Jamie Bell tap-danced his way into the national consciousness with his breakthrough performance in Billy Elliot nine years ago. Just 14 at the time, he saw off competition from former Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush to win the Best Actor award at the BAFTAs. Since then he has worked with heavyweight screen luminaries such as Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, and now Edward Zwick, director of his latest film, the WWII epic Defiance.
RT spoke to the young actor about working with 007, his hopes for the future, and whether he’d ever consider slipping back into his tap shoes for the big screen.
Jamie Bell: A little bit, because they’re both pretty good actors. I had immense admiration for both of them before starting the movie, and even more so after the movie. The great thing about it was realising that they’re incredibly generous with everything; with their ideas, with their acting, with their ability. They’re the actors who, when you stand in front of them, they elevate your performance without really doing anything. So it was daunting, but immediately I was equal, and immediately there was none of that sort of macho stuff that usually happens on movie sets.
Bell (left) with Daniel Craig in Edward Zwick’s Defiance.
Having had no training in acting prior to Billy Elliot, when you’re on sets like these, do you actively seek out advice from the more experienced actors?
JB: I don’t think it’s ever a direct thing. I don’t ever go, “How would you do this?” or, “How would this happen?” It’s more about studying the way that they approach scenes. We would start scenes and Liev would just go, “Hold on a second,” and walk through the pages. And I would just see how he mentally and intellectually goes through every step and every decision that his character makes. When you see someone who is paying that much attention to detail, you start doing these things yourself. I’ve learnt so much from so many of the fantastic people I’ve managed to work with, and these guys were no different.
You’ve had a lot of diverse roles in big films such as Jumper and King Kong and smaller independent films such as The Chumscrubber and Hallam Foe; has it been a conscious decision to strike that balance?
JB: I think so. I’ve almost been acting for 10 years, and you’re always striving for longevity. I think that there’s no way of ensuring it; everyone does things differently. I often find the smaller, independent films are much more rewarding than the bigger stuff, but you do the bigger stuff because it’s a business, and you’ve got to show your face a bit, get yourself around. So those sorts of things are often very business-driven decisions.
In last year’s Hallam Foe as the odd title character.
Smaller films tend to be much more intimate character stories, and you get to work with directors who don’t follow any set conventions. I mean, I love Ed Zwick, he’s a fantastic director and I think he manages to blend the intimate with the epic incredibly well. But it’s also fantastic working with people like David Mackenzie [on Hallam Foe] or David Gordon Green [Undertow] who both defy convention. And that’s their whole purpose of being, is that they do things completely differently, which is also refreshing. It challenges you in a different way.
Is there anyone you’d love to work with in the future?
JB: Yeah. I think there’s probably a list every actor carries around with them with the same names on it. But I also like fresh, young, different directors too. I’d love to work with some people again actually. I’d like to reunite with some people and do something different. That idea sounds good to me, you know, the familiarity. But they’re all the same people on the same list!
Do you find being a young British actor in the United States an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to landing roles?
JB: I don’t think it makes that much difference really. People have an idea of who you are, and you’re either right for it or wrong for it. The reason I’m living in New York is because most of the work is in the States. While it’s mostly in Los Angeles, I chose not to live in LA because I just didn’t really vibe with it. New York is much more my kind of place, and it’s also in between LA and London, and I love to come back to England all the time, so it seemed to be the perfect place for me now. But that could definitely change.
In Fox’s big-budget action flick of 2007, Jumper.
Any things you are yet to do that you’d like to?
JB: No. I think most of the decisions that always come up are not really thought about that much. It just comes up, you know, “Do you want to make a movie about a kid who climbs rooftops and wears make-up around his nipples?” It just stems from that, and you go, “Well that sounds interesting, lets look into it.” There’s never a grand master plan of what the next thing is. I just usually wait, and turn a lot of stuff down, until the right thing with the right person comes along.
Would you consider taking a role involving dancing again?
JB: I would definitely never cancel it out as an option, I love dancing, and it’s a massive part of my life. I just haven’t seen the right thing yet. There hasn’t been a really good dancing movie for a while, or at least I haven’t seen it, and it hasn’t come through my desk. But I would love to. I would never cancel that out.
As Billy Elliot in the role which made him famous.
Were you offered more dancing roles after Billy Elliot?
JB: Bizarrely not. It’s hard to incorporate dance into movies I think. I think dance has to be seen live or on stage, and I don’t think it really works in the recorded format. If I was to do it again, I’d love to do one of those old musical movies. I usually hate musicals, but they don’t make them any more, so you’re just waiting for the right thing to come along. Maybe Baz Luhrmann will do something good.
Have you got any advice for any aspiring young actors out there?
JB: There’s no right way to do it. I think everyone does it very differently. I look at my contemporaries, and we’re all at different stages and levels, and all choosing different routes, different ways to do things. But, really, I’m crap at giving advice. I’ve 10 years of people giving me advice, and I still need to receive it. Even though I’ve been working for 10 years, I still have no idea of what the hell I’m doing actually, and that’s the reality of it.