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Interview: Jamie Bell on falling in love with Annette Bening and his "Billy Elliot" reunion

by Nathaniel R

Jamie Bell has been famous since he was 14 years old. His debut film Billy Elliott (2000) about a young boy who discovers a passion for dancing that puts him at odds with his blue-collar community, became a global sensation. The charming film earned over $100 million (on a $5 million budget), received 3 Oscar nominations multiple BAFTAs, and eventually spawned a similarly popular stage musical which took yet more prizes.

The film also earned its young star the BAFTA for Best Actor in February of 2001. And, seventeen years later, here we are again. Jamie Bell is BAFTA nominated for Best Actor for his latest movie Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool. The romantic drama, now in limited release, is about the last days of Oscar winner Gloria Grahame's (Annette Bening) life and the young unknown actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) she falls in love with, and whose life she essentially takes over moving into his parents home (where they're both mothered by Julie Walter). 

I had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Bell a few times this season at events which was a gift since the actor is so charming and his talent somehow still undervalued 17 years later. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool should change that as his best performance yet. Our interview is after the jump..

NATHANIEL R: All movies are shot out of sequence. But the drama this time is all about the tiny shifts in the relationships, so I imagine that made shooting extra hard. How did you and Annette keep track of where you in all of that?

JAMIE BELL: Initially the production had arranged two weeks of rehearsal which, to be honest, is a luxury on movies. So I felt very comfortable that I'd get used to Annette, and we'd be on top of it. But in those two weeks we didn't get a single scene on its feet. Not one!


That whole time we sat in Pinewood Studios with Paul McGuigan, Matt Greenhalgh, and Barbara Broccoli [The director, writer, and producer] and we just charted the trajectory of this relationship and made a roadmap. We knew, as you said, that we'd be jumping in and out of time. Especially for Annette, because of Gloria's deteriorating health, it was important to know exactly where we were at all times.


A lot of great stuff really came from that. Peter Turner was also involved. We'd go to him. 'Okay, we had this idea where we wanted to push this scene further, and they'll be really mad at each other,'  or... 'was that something that would have happened?'. We'd get it straight from the horses's mouth as it were. He started remembering things he hadn't remembered in a really long time. Or things he'd chosen to forget. It was extremely creative.

NATHANIEL: And so collaborative!

JAMIE BELL: Annette and I really had each other's backs during the movie. We both knew how in love we'd really have to be with each other to sell this.  

Usually when actors are playing real life people, those people are, um, dead. But you had Peter Turner right there. On the set sometimes! I know you didn't have to worry about mimicry because he's not someone the audience would be familiar with but you still have to drag his emotional life out into the open. Was that uncomfortable?  

It was certainly nervewracking. [His relationship with Gloria] is probably the thing that affected him most in his entire life and to this day he's still trying to understand it. Why did she choose to end her days with him and his family? Why couldn't she tell him she was sick? Knowing how he still wracks his brains about it and knowing how emotional he would get when he would talk about her... I knew for my portrayal it had to be more than just this woman he's in love with but someone who changed his life forever. 

We were very comfortable with one another. Peter leads with his heart and he's non judgmental. He accepts people and their flaws -- he certainly did with Gloria. So, I never felt he was looking over his shoulder at me or being critical. I just wanted to make sure that when he saw the film he fell in love with Annette in the same way he fell in love with Gloria.

Annette Bening is easy to fall in love with.

Yes. Yes.

[Laughter]. Had you ever seen a Gloria Grahame film before making this?

I wanted to replicate, as much as I could, what Peter would have went through when he first met her. He had no idea who she was, no idea that she'd won an Oscar. I wanted that same feeling, too, to learn stuff about her as we went. I watched movies of hers while we were making the film. At a certain stage I would watch The Big Heat, at another stage In a Lonely Place. Etcetera.

It was really helpful for me. I was learning about how sultry and fragile and vulnerable she was. I don't know about you but when I watch a Gloria movie I really get this 'No one could ever possess me' quality but also this desperation and needing to be possessed and cared for.

NATHANIEL: You became famous when you were very young and a lot of people will look at this movie as 'ooh, it's a Billy Elliott reunion!' since Julie Walters is playing your mom and you have a dance scene. Did you think about that before taking the job or is that just something that we as audience or fans are projecting on to what's totally unrelated for you?

JAMIE BELL: I think it would be difficult not to have Billy Elliott going through your mind for various reasons. The disco dancing scene, for example, isn't a script invention because I'm a dancer. That was something that genuinely happened. That was the beginning of Peter and Gloria's friendship that turned into a relationship.

When I heard that Julie Walters was going to be playing my mother, at first I thought 'Is this going to be a good idea? Will it be too distracting, actually?' But because it gives you familiarity, it's a good thing. In the movie universe they are mother and son in a way. And what a pleasure it was to get to work with her again. She's an astounding talent. 

Given your breakthrough as a kid, how come we haven't seen you in an actual musical?

It's such a good question! You'd think I would have been flooded with opportunities. But nothing has come up.  I'm desperate to put some tap shoes back on because that was always my preferred style of dance. There's not many tap dancing movies being made, unfortunately.

But you would do a musical?

Absolutely. I would love to.

Honestly, you've really been really killing it in terms of range. You were so good in Nymphomaniac. and the character is a 180 from Film Stars. And TURN. And Jane Eyre. Is there anything you can't do?

Jamie Bell in "Nymphomaniac"JAMIE BELL: [Laughter] It's not really a conscious decision to go after things that keep people guessing. It's just what comes across my desk that I'm interested in. But my career is a bit of a pinball machine! [Laughter.] It's certainly not consistent!

But I'm grateful for that. That's what actors want at the end of the day. They want to play different people and have people see them in a different way. I'm fortunate to have one of those faces that works in different periods and works in different landscapes and such. I feel blessed to be able to do that.

But you don't plan it out.

I'm never going 'Okay, I just made a romantic movie with Annette Bening so now I need to do something fucked up and dark and horrible.' If the material speaks to me or if there's a filmmaker I believe in or there's something about the character that rings true. I don't want to do things just to be a contrarian.

Your next one sounds like another 180º, though. Donnybrook? It's a fighting movie?

It's a drama more than a fighting movie, though there's a fighting element. It's about this poor guy who steals $1000 to enter a bare-knuckle fight tournament so he can win a pot of money. It's a poetic journey of this desperate family -- they've kind of come up against it. My character is ex military. He's breaking the law but he's also trying to teach his stepson the ways of the world. It's beautiful. It's got a lot of heart. 

You've worked with a ton of great actors in your career and now Annette Bening who is an all timer. When you work with people of that calibre, are you trying to learn everything you can from them or do you not think about it that way as a co-star? 

To be honest, you don't really have time to think about it. When you work with great actors, they come crazy prepared. I looked in Annette's car one day during costume fittings. There were post-it notes all over the dashboards with these questions about Gloria. "What does she do about money?" etcetera. I was like 'wow wow wow wow she's living this person constantly constantly constantly.'

So when she comes to the set she doesn't need two or three takes to get warmed up and start swinging, she starts swinging. You play catch up.

I don't usually work that way. It takes me longer to get comortable. But say go and she hits it hard and quick. It all became a blur but the great actors surprise you. They try to catch you off guard. It helps you because then all you're doing is reacting which is what you're supposed to do anyway! It's wonderful to work with someone where you know that take one is going to be fierce.

What do you hope to do after Donnybrook

I want to do a Fred Astaire biopic, I really do. I want someone to get that going. He's an interesting guy from the Golden Age and he had a pursuit of perfection which is borderline sometimes. I'm fascinated by him and it would give me a chance to dance again. I adore his movies. That's a passion project. I keep putting that out into the ether as much as possible and hopefully it'll come back to me in some way.

I also just produced my first film Teen Spirit. We're in post-production. Max Minghella directed it and it stars Elle Fanning. Hopefully we're going to festivals.

I didn't know you were branching out -- now you can produce your own material!

Well, Fred Astaire! [Laughs] Maybe I have to do it myself.

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