the lead role. But on a brief viewing the actor is, literally, lost in the role. “The movie is driven by characters that are performance-capture — and by actors.”
So is it an animated film or a motion-capture film? “Well,” he exhales, “it kind of falls in the middle of those two.” Or, as Spielberg puts it, “Every single human being represented in Tintin is an actor giving a full performance — an emotional performance, a villainous performance — and that all shines through the digital make-up. We watched Hergé’s characters be reborn as living beings, expressing feelings and displaying souls, and the effect was startling.”
These days Bell lives in LA, whence he relocated three years ago after a short stint in New York. Over the course of our interview his accent reverts to his Teesside roots. But with a few American roles under his belt, he’s developed something of a transatlantic twang. In Tintin he has another voice still — a light, breathless, very English gasp. How did he arrive at that? “Steven said he loved my own voice, which is kind of a wise voice but wasn’t soft around the edges, and still had a bit of bite to it. So he wanted to lose as much as [possible from] my regional sound and just maintain the energetic yet wise and still not too… I don’t know… divisive on a socio-economic scale!”
Is that why his Tintin sounds so posh? “Right, right, right,” he says hurriedly. “I was just pleased that he didn’t say, ‘So he’s gonna speak with an American accent,’ ’cause if they’d have done that, that would have been really hard to commit to. That would have been really absurd. And I had always wanted to drop in merde or something when he gets something wrong,” he smiles. “But Tintin is the beacon of excellence, so he doesn’t really swear.”
With his face lightly fuzzed by stubble, his eyes framed by cool, black-rimmed reading glasses, and a hefty book of Hungarian photography under his arm, the Jamie Bell who sits down in the central London hotel suite this early autumn morning certainly looks more grown-up than he is in the popular imagination. “Jamie is not Billy Elliot any more by any means,” says Simon Pegg, “but he’s still got that boyish frame.”
He’s a calm and relaxed conversationalist, although such is his youth — or his hot-property status — that his manager spends the duration of our interview loitering in the lavatory, listening in. Yes, the actor who used to date actress Evan Rachel Wood is currently in a relationship. No, we won’t be talking about her identity, or profession.
But Bell is happy to discuss his love of Radiohead (he listens to them while “night-biking” in Santa Monica, plays guitar and, as a hobby, performs covers with a friend in LA); his games of football with Charlie Hunnam (the Queer as Folk star, another Hollywood transplant from the English North East); how living in LA is more a practical, work-orientated decision than anything else; and about his enthusiasm for photography — he has aspirations to write and direct, and finds narrative inspiration in pre- and post-war European reportage imagery.
Photography, he says, is “a good way of stimulating the brain”. Pointing at a photograph in his coffee-table book captioned “Citroën car strike, 1940, France”, he’s overcome with Tintin-ish enthusiasm. “What a great setting for a movie. Which of this crowd of people shouting at the foreman do I want to follow as a character? What’s his relationship with his parents or with his girlfriend? Is he gonna cross the picket line?”
Recently he and his friend the Irish actor Cillian Murphy — with whom he’s just made the thriller Retreat — were talking about themselves (actors tend to do that). Who are you? What are you defined as? Bell couldn’t for the life of him pigeonhole the star of Batman Begins, Breakfast on Pluto and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. But Murphy had Bell pegged. “Well, you’re an orphan.”
“And I was like, ‘Oh my God!’” gasps Bell. “Look back, I don’t think I’ve played one role where I have both parents. The Eagle — mum and dad murdered. Jane Eyre — father just died, they’re in mourning. Dear Wendy — his father dies and he doesn’t have a mother, raised by a nanny. King Kong — there’s no back story to that character. Undertow — no mother, and also father gets murdered. Deathwatch — ah, if he did, they’re probably terrible parents.
“Hallam Foe — big dead mum,” he says of the Edinburgh-set Oedipal drama. “Nicholas Nickleby — dead parents, brutalised and given away. And Tintin — no parents, never mentioned in any book.” He laughs ruefully. “That’s my pigeonhole. But there’s something about that. There is some weird signature. I don’t mind the continuity of that idea.”
With his own father entirely absent from his life, Jamie Bell understands why he’s offered these roles. And why he might be good at them, “I get it. I know what that is. So I think I can bring something to [these type of roles] that’s a little bit more personal and maybe a little bit more educated in that way.”
Next on his schedule is Filth, an adaptation of the scabrous Irvine Welsh novel about a necrotically corrupt Edinburgh policeman. James McAvoy is the lead, Bell his sidekick. If he was fixed in cinemagoers’ imagination as Hergé’s boy detective, playing a bent detective might be too much of a leap.
On every level, then, him as Tintin is perfect casting.
“The anonymity with it is amazing,” he nods. “I don’t think many people can say they’ve been the lead in a Spielberg film and still been able to live their normal life that they had before. You still maintain your mystery.
“That’s a huge part of it for me, that you can literally hide behind this puppet. Also, it means that it is completely immersive — it is a character, instead of an actor playing Tintin. I’m really immersed in it. I’m really gone. Which,” Bell beams, “is great.”
‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’ is released on October 26