Jamie Bell on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
It ’s so difficult, because he feels like family. Losing him would be f**king catastrophic,’ says Jamie Bell solemnly, staring into the middle distance. ‘I wouldn’t know who I am or what my name is any more.’ The conversation has taken a dark turn as the 31-year-old contemplates a future without one of the most important people in his life: Arsène Wenger.
Yes, that Arsène Wenger, the long-time Arsenal FC manager. Bell, the Billingham-born lad who pliéed his way into the nation’s hearts as the ballet-dancing child star of Billy Elliot, is an avid Arsenal supporter, watching games live from his Los Angeles home. ‘My wife’s always like, “Are you seriously getting up at 4.30am to watch a football game?”’ he says, imitating a groggy Kate Mara – she of House of Cards fame. ‘The time zones are a pain, but I hate watching it pre-recorded.’
This is typical Bell. Which is to say, entirely atypical. While the angelic face of his ballet- dancing boyhood remains (albeit adorned with a touch more designer stubble), Bell is a stereotype-confounding contradiction: born and bred in County Durham, a fervent Arsenal fan, with a soft, quasi-Californian, mostly ‘I unplaceable accent; a long-term resident of LA with an A-list wife and a cohort of Hollywood pals, yet gregarious, unguarded and grounded; a child star who won a BAFTA aged 14, but who at no point showed the merest hint of going off the rails. Quite the opposite, as Bell has matured into a credible actor working with some of the finest talent.
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Case in point: his latest movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Bell was cast by Bond producer Barbara Broccoli for the lead, Peter Turner, a struggling Scouse actor who enters into an unlikely romance with a much older woman – the faded black-and-white film star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). Adapted from a memoir of the same name by Peter Turner, the film is at times tender, at times funny, and at others devastating. It’s a film with ‘awards season’ written all over it.
Playing a young actor from the north of England, displaced across the pond and surrounded by stars, did Bell empathise with his character’s situation? ‘For sure. First of all, he’s a jobbing actor. Pretty similar… ish,’ says Bell sheepishly. After all, this is a man who’s been hand-picked to star in films by Steven Spielberg, Lars von Trier, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood and Cary Fukunaga, among others – hardly the credits list of a jobbing actor.
‘But basically, a world was given to him, doors were opened for him,’ he continues. ‘I mean, very similar to me. I’d never been on a plane before I made my first film, and after that I was on a f**king plane every week, seeing these amazing places and getting to meet these fascinating people. I certainly remembered what that felt like. I’ve definitely felt like that person in the middle of the room going, “Y’alright, I’m from Billingham, yeah, what’s goin’ on?” And how people think you’re just the cutest little thing in the room. It’s a fascinating experience.’
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Some 17 years ago, Bell was plucked from obscurity and, practically overnight, elevated to full-blown global stardom, thanks to his touching portrayal of Billy Elliot. Despite everything that he’s done since, from Tintin to spanking Charlotte Gainsbourg’s exposed derrière in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, that little ballet-dancing boy follows him around like a shadow, haunting his every interview. That, surely, must grate.
‘Until you do something [else] as iconic as that, that’s your cross to bear,’ he says. ‘Or your shiny medal to wear – whichever way you want to look at it. [Billy Elliot] is a universal story. You could be in South Korea and it means the same thing as it does to someone who watches it in Newcastle. It profoundly resonates on a deep emotional level with people, which means it sticks with them for ever. So I can’t imagine ever sitting down to conduct an interview with someone where it’s not mentioned. How could it not be?’
Bell laughs, and it’s clear that for him, Billy Elliot is more ‘medal’ than ‘cross’. ‘An actor’s lucky if they get one of those [roles]. Ever. The idea of having two…’ Mouth agape and palms to the ceiling, he trails off in disbelief. He’s right: the only way he could shake off the Billy Elliot epithet would be to embody an even more iconic part.
But with projects on the go, including his debut on the other side of the camera – as executive producer on next year’s Teen Spirit – as well as filming the Tintin sequel, the future is looking really rather bright for this understated, arguably underrated star.
Now that he’s spent more time living in Los Angeles than in Billingham, and more time as a successful actor than as an aspiring dancer, isn’t it time we all stopped seeing Jamie Bell as this little boy done good? ‘But that’s what it is. You can’t deny it,’ he says, batting away my assertion that perhaps these days he’s more Santa Monica than Stockton-on-Tees. ‘I think part of the reason I’ve managed to get this far is that idea of, “But he’s just a working-class kid from the North, give him a job”,’ he laughs, adopting a mock-pitying voice. ‘“Give him a break.” To shake that narrative, I think, is almost impossible. But I wouldn’t want to.’
Jamie Bell plays Peter Turner in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, directed by Paul McGuigan, in cinemas from 17 November