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
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’