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Published in British GQ magazine 2007

Jamie Bell: women want to mother him, and men want to mother him too.

Since his BAFTA-winning turn as the disadvantaged young scamp in ‘Billy Elliot’ in 2000, the 21-year-old actor, dancer and grunge fan from Teeside has built a career on the torment and strain of vital young masculinity and grown into an adorable Hollywood equity. He has been pursued by dinosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, shot at in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and tugged his forelock in Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby', fictions that were played just an inch from his own very public puberty.

The theme of troubled adolescence continues into David Mackenzie’s ‘Hallam Foe’, in which Oedipus Rex goes all Swallows & Amazons. Bell plays a peeping Tom who wears a badger pelt on his head, lives in a treehouse outlying a grand Scottish estate and is tortured by the suspicion that his father’s vampish new wife (Claire Forlani) conspired in the mysterious death of his mother. Fleeing to Edinburgh in search of the truth, ‘Hal’ runs into a doppleganger of his dead mum whom he seduces while dossing in the clock tower above Waverley Station.

Being a teenager never was easy, but the way Bell projects Hallam Foe’s interior agonies onto the cold countryside and the cruel city is affecting and convincing. As the psychodrama concludes, Hallam’s dad (played by Ciarán Hinds) hugs his tearful son – and the audience wishes they could to the same.

Back in the real life, Jamie Bell could be talking about himself when he summarises Hallam Foe as a kid who’s ‘wandering round, going through things, figuring them out. He is dealing with immense anger, then suddenly guilt, then intense love. All these emotions are so intense because he is so young and vulnerable, but also because he’s so smart. He’s a tricky character and he knows how to work people.’

As he smokes a furtive fag in a Bloomsbury boozer after his David Bailey shoot, Jamie Bell is so luminously characterful that he looks like he’s acting even when he’s not acting. The accent is Vic & Bob by way of Brooklyn – Mackem The Knife, if you will.

Guinness is served. Last night Jamie Bell was at the BAFTAs presenting a gong and chumming with Sienna Miller. As for today, he confesses, he is going through a major Kurt Cobain phase, and wears a big huggy cardigan, deceased Converse and some freaky orange shades to match.

In the grip of grunge, he will effervesce about My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana and the Jesus & Mary Chain, but wonder quizzically whether it’s okay, at the ripe old age of 21, to still be going through these fluctuations.

‘I’m still going through phases,’ he ponders. ‘I think it’s phase. I wonder when these phases will end?’

Therein lies the key to his appeal: the young actor in the process of transformation who plays characters doing the same. Watching Hallam Foe come of age in a miasma of sex, violence and voyeurism, you also watch Jamie Bell discard his pubescent Billy Elliot personality and step towards the threshold of manhood. It's quite phase.

Bell was brought up in the absence of his father by his mum, sister and grandparents in Billingham, Teeside. After the director Steven Daldry selected him from a field of 2,000 for the Billy Elliot lead, he became a friend and mentored the young actor closely.

Hallam Foe directly addresses the confusion of a troubled upbringing as Bell’s character strains at the limits of his being, searching out what has happened and who he is.

‘It’s a much more interesting arc for a character,’ he says, ‘if you start from a problem, you can release yourself from. I find that really interesting to play. That journey, essentially, to manhood. As much as it’s about getting out of something, it’s about stepping into something else. And that’s something I’ve been dealing with for the past three years.’

Certainly, his Hallam Foe performance is convincing because it looks as much intuitive as studied. ‘All men will have some kind of connection to a story of father and son relationship, especially the idea of fathers failing sons,’ Bell argues. ‘That one aspect of it really gets me.’

Bell’s own father has stated that he has no wish to forge a relationship with his estranged son, and it would be easy to conclude that the acutely angsty DNA of Bell’s key roles is drawn from prickly experience.

But the performance is even more of a credit to his skill when Bell says he has ‘nothing to complain about’ in his upbringing. ‘I always thought a father was an extra person to shout at me,’ he says. ‘I never met my father. People are like, ‘aren’t you desperate to make contact with him? Aren’t you angry? But never having him there, I just got on with it.’

Preparing for Hallam foe, Bell took The Method to some strange extremes. He practiced voyeurism in his Manhattan apartment by watching a man (‘Mr Tighty Whitey’) in the opposite block wandering round in his pants every night.

He feels that kind of dedication isn't shared by some of his peers. ‘The young generation of actors are very lazy, I think. I don’t think they do any work. They fucking turn up, say their lines. There is a serious lack of technique. In terms of a future, I would rather try to get better at what I do.’

The cruel irony of all this is that, beyond the A-list comforts and privileges he enjoys today, real life is no less difficult than fiction. The last couple of years have involved experiences to put hairs on anyone’s chest.

Bell played an Iwo Jima doughboy called Ralph Ignatowski in Clint Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers, but found the screen legend’s steely vision somewhat limiting to work with. ‘He’s not dictatorial,’ Bell says. ‘He just doesn’t collaborate. He’s not into a working a scene out or maybe changing some stuff. He’s very much, you go here, you say you lines. I just really didn’t get anything out of it. So I’m going to get back into the independent circuit for a while.’

And because the tightrope from boy to man naturally requires heartbreak, last year Bell broke up from the not inconsiderably attractive Evan Rachel Wood. What's more, the starlet is only rumoured to have run off with the first God Of fuck who came her way - Marylin Manson.

‘It was difficult,’ Bell says with a tremor of hurt, ‘because I was very much in love with her, I think. It was a clean cut, it was a mutual decision, we were both very upset because we had such a great time. But we’re in two very different places. She’s only just getting the idea of independence, which I’ve had since I was 14. I’m still utterly in love with her and think she’s an amazing talent.

Did she break his heart? He falls into a furrow of thought: ‘You come out of one relationship and you’re so cautious of so many things. The red flags start popping up. It's weird.’

Once again the young actor’s Will-To-Be-Hugged projects across the pub table, but it is resisted.

And so it should be, because, let’s not forget, Jamie Bell is seen in ‘Hallam Foe’ tearing the clothes off a fuming Claire Forlani and fucking her on the floor of the treehouse in an eruption of angry Oedipal love.

‘Every guy I tell about that is like, you lucky bastard,’ Bell says. ‘It's the first sex scene I’ve done. Sex was gonna come up in the next three years and I wanted to do it with someone who has a good repertoire. [Director] David Mackenzie does sex scene quite raw and dirty, and in Hallam quite aggressive as well.’

‘In the moment, there’s nothing arousing about it by the way, it’s more like a dance. It’s weird going from that visceral fucking feeling, to ‘are you okay?’’

‘Sex is incredibly awkward, by the way? There’s always that moment when you know it’s going to happen - and you still have to take your pants off. I find that interesting – those moments of utter awkwardness between two people.’

It’s one way of dealing with a broken heart.

So life moves on. Jamie Bell is 21 now, a man and all that. His next flick, Doug Liman’s ‘Jumper’, is on its way. Back in New York Max Minghella is his best buddy – the duo have renamed themselves ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. There is drink to be drunk, legally this time, and women to be chased. ‘There are a lot of hot girls in New York,’ he observes.

‘I’m used to being the kid of the group everywhere I go, but I’m not the youngest anymore,’ Bell philosophises. ‘It’s that last little section of evolution before you go, okay, manhood now.’

Jamie Bell asks for another glass of Guinness and his Blackberry buzzes into life. What a phase he’s going through.

© Kevin Braddock, 2007


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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