click to enlargeInterview: Jamie Bell, actor
Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis on the set of FILTH
in Stirling Scotland
Jamie Bell and Gary Lewis on the set of FILTH
in Stirling Scotland
By CLAIRE SMITH
Published on Wednesday 1 February 2012 09:10
Jamie Bell, the boy who entranced the world in Billy Elliot grew up and left his native Teeside for Hollywood years ago. Now starring in the big budget heist movie, Man on a Ledge and filming Irvine Welsh’s Filth, the actor is a walking advert for those who believe in making their own luck
Jamie Bell is jangling with energy. It might be the mugs of black coffee he’s knocking back. Or the can of Red Bull. Or maybe this is how he reacts when he’s ushered in and out of rooms of journalists for a day; dictaphones thrust towards him, red lights blinking their expectation that he will be full of chat and charm, that he’ll be both entertaining and also that he’ll say something new and different and previously unheard time after time after time. It can’t be the easiest gig in the world.
If it sounds like I’m setting him up for a fall, I’m not. I’m only telling you this because Bell isn’t exactly what I thought he would be and I wonder if the context is part of that, whether the plush surroundings and the conveyor belt questioning doesn’t really fit the boy from Teeside?
It’s not that he’s surly or monosyllabic. He makes quite a lot of noise, actually. Jokes, unexpected compliments (“I like your shirt” is his opening gambit before we’ve even been introduced, “I love Auld Lang Syne” his response to hearing my accent) it’s just that it doesn’t come as easily as I thought it might and it doesn’t add up to as much as I hoped it would.
For someone running at fully-caffeinated speed, Bell, it transpires, plays his cards close to his chest. In the days after we sit in the Four Seasons, him doing impressions of my accent that sound like Shrek with laryngitis while talking in his own Teeside-tinged-with-transatlantic-twang, it turns out that Bell may or may not be engaged to Evan Rachel Wood, his longterm on/off squeeze. It also turns out he may or may not be in talks to star alongside Tilda Swinton in an upcoming project (actually he did mention a new movie and the fact that he’s not allowed to talk about it) and that he was about to strut along the runway for Miuccia Prada alongside Gary Oldman and Adrien Brody. Little monkey didn’t mention a word about any of that. But that’s not to say he was entirely unforthcoming.
What’s his favourite kind of film? Documentary because “it’s worth an hour and a half”. What does he like to do when he’s not acting? Play the guitar. He plays with two mates and it’s a “bit sh**ty because I’m not that good and they’re awesome”. What keeps bringing him back to Scotland? “Its energy and its people”. Does he always drink this much caffeine? “This is nothing. I took Claritin. Woah, that stuff is strong. I woke up with a cat in my bed. Sounds weird. I woke up slightly stuffy so I took it and I feel wiped out.” And that’s before we get to his new film, Man on a Ledge, or his next project, a cinematic version of Irvine Welsh’s Filth with James McAvoy.
So why was Jamie Bell something different to what I thought he would be? I’m not really sure. Maybe it was my fault, that I got stuck in a time warp, not doing enough to dislodge that little dancing boy from my brain to fully engage with the Hollywood actor with nearly 20 movies under his belt. Maybe I fell foul of conflating Bell’s story with that first defining character and it just didn’t quite fit. It’s not that there aren’t parallels – a working-class boy from the north east of England transported by way of talent to the big time; a single-parent family making up in love and support what it lacked in money (Bell grew up with his mother and sister); a triumph against the odds (Bell tried out for the part against 2000 other hopefuls) – that’s what lends Bell’s success a certain fairy-tale aspect. But it’s not quite accurate.
“I’m definitely aware of the association with that movie and it’s a point of reference which is totally understandable,” he says, with a slight hint of resignation in his voice. “But I’m not going to lie, you can’t get anywhere without walking the pavement; you walk the pavement of the industry. Nothing is given to you. Even that Billy Elliot movie, it didn’t just fall out of a tree. It was lucky, if you consider luck to be preparation and good timing. The dancing for six years wasn’t for nothing. It’s really hard work. But am I fortunate being a working actor, part of the three per cent that goes to work? Yeah, for sure.”
And work he has. For more than a decade, Jamie Bell has been making movies. There have been big budget blockbusters, most recently Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, but before it King Kong and Jumper with Hayden Christiansen, and independents such as Hallam Foe (made in Scotland, of course) and Defiance with Daniel Craig. In fact, as an actor, Bell is really quite an astonishing proposition. He’s 25 with a career of more than a decade behind him. He’s been directed by Clint Eastwood and Peter Jackson as well as Spielberg, he’s acted alongside everyone from Michael Fassbender via Jack Black and Channing Tatum. It’s impressive. What’s even more amazing is that he’s done all that while still keeping himself neatly out of sight of the celebrity radar. Yes, he gets papped now and then – usually if he’s with Evan Rachel Wood, especially if she appears to be wearing an engagement ring – but he’s not exactly unable to nip round to the shops for a pint of milk. Even his biggest role to date, as Herge’s boy detective, hasn’t dented his anonymity because thanks to the wonders of motion capture technology nobody could tell that it was him.
Ask him to explain how he’s gone about creating the career he has and he makes being a movie star sound like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Ask him how he’s avoided becoming a child star casualty having started out so young and he bats it away with self-deprecation.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” he says with a smirk. “I should’ve f***ed it up by now. Gone off the deep end. But I just do my thing and that’s it. There’s not really anything else to it. You turn up and do your part. That’s it, that’s your job. I just like working with really good people, talented people and forging lasting relationships.”
On the way to meet Bell amongst the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills (Bell lives in the hipper, rougher Venice area of LA) I pass billboards advertising Billy Elliot director, Stephen Daldry’s new film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. It seems serendipitous. Bell has spoken before about how important Daldry has been for him, not just professionally but as a father figure. Is that the kind of relationship Bell is talking about?
“Absolutely. That one is very specific, very special. But even the Tintin thing came out of a relationship that was forged when I met Kathy [Kathleen Kennedy, producer and one of Spielberg’s closest collaborators] when I was 16 and working with Peter Jackson. That’s the way the industry works. So if you’re honest and do a good job, it rewards you. That’s what it’s about.”
I like his low-key explanation and I want to believe it. It makes me think he must’ve been an exceptional teenager. I know what I was like when I was 16 and I don’t think I would’ve been particularly capable of making a lasting impression on a Hollywood producer. Not for positive reasons anyway.
“I was a total tool,” he laughs. “Just a working tool, that’s all.”
He says that the industry isn’t what he thought it would be when he imagined as a teenager what being an actor would be like but it’s an explanation that sounds more realistic than disillusioned.
“There’s a bit of an illusory aspect to it. A lot of it is based on hot air and illusion. If you can play with that a bit but still at your core be a genuinely nice guy, or someone who just wants to do the work, I think you’ll go places. The industry’s tiny, really small, so as soon as someone says ‘he’s a complete bastard’, it’s done, over.”
Bell’s new movie, the thoroughly entertaining and ever so slightly silly Man on a Ledge, was great fun to make he says. There was lots of mucking about with his co-star Genesis Rodriguez, lots of smoking (he gave up on Hogmanay and then promptly fell off the wagon on January 1), and larks.
“We had good fun. Too much fun. I don’t think we spent any time in our trailers. ‘Where are Genesis and Jamie?’ Smoking. It was fun. There were jokes. And dancing.”
It shows too; it’s a properly entertaining heist-movie with a cracking ensemble cast (Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie and Ed Burns), some popcorn-chokingly tense moments and some laughs too. The comedy comes mainly from Bell, as Joey Cassidy the younger brother of Nick Cassidy (Worthington), the ex-cop standing on a ledge high above the streets of Manhattan in order to prove he didn’t steal a priceless diamond, and his sidekick and girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez). They bicker and giggle and are generally goofy while they’re also attempting to break into a high-security vault.
The movie is deliberately lo-fi. Bell’s character evades a CCTV system by rolling up a corridor on a large skateboard, a spy-cam is fixed into place with a piece of chewed gum. It’s deliberately not... “Ocean’s 11,” he says, finishing my sentence. “These characters aren’t well versed in that kind of world.”
There’s a twitchiness about Bell in the movie that’s not so far from what he’s like for real. He’s whippet-thin, his physique is surprisingly dancer-like, he’s small and lean but he looks wiry and strong. His feet are up on the table, then they’re down. The chair is spun round so he can lean on its back while he swings. He scratches his leg (“mosquito bite” he says, a souvenir from a recent trip to Mexico where he spent New Year) and twists his hands. One of reasons that Bell nailed Billy Elliot all those years ago – as well as the dancing of course – was that he was one of those kids who looked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. The furrowed brow, the slightly hooded eyes, the fragile features. He still looks like that. He hasn’t developed classic leading man looks, there is no square jaw, no identikit features. He still looks worried. And despite the fact that he’s been living in Los Angeles for five years now, there is most definitely no tan.
“It’s just as well,” he says. “I’m playing a Scotsman next week.” Fair point.
Suntan aside, he seems settled in LA. He says he likes “stupid things” about the city: the studios, the history.
“When I first came here I was like ‘oh sh*t, this is where they make movies’ so I still have that nostalgic approach to it. You know, it’s not a bad place to live. It’s kind of beautiful. There’s also a part of it that’s f***ing hideous but I think that’s the way it is with most places.
“But it is bizarre that I’ve ended up here. It is kind of strange.”
I guess what he means is that it’s not often that a boy who grows up in Billingham on Teeside doing his GCSEs at the local comprehensive ends up being a movie star in Los Angeles. It’s that fairy-tale thing again, it’s hard to escape. After all, when Bell went to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time, it was only the second time he had been on a plane. He was always a performer – he danced, as did his sister, for years before the acting came along. Family holidays were organised around dance competitions and the medals and trophies were stacked in the cabinet at home. But still, it’s not exactly Hollywood. I wonder what it’s like when Bell goes back to Billingham, where his mum still lives.
“Everything just seems so much smaller,” he says. “I remember the town centre as this vast playground of all kinds of unknowns. And now it’s like wow, Billingham town centre. My perspective is so different because I didn’t stay there, so I still have the perspective of a small person, a little boy. It’s like when I go to my grandparents’ house, I literally feel like I’m in hobbit world. That is a very surreal experience. It’s like a Michel Gondry movie whenever I go to my grandparents’ houses.”
Work has brought Bell back to the UK for at least a few months each year and he reckons 2012 will be no different. He’s in Scotland now beginning work on Filth and he’s tempted to find some more independent, smaller scale films to do after that.
“I love Sigma Films in Glasgow [with whom he made Hallam Foe]. I love what they do. I definitely feel like part of that family so I’d like to support it.
“It’s like there’s a magnetic propellent that takes me back to Scotland. I love its people and I love its energy. Whenever someone says you’ve got to go back to Scotland it’s like, of course. It’s like a homecoming. And my last name is Bell.”
And your first name is Jamie, I add.
“Is that Scottish too? F***’s sake, well I’m an honorary Scot then.”
• Man on a Ledge is on general release from Friday (In the UK)