‘I didn’t know who I was’: The Big Interview – Jamie Bell
Let’s start with the big question. Given that Jamie Bell is sitting down with a publication big on wellness, how does he find inner balance? His reply is nothing if not apologetic. ‘Erm, God… I don’t,’ he says. ‘I don’t have that discipline. I don’t get stressed out by work, really. I like working. I dedicate a lot of my time to it and when I’m not working, I want to be. That is an escape for me.’
It’s been 17 years since Jamie was plucked from a working class, one parent family in Bellingham, County Durham, and cast as ballet dancing schoolboy Billy Elliot in the eponymously named, and multi-award-winning movie.
The boy who discovered dance at the age of six (and, like Billy, hid it from his friends) became a global jet setter almost overnight: red carpets, chat-show sofas and premiere parties were suddenly his new normal.
‘Going to New York for the first time, I was like, “What is going on?” Before I made that movie, I’d never been on an aeroplane. That’s when I was, like, “There’s something really big here”,’ he recalls.
Jamie is clearly canny when it comes to picking film roles, combining lower-budget indie fare such as David Gordon Green’s Undertow, Hallam Foe and the controversial Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac Vol II (‘I would never have imagined myself in that role’), with blockbusters such as King Kong, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin.
The variety and depth of each role all helped him slowly and steadily finesse his craft. ‘I’m much more drawn to the ‘thinking outside the box’ element,’ says Jamie. ‘I always want to keep doing different things, challenging myself, working with good people.’
It’s his latest release, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, that unites Balance with Jamie in a vast suite at the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch.
The film is a beautiful, yet tough-going, biopic, telling the true story of a 20-something Liverpudlian actor called Peter Turner (Bell) who falls for ageing Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). She subsequently dies of cancer. Based on Turner’s memoir, the movie was adapted by writer-director Paul McGuigan and is an emotional breath-stealer. It sticks in your mind long after the credits, which Jamie says is his primary professional objective.
‘There’s no question actors are very well taken care of for the most part but, ultimately it’s about the work. That’s what’s remembered. You’re going to remember Daniel Day-Lewis because he’s a f***ing great actor and if I had one movie as good as his, I could die a happy man. We don’t have a lot of time and it’s about the stuff you leave behind.’
Billy Elliot undoubtedly resonated with millions, which Jamie recognises he is ‘lucky’ for, but while most actors graft for years to achieve the career pinnacle of an industry gong, Jamie was just 14 when he won a BAFTA for leading actor.
‘It’s all downhill from there!’ he laughs, placing his feet on the coffee table between us and rocking back on the hind legs of his chair. He’s joking, of course – the Oscar buzz for Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is strong. But after hitting such a high so early, did he feel under duress to stay at the top of his game?
‘I never felt any pressure,’ says Jamie, later explaining that in addition to ‘finding humour in things’, ‘resilience’ is one of his greatest strengths. It’s also the quality he hopes to inspire in his and fellow actor Evan Rachel Wood’s four-year-old son.
The couple met in 2004 while shooting the video for Green Day’s Top 10 hit Wake Me Up When September Ends, but split 10 months after their son’s birth and now share equal custody. They have also never publicly named their son, who Jamie says is his greatest achievement of all.
‘The thing I’m most proud of in my life is being a parent and having a kid, without question. It’s the thing I’m most grateful for. I want to put him on a pedestal and be, like, “He’s amazing!”’
He continues: ‘Parenting requires a certain tenacity. It’s pushing through those walls and giving the kind of experience you wanted as a kid and probably failing all over the place and just keeping going, doing the best you can.’
Slight in body – he’s of medium build and 5ft 7ins tall – in person, Jamie is funny, engaging and, like most of us, disheartened by US politics and parenting in an age of global terrorism.
‘F****ing hell, yeah. It’s miserable,’ he says. ‘You’re constantly doing everything you can to make them safe while realising that, eventually, you’re going to have to go’ – he pushes out his arms, palms first – ‘“there you go, out into the big, wide world” and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the devastating thing about being a parent.’
Jamie recently married for a second time. He and House of Cards actor Kate Mara, 34, who he met on the set of 2015 movie Fantastic Four, announced the news on their respective social media accounts, with Jamie sharing a hazy picture of him and his new wife kissing with the words: ‘Me & Mrs B’. Kate uploaded the same picture to her account and wrote: ‘Nuptials.’
He smiles at the suggestion that having another child might dispel the eventual devastation of his first born one day flying the nest. ‘Yeah, I’ll just have another one,’ he says. ‘That will solve all the issues.’
Jamie’s father walked out on his mum, Eileen, before he was born and the pair have subsequently never had a relationship. In Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool there is a poignant scene where Jamie’s character, Peter, shares a beer with his on-screen father, a reality Jamie has never experienced.
‘I guess I have a version in my brain of what a dad and a kid drinking in a pub is, so I went to that place,’ says Jamie. So, in the absence of his father, who was his male role model growing up?
‘Comedians,’ he answers, his dialect a quirky amalgamation of North East meets California.
‘Every time, if I’m on location by myself or miserable or grumpy, I always watch those British TV shows. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese. They feel like they’re my family. I watched them constantly on VHS when I was eight years old. I felt connected to them then and I still do.’
Much has been made of the fact that Jamie has form when it comes to playing characters with absent parents – you begin to wonder whether not having a relationship with his own father has affected the roles he chooses.
‘It gives you a drive,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really have a strong sense of identity as a kid or know who I was. I’m sure there’s this thing that is about identity and going “Who am I, who am I?” and it pushes you.’
Unlike his child-star contemporaries who plunged off the rails in their teenage years, Jamie has avoided the pitfalls of drugs and drink. ‘Maybe I am very boring!,’ he laughs, crediting his team, namely his agent and friend of 17 years Vanessa Pereira, for keeping his ‘ego in check’ and guiding him down the right path.
‘From an early age my opinion mattered,’ says Jamie. ‘When I had something to say, film makers would ask me questions and I’m sure I’ve had some really stupid ideas, and sounded like an idiot, but I was always given a place at the table and I appreciated that.’
While admitting that he ‘always kind of looks for approval,’ Jamie remains remarkably untouched by his years in the Hollywood rat race. He’s lived in America for 14 years – first in New York and now in LA. Jamie shakes his head when asked if he feels pressure to visit the gym all the time. ‘I do if the role requires it, but no. I enjoy jogging. There’s a reservoir very close to where I live, so I run around it once and then I’m done.’
Does he still dance? ‘I do enjoy it. I don’t do any classes. I just do it around, whenever. It happens daily.’
Last year, Jamie was touted as being lined up to fill Daniel Craig’s shoes as James Bond. But would he like the role? ‘If the question is, would I work with [Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli again, I’d do it in a heartbeat,’ he says. ‘She’s a fantastic producer and what she does for the British film industry is amazing.
‘She and the BFI are investing £12million in trying to pump more diversity and opportunity into the British film industry, so in that regard, sure,’ he says, referring to the UK Film Skills Task Force, a recruitment drive devised by Barbara and Amanda Nevill, chief executive of the BFI, to provide 10,000 people with jobs in the film industry.
But with Daniel Craig only making one more Bond movie, could Jamie confirm whether he’s going to be the next Bond? ‘Absolutely not,’ he says.
To be fair, there’s plenty on his plate, namely co-producing a pop musical spin on Cinderella called Teen Spirit, starring Elle Fanning, which is being directed by Max Minghella and funded by the team behind La La Land. There’s also talk of a TV version of his 2008 feature film Jumper.
Work-hungry, passionate and as grounded as they come, whether his latest film lands him an Oscar nomination or not, you sense the future is bound to be as exciting for Jamie as his past.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (cert 15) opens at cinemas nationwide on 17 November