||Miércoles 7 de Diciembre de 2005, Ip nº 138
Por Chrissy Iley
Jamie Bell is on edge. He's wiggling his leg nervously, or maybe he's just jumpy. Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel, there's a vestige of the little boy, the leaping, smiling Billy Elliot. It's all in the eyes: huge, clear, happy sky blue and penetrating. They still look too big for his face, which is very grown-up, angular and delicate looking. He has the body of a dancer, lithe and not too tall. He's wearing grey tweed trousers, a current vogue in Los Angeles, and a bashed-up T-shirt bearing a map of New Zealand. His brown hair, shaved up the back with a thick thatch on the top chopped into many directions, is a remnant of his role as a soldier in a new Clint Eastwood movie.
He's worked with a few directorial greats since Stephen Daldry first hired him. Terrence Malick was the producer of Undertow. Lars von Trier wrote the script for Dear Wendy, while the maker of Festen, Thomas Vinterberg, directed. And now he's in the epic of the year, Peter Jackson's King Kong.
In the tabloids, though, he's still the 'Billy Elliot boy' and all we heard of his five months in New Zealand filming was his predilection for vodka binges. It's the Charlotte Church syndrome. Voice of an angel, feet touched by one. We all know child stars are never allowed to grow up - disgracefully, cleverly or otherwise. There's always a drama when they change. There's always a headline writer's hope that they'll go completely off the rails, start taking pills, have bad boyfriends, take their clothes off, get fat.
Jamie says drily, 'A terrible thing happened to Charlotte Church. She grew up - and wait - she went to parties - and wait - the rest of the 19-yearold generation are doing the same thing.'
He doesn't like the not-being-able-to-grow-up thing. But at the same time, 'I can understand why everyone sees me as Billy Elliot; it was the first thing I did, so I was determined to take the most diverse route possible. It wasn't to annoy people, but it seems to have upset so many people. Doing stuff like Dear Wendy definitely upset people.
I went for David Gordon Green's Undertow because he's a very self-indulgent director, I like directors like that. They are unconventional people.' Undertow is a kind of American gothic comingof- age movie involving swampland, and Bell having to spit on himself a lot. Dear Wendywas about a bunch of misfits who discovered antique guns.
'People are like, "What is he doing?" That stuff is a conscious decision to distance myself, but also it's a good platform to stand on my acting abilities and experiment.'
Much has been made of how he now speaks with a mid-Atlantic drawl. It's a curious voice - some LA phraseology in evidence, but still singsongy northeastern. He's not in any way brash, ª though. When he says, 'I've been very humbled by working with these incredibly gifted people,' it neither comes over as a platitude or false modesty; mostly what he says is heartfelt.
King Kong stars Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts, but Jamie has a role which scriptwriter and wife of the director Fran Walsh wrote especially for him, to add an emotional arc. Bell seems to collect people who want to mentor him. He met Walsh when he was in the States last year, doing a film called The Chumscrubber - 'an absurd black comedy about how families don't talk to each other any more and how all the kids are on pharmaceutical pills.' There always seems to be a theme of some kind of disjointed family. 'Well, maybe Billy Eliot on pharmaceutical pills. But it's a movie full of texture and tone, and especially for children of my generation, the Donnie Darko generation. Anyway, I was in LA when Fran sent me some stuff. She said she was writing this new character. I got a call saying, "Do you want to go to New Zealand for five months?" and I rolled with it.'
The character written for him is Jimmy. He doesn't really have a family and he didn't get an education - a bit of art echoing life.
'Yes, he's quick-witted and street smart, and he's got a mentor character telling him he needs to get off the ship and get in the world and have a full life. There's more to this world than life on the ship, and it's his emotional journey. He goes from cheeky kid to courageous young man.'
It does sound very much like it was written for him - especially the mentor bit. He laughs in a nervous, but willing way. 'I have, I think, eight mentors. It's crazy, but I need them. They are all really important to me. They keep me grounded and advise me. With this movie, the character could be flat, but I've had to make him my own. In the end he becomes a man, and that's a good part for me because that's the state I'm in right now.'
So who are these eight mentors? 'Eight is my favourite number. So that's why I came up with that, but I have three obvious ones - my mother, Stephen and my best friend from up north, he's like my soul mate, my brother, and he's just started drama school in Mountview. We are each other's mentor. He gives me what I need and I give him what he needs.'
Jamie Bell was born 19 years ago in Billingham, Teesside, a town that stopped development of any kind in the Sixties. It was a mining town - its life ripped away with the coal. He comes from a family of dancers: grandmother, mother and sister - although none of them danced professionally. He was brought up in an all-female environment, and his father and mother split before he was born. Jamie disagrees that it was a lack of a role model that led him to be the only boy dancer, and it certainly wasn't expected of him.
Nor was it a conscious decision to follow in the family dancing shoes. He was on a bus with his mother, bitching that he could have done better than a girl he saw dancing in a competition.
'She said, "OK, I'll buy you a pair of tap shoes." It was a throwaway remark, but I remember exactly where I was at that moment. You know the sideways seats on the buses, I was standing there opposite my mum and swinging back and forth from the pole and I thought, "Oh, what have I done?" But it was a monumental moment. I went to the class the next week and I thought, "I like this, I can do this."'
Did you have friends who went, too? 'No, I was pretty secluded and I was the only guy. But I was determined and I think I took that kind of determination ... when I look back I realise how much it shaped the character I am today.'
Do you ever think what would have happened if you'd never got out of Billingham? 'Of course. Every day.'
Growing up, Jamie channelled all his frustration into dance. 'When I got angry about something my mum would say, "Oh look at Jamie, he's got his tap-dancing face on."'
I think the line that he must have most related to in Billy Elliot was about how when he's dancing he forgets everything else. He said that he just disappeared.
The ability to dance everything away left another kind of psychological tattoo. He's very sensitive and articulate, but not very analytical; so when he explains that he was brought up without any knowledge of his father or any male influence, we are left to assume that if it did cause him any trouble he simply tap danced it away. Or so he thought until he met Stephen Daldry. There was an intense chemistry, each seemed to complete a piece of each other's puzzle.
'He lost his father when he was 15 and I never had one. I'm not sure of the ins and outs of his relationship with his father but I think that there is a male paternal instinct that every child needs, especially when he sees other kids around him with fathers who do things with their kids. There was this part of me that must have missed it, and I think that there was the same thing in Stephen. When we met we connected creatively and artistically, but something of that was reflected in my life and probably in his, though of course people like that are going to click very easily.'
After the Billy Elliot movie, Daldry kind of adopted him. He had a room in his house and a place in his heart. It seems it was really that simple. Tawdry tabloid speculation implied that there was something very unseemly about a gay director and a young boy. Homophobic nonsense. Daldry said at the time that Jamie was a catalyst for all kinds of paternal feelings he never knew he had. Daldry has since married dancer Lucy Sexton and they have a little girl Annabel, who Jamie regards as his little sister.
He stresses, 'I didn't just go and move in with him. It was over time. We established a sense of hierarchy within the relationship. I was still living up north and finishing off school, but I had the burning desire to leave and he was there to facilitate that. My mother could see that urge and she sent me down there. After I had been in London for about two months I'd got used to it, so leaving was hard. My mother knew I didn't want to be in the world up there, so she was very happy for me.'
It does sound like there was a strong connection with Stephen, the kind of thing that people expect of love relationships; but thiswas different.
'It's very paternal: I bring out the child in him and he brings out the adult in me. I feel like a family with him, but I feel like a family with many of my friends. It's nice to have that family unit that you can fall back on, and that you feel is unconditional. I don't think of myself as having one family up north and one family with Stephen, it's all integrated.'
He pooh-poohs the notion that his need for a family unit comes from the absence of one. He says of his relationship with his father:
'Never met him.' I can't work out whether it's a faux nonchalance or a real lack of interest.
Does his father live up north?
'I have no idea. I have no idea what he looks like. The press tried to get something on him on the lines of "You feel bad that you left this kid and look where he is now". He dealt with it very well and he said, "Actually, this is very good for him but I don't know him and he doesn't know me. I have a different family now." He could have been trying to sell a story, which would have been ridiculous, so I respect him for the way he dealt with it, but I have no desire to meet him and never had. It would be literally like talking to a stranger in the street. I wouldn't know him from Joe. Maybe it'll hit later on, maybe there might be an instance where I need to understand what he's like or who he is, but right now the instinct to do that is not there,' he says flatly.
Surely, I say, you must do things and sometimes think, 'I wonder why I'm like that, maybe it's genetic'?
'Not really. I think I became my own person dealing with my mother and sister. I never had a father figure so I never missed it. In fact, I thought it would be just another person to discipline me.'
Did you feel that your father upset your mum so much by leaving that it would be a betrayal to her to try to communicate with him?
'Absolutely not. I've never talked to her about it. She's a very open person, so if I'd wanted to know she would have told me. I just never asked because it was never an issue.'
While Bell's emotional hinterland might appear a little closed off, his work often presents him with a welcome emotional workout. In Clint Eastwood's forthcoming Second World War drama, Flags of Our Fathers, he plays best buddy to the soldier who raises the flag over Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima.
'I'm the emotional catalyst,' he explains. 'It's based on flashbacks of something that happened between us in the war. I have found myself doing these roles that are demanding on the heart and the mind. It's a challenge to put yourself into regions that you don't normally go to, sensitive places, those are the moments you would look for as an actor.'
Does he have any inner demons?
'Inner demons? Got none of them. I had teen angst for a while, but I think every teenager has the angst.'
Was it harder for you because your teenage years were very much lived out loud?
'No. Kind of, but not really. It wasn't really very hard - it was fun. I know people think that if you've had success young you're going to blow it, but did you see Batman, did you see Christian Bale? He's so on top of his game. I've worked with a Culkin - Rory, he's a totally centred guy and he's something ridiculous, like 15. Whatever happened with Macaulay I don't know. The kid isn't messed up. Something happens to the kid to make them messed up. People are not born messed up. Things happen. People should be more sensitive. I've been very lucky to have Stephen as a friend, just to learn about the way he sees the world and the way he works.'
There is something very grounded about Jamie Bell, but there's also something ethereal at the same time. Sometimes he's sophisticated, sometimes he's geeky and uses the wrong word for things. Sometimes he's stingingly articulate. But this isn't such a mystery, it's about him being 19 and having a particularly mature relationship with his single-parent mum.
'Yes, as a kid I would eat with my mother, talk with my mother. There was a lot of socialising with my mother.' He says that he wasn't the kind of teenager who went up to his room. 'That happened once central heating was invented. We were still burning coal,' he jokes. His mother Eileen now works for the NHS. They remain very close.
For the most part, when he's not working he likes to do normal 19-year-old things: hanging out with his friends, his PlayStation, playing bongos. He also likes to write screenplays. The latest is about 'a guy whose best friend goes off to war and dies, but then he comes back as a spirit. He's in his bloody army uniform talking completely normally, but he's dead - and it's a musical. Soldiers come out of the back of the TV and perform military operations.'
He says he's going to be showing it to Stephen, but would have a problem handing it over. 'I'm so controlling I would want to direct it myself.' He admits he doesn't like other people having control. He doesn't like planes, for instance. 'I can't listen to music if I'm on a plane, I think the music is making it bounce.'
You sense his struggle for independence, for emotional control, which is probably why he's never as yet lost himself in a major romance, on screen or off. He's done lots of diverse roles but no romantic ones yet.
'I think it's very hard to do love. That's why Merian C Cooper wrote a gorilla instead of a real person [in King Kong]. The love thing can get terribly sentimental and hard to pull off - way over the top and you'd never buy it. It's easier with a gorilla.'
I wonder if this is a clue that he is a repressed romantic.
'No, actually, I think I wear my heart on my sleeve in real relationships. I haven't got a girlfriend at the moment.'
Are you missing that?
'The companionship, yes. But I'm not really looking. I'm a believer that something will find me; a person will just come and connect.'
What kind of person do you believe you will connect with?
'I don't really have a list of attributes that they'd have to attain.'
Well, what would you like from a relationship? Do you want to give love or receive more?
'I like to protect and provide, though if it was not reciprocated I would feel incredibly vulnerable. I often find myself giving and also find myself needing,' he says.
Do you think you give because you hope it will come back?
'Right,' he says looking forlorn. 'I am at that age where love is like a trick thing: hard to control, to understand, you spiral out of control.'
I tell him love is a trick thing.
'Really?' he says. 'That's good. You mean however old you are that doesn't change? I really like that idea.'
|| 27/11/2005. The Guardian.