Sorry about the sex scenes, mum

‘Billy El­liot’ made him a star at 16, but now Jamie Bell is very much the ro­man­tic lead. Amy Raphael meets him

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Arts -

Jamie Bell can’t dance. Se­ri­ously. If he goes to a club with his friends, the last thing on his mind is danc­ing. He looks bash­ful. “I can’t use my arms. I’ve got no idea what to do with them. Tap danc­ing is all about the feet; you put your head down and don’t re­ally en­gage with any­thing but the rhythm in your head. It can be a prob­lem. Ev­ery­one says: ‘There’s the boy from Billy El­liot, let’s see him bust it out.’ But I just don’t know how to dance in clubs.”

There’s more. He’s hope­less with girls. It is, how­ever, less of a se­ri­ous is­sue. “I’m awk­ward around girls. Not to the point where I can’t speak but… I’m no good at the one-liner thing. It’s just not me.”

So, since break­ing up with the young Amer­i­can ac­tress Evan Rachel Wood ear­lier this year, he’s be­come celi­bate? “No!” He splut­ters. “Ab­so­lutely none of that! I’m very good at meet­ing peo­ple, very out­go­ing. It’s just that, when I meet a girl I like… I don’t want to mess up. I’m not so good at bluff­ing my way through.”

At 21, Bell is a be­guil­ing mix: there’s the boy from the North-East of Eng­land hav­ing the time of his life, al­most vis­i­bly fizzing with ex­cite­ment; and then there’s the con­fi­dent, earnest, ar­tic­u­late young man who talks about act­ing like an old pro. Since star­ring in Billy El­liot in 2000, Bell has worked with Peter Jack­son on King Kong (2005), Clint East­wood on Flags of Our Fa­thers (2006) and Thomas Vin­ter­berg on Dear Wendy (2005). At the end of Au­gust, he starts film­ing for De­fi­ance, in which he stars along­side Daniel Craig.

But for now he’s in Ed­in­burgh pro­mot­ing Hal­lam Foe. It’s a low-bud­get, de­cent Bri­tish film, less gritty and more com­i­cal than Scot­tish di­rec­tor David Macken­zie’s 2003 of­fer­ing, Young Adam. Tak­ing the ti­tle role of a griev­ing teenager con­vinced that his step­mother mur­dered his mother, Bell ap­pears in al­most ev­ery scene and pretty much holds the film to­gether. It’s the sort of film that likes to think of it­self as edgy, but Bell’s real job here is as a cred­i­ble ro­man­tic lead, fall­ing in love with a ho­tel man­ager (Sophia Myles) who looks spook­ily like his late mother.

Al­though Bell cites Hal­lam Foe as one of his proud­est roles, he ap­pears to be ag­i­tated, bored even, when dis­cussing it. He raps his fin­gers on his bony knees, his skinny thighs, the vel­vet arm­chair. With­out prompt­ing, he of­fers an ex­pla­na­tion for the con­stant fid­get­ing: “I’m al­ways tap­ping away. It re­ally ir­ri­tates peo­ple. I can hear a melody or rhythm in the weird­est things.” He sighs. “I learned tap danc­ing for six years, got quite good at it and could have im­proved. Now I feel like I’m wast­ing it. It’s stupid.”

Maybe. Or maybe it’s not that sim­ple. With his cau­tious choice of films, Bell has found a way of avoid­ing the West End mu­si­cals that may have be­come his home af­ter the in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of Billy El­liot. But he seems to have ended up in roles, such as Hal­lam Foe, that al­low him to show off his phys­i­cal pres­ence and nat­u­ral ath­leti­cism – here, as a loner turned be­nign peep­ing tom, he spends much of the film climb­ing, cat­like, up build­ings and across the rooftops of Ed­in­burgh. A chunkier, clum­sier ac­tor would have strug­gled with the role.

He smiles. “Yes, yes, you’re right: the tap danc­ing classes haven’t all gone to waste. Hal­lam has a feral grace, even when it comes to hid­ing be­hind cor­ners. Any phys­i­cal­ity I can bring a char­ac­ter gives me an edge on other ac­tors. It’s an in­cred­i­bly use­ful tool. I’ve also learned that you might have a longer ca­reer if you have other in­ter­ests aside from act­ing.”

Bell is blessed with screen pres­ence, and an­gu­lar good looks, but he works hard too. He of­ten talks of learn­ing and im­prov­ing; he cites Daniel Craig as an in­flu­ence purely be­cause of the Bond star’s com­mit­ment to roles. He stays friends with many of the direc­tors with whom he works – “Though I don’t call Clint all the time. Ever. At all.” He lived with Billy El­liot di­rec­tor Stephen Daldry for a few years af­ter leav­ing home at 15 – “but I

Yet it was tough for Bell to leave his sin­gle mother and older sis­ter be­hind in the small town of Billing­ham, Stock­ton-on-Tees (his fa­ther was never around; they’ve met only once since Bell be­came fa­mous). He flies his mum to join him when­ever pos­si­ble – she is here in Ed­in­burgh with him, for the pre­mière of Hal­lam Foe – but still in­evitably misses out on things. “My niece took part in her first tap-danc­ing com­pe­ti­tion re­cently. My mum filmed it and showed it to me last night. I wanted to cry.” His blue eyes are shiny. “It was a big deal. I did it, my sis­ter did it and now there’s an­other gen­er­a­tion do­ing it. And I wasn’t there to see it.”

Is it awk­ward, be­ing in a po­si­tion to fly his fam­ily and friends around the world to see him? He frowns and his voice, nor­mally soft, deep north­east­ern English with the odd Amer­i­can in­flec­tion, be­comes steely. “It just has to be that way. It’s not like I’ve got a private jet. I’m not flash­ing the cash. The movies I make don’t usu­ally of­fer that big a pay cheque. I’m 21, I don’t need all the money in the world. Ev­ery­thing is fine the way it is just now.”

It takes Bell less than three was al­ways on the move even then, off film­ing” – and was hang­ing out with Vin­ter­berg in Den­mark just the other week­end. sec­onds to come to the con­clu­sion that he has no re­grets and slightly longer to de­cide if he has yet to ex­pe­ri­ence pro­fes­sional dis­ap­point­ment. “I don’t go up for a huge amount of stuff be­cause most of it is bad. But Wal­ter Salles is mak­ing a movie of Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road and I went to meet him and do a read­ing. And straight away the part was of­fered to Jake Gyl­len­haal. He’s a great ac­tor, older, more ex­pe­ri­enced but I was bummed. It would’ve been amaz­ing to work with Salles.”

Later that evening, Bell swaps his tweed trousers, T-shirt and bat­tered train­ers for a shiny suit and ex­pen­sive shoes. In­tro­duc­ing the film, he is slick and sure of him­self but when he apol­o­gises sweetly to his mother for the sex scenes, there’s a glimpse of the boy. At the party, Scots Franz Ferdinand per­form an acous­tic ver­sion of Hal­lam Foe Dan­de­lion Blow, the song they wrote for the film af­ter Bell found him­self next to the gui­tarist on a plane.

Bell stands right at the front, his mother by his side. Tilda Swin­ton tow­ers be­hind him but, lost in the mu­sic, he barely no­tices. While ev­ery­one around him dances, Bell stands still, a huge grin on his face, his hands by his side. In the dark hall it’s easy to miss his fin­gers, tap­ping out a rhythm on his legs.

‘Hal­lam Foe’ is re­leased on Fri­day.

Feral grace: Jamie Bell in ‘Hal­lam Foe’

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