Now working with Steven Spielberg, Jamie Bell has come a long way since Billy Elliot. Lucy Foster meets a transatlantic success story.
“Oh. My. God.”
Jamie Bell groans while slumped despondently on a sofa, covering his face with his hand. But this isn’t a response to an awkward question, or, more likely, a reaction to one of ShortList’s best jokes. This is because we’ve mentioned a sensitive subject: Arsenal.
“It’s so depressing,” he continues, running his hand over his face in manner of an exhausted but resigned parent of a problem child.
Bell is a devoted Gunner and, at the time of our interview, the 8-2 thrashing by Manchester United was the figurative knife in the ribs. (We can only assume the subsequent loss to Blackburn and a defeat in the North London derby has elicited similar expressions of anguish.) But, start of the season — it’s all to play for, right? “Not really,” he mumbles. “It’s only all to play for in the hope we don’t end up eighth in the table.” And with that, Jamie Bell, AKA Billy Elliot, and currently the eponymous boy detective in Steven Spielberg’s latest Hitchcockian animation The Adventures Of Tintin, stares across the hotel room, lost in a football-soaked gloom.
Panicking, we quickly change direction. Without Arsenal’s current form tainting the mood, 25-year-old Bell is infectiously enthusiastic, fast-talking, and fond of gesticulations and self-deprecating dialogue to illustrate his points. And while he’s not tall, his broad back and arms are trademark giveaways of his training as a dancer. His accent — which bounces from northeast England to West Coast America with every clause — clearly illustrates that this is a man who’s spent the past 10 years flying over the Atlantic.
That in itself is an indication of his incredible acting success. It was in 1999, when Bell was just 13, that he was chosen from 2,000 schoolboys to play the title role of Billy Elliot; a performance that won him a Bafta. Since then, he’s continued to work in high-profile productions, from Nicholas Nickleby in 2002 to Peter Jackson’s King Kong in 2005, Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers in 2006 to Defiance with Daniel Craig in 2008, and most recently, 2011’s The Eagle with Channing Tatum. He’s carved out a career as a supporting character actor of note, but now that he’s Tintin (which is surprisingly gritty for an animation, we should add), is he realising his ambitions to become a leading man, a Tom Cruise-style action star?
“I think you have to figure out your signature as an actor, just as directors have to figure out what movies they like to make. It’s constantly evolving. But… Tintin is still a character-actor role,” he explains, swiftly circling the question. Something else, ShortList discovers, that he’s perfected over the past decade.
“He’s not particularly a lead character. You don’t know a lot about him, only because Hergé [Tintin’s creator] didn’t really tell us anything about him. Why is his only friend a dog? Where are his parents? Why isn’t anyone telling him he should really go to school? Possibly even university? Why does he constantly put himself in danger? He calls himself a reporter, but you never see him write anything for a newspaper. These are all really valid questions. Tintin, the character, is actually the biggest riddle of the whole thing.”
And whether he wants to recognise it or not, Tintin the film is set to make Bell an international star a second time over. The motion capture and animation mash-up is the realisation of a long-held ambition of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Three-year rights to a film version of Tintin were acquired by Spielberg in 1983, just after Hergé’s death (it has been said that the author believed Spielberg was “the only person who could do Tintin justice”). The released rights then bounded between various directors and studios until Spielberg re-optioned them in 2002, bringing on his friend Jackson as producer, and his visual-effects company responsible for such wonders as Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings, Weta Digital, in 2004. Wrangles over money and the pioneering nature of the technology ensured progress was frustratingly sluggish, but after the team wrapped filming in spring 2009, it’s not until now — October 2011 — that Spielberg’s 28-year project is about to get its first public airing.
WORKING WITH GIANTS
The enormity of sharing a set with two screen greats hasn’t been lost on Bell. “It’s kind of ridiculous. You’d think that it wouldn’t work — egos are way too big. But they had a great time. They’ve wanted to do this for so long.” And the passion involved in the project has obviously affected the whole team, as Bell recounts how everyone pitched in with their own ideas.
“They’re collaborators,” he explains. “They just want to make a good movie. The idea that the best idea wins is a great concept because it means you’re challenging each other all the time.”
But wasn’t he scared to speak up? “You know, at first I was like [puts on a small voice], ‘I kind of have an idea...’ because it’s Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson and they’re going [rubs his chin and adopts a serious, deep voice], ‘How do we do this?’ And I’m like, ‘God, I just love watching their brains work. This is amazing!’ But once you get over it, you just go, ‘But what happens if I do this?’ and you get the same childlike exuberance and excitement about what you’re doing that they obviously have in bucketloads.”
Enthusiasm may have been plentiful, but it would have been needed to get through the brain-frying days (“Up at 4.30am, picked up at 5am, straight into painting dots on your face [for motion capture], ready to go at 7.30am and the boss would walk in at 8am. We’d wrap around 7pm. Get home, sleep. It’s acting Olympics”) and the various rewrites.
“We were learning lines a lot of the time because the script had gone through so many incarnations,” reveals Bell. “The way Steven works is that he really likes to be surprised on the day, so nothing is ever that concrete. That’s great because it makes the project fluid, but you get home, and you’re like, ‘Thank God I’m home,’ and then you get an email at 10pm and it’s, ‘Great! Twenty pages for tomorrow. Better start learning it now.’”
Of course, Spielberg and Jackson weren’t the only two big names pacing the studio floor. Motion-capture king Andy Serkis plays the well-refreshed Captain Haddock, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are the substandard detectives Thomson and Thompson (“They’re amazing. They can’t stop being the double act”), and Daniel Craig as main villain Sakharine also appears on the credits. Craig doesn’t present such a daunting prospect for Bell, though — they have previous on Defiance.
“He’s so generous. And so nice. And so funny. And so does not take himself seriously at all,” Bell says, which may come as a shock to many who have kept tabs on Craig’s procession from stage actor to Hollywood A-list. “While filming Defiance, we spent a lot of time in the forests of Lithuania, drinking vodka together, shooting the sh*t.
I would watch him wander around with a gun and think, ‘He does that really well, he should play James Bond.’ And then seeing him come in for just a couple of weeks with Tintin and create this evil, bad guy, and you’re like, ‘F*ck, you’re a great actor. You’re a great actor. Wow!’”
Freezing his proverbials in the Baltic states (“It was November! It was sub-zero! The cameras were frozen!”) isn’t the only hardship Bell has had to contend with in his career. The Eagle, a tale based around the Roman Army’s Ninth Legion which disappeared when they tried to conquer the Celts of now-Scotland, was also beset with environmental ‘difficulties’. To keep off the cold, the stars had hot water poured inside their suits. Only leading man Channing Tatum was subject to one particularly toasty input of water, resulting in a badly burned groin. “Ah, but I always checked [the water] before they put it in,” explains Bell. “Common sense, you know. It gets you through in the end.”
FEET ON THE GROUND
Common sense would appear to be something Bell has in spades. Forget the Biarritz yachts and private islands you’d expect from an A-list holiday — Bell has just returned from his break of choice: roaming around darkest Scotland with friends. “We were just hanging out, making fires, walking next to rivers, climbing hills and scampering around. We rented this cottage…” and out comes his phone to show ShortList the pictures. ‘Rural’ doesn’t cover it. ‘Blair Witch’ kind of does. Does it ever cross his mind that someone could knock on the door late at night? “I kind of enjoy that fear. You know, ‘Ooh, this could be dangerous.’”
However, horror films, Bell informs us, are not part of his career plan — but as he can dance, and take a natty photo with an iPhone app (Picture Show, 69p, seeing as you asked), we wonder to which other creative pursuits he could lend his talents.
“Well, photography for sure. I love photography,” he concedes. “Definitely not writing books. God, writing a novel sounds like suicide. But screenwriting I could maybe do. I’m good at taking a screenplay and saying what could be better about it. Not with Tintin, obviously. Can you imagine? ‘Hey! Steven! Let me tell you what’s wrong with the third act!’ But if it’s a project where you’re allowed to have your two cents and allowed to be heard, I can fight my corner.”
That fighting spirit — and the love of raw, northern landscapes — might have something to do with his childhood in the dramatic but industry-scarred Tees Valley (“a beautiful part of the world. Rustic. Rustic and hard”). Talking about his background, there’s one question that’s been playing on our mind: when it comes to football, why didn’t he ever support his local team? “Because that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?” he laughs. But, in actual fact, it was a little more prosaic than that. “I asked my mum for a football jersey. ‘Mum, I‘ve got to get a football jersey, it’s really important because everyone at school is wearing them, and I don’t have one,’ and she came back with a London club. And I was like, ‘What the f*ck is this?’” And then adopting a softer tone, “Obviously, I was very appreciative that I had one. She tried her damned hardest.”
But surely it was tantamount to high-school suicide? “There was one other guy who supported Arsenal. It was like, ‘Oh my God, please, everyone else supports Middlesbrough and United. What are we going to do?’ Believe me, I stuck to him like f*cking glue.”
The Adventures Of Tintin is at cinemas nationwide from 26 October
(Photography: David Venni)