Thu, Aug 23, 2007 - Page 14 News List

Jamie bell: This time it's serious

Jamie Bell was 13 when he shot to fame as Billy Elliot. Since then, he's been living out of a suitcase, making movies with Clint Eastwood and Peter Jackson and reading instruction manuals for fun

By Emma Brockes  /  The Guardian, London

British actress Sophia Myles, left, and British actor Jamie Bell arrive for the screening of the movie Hallam Foe at the 57th Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin.

PHOTO: EPA

Jamie Bell is at an awkward age. "It seems like the boyish era is coming to an end," he says, with the weird distance of one who has been reading about himself in newspapers since childhood. He is 21 and no longer suitable for what he calls the "kid-becoming-a-man kind of role." But he is still, just, recognizable as the disheveled boy who played Billy Elliot. "When you did a movie a while ago about dancing, which everyone associates you with and still remembers and has fond memories of, there's always going to be that point where you have to do something where people are like, 'Oh ... ."

Bell would like it if people hurried up and had their "Oh" moment. And Hallam Foe may just be the film to bring it on. "It deals with sex and stuff like that," he says. "And some pretty heavy emotional turmoil as well." It is Bell's ninth film, adapted from the novel by Peter Jinks and co-starring Sophia Myles as a woman with whom the 17-year-old Hallam becomes obsessed after the death of his mother. He follows her through the streets of Edinburgh, climbs on to her roof to spy through her bedroom window and negotiates a tricky line between childish infatuation and adult creepiness. The film's darkness - Hallam believes his father's new wife murdered his mother - is alleviated by Bell's natural screen charm and some fine black humor.

Some months before our interview, I watch him filming Hallam Foe on location in Edinburgh. Professional autograph-hunters sulk in wait on the pavement and Bell approaches them, frowning silently to sign their photos. He is compact and earnest-looking, and between takes paces up and down the pavement, muttering. "Are you worried about the timings?" says David Mackenzie, the director. "Nope," says Bell. His frown deepens; he beats time against his legs.

Later, Mackenzie tells me, "There's no one Jamie's age in this country to touch him. You'd have to draw comparisons with the heroes of 1960s cinema. He's bloody good. Very laid back to work with. Takes notes."

"He's very smart," says Gillian Berrie, the producer. "He's got a wise old head on young shoulders. He's considerate. He's not been tainted by Hollywood, which you imagine someone his age might have been. He does his homework every night. He's got a long career ahead of him."

Bell was 13 when he made Billy Elliot. He wasn't a stage brat, but neither was he new to performing - he'd won a load of regional tap-dancing prizes and wanted to be either a dancer or a rock musician. Drama school was too remote from his life in the north-east of England to countenance, and it wasn't until he won the role of Billy Elliot that he realized how desperately he wanted to do it, to act. And very seriously he takes it, too, although that seriousness is undercut by a convincing modesty.

"I still have no idea what I'm doing," he says. "I'd feel very self-conscious in an acting class. They'd probably tell me I was doing it all wrong." He has, he says, been "riding the wave of luck," and his roles don't form any obvious pattern: a character part in the Peter Jackson blockbuster King Kong, the lead in David Gordon Green's gothic indie film Undertow, Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. His accent has roamed about from rural Georgian to suburban Californian to, in Hallam Foe, mild Scottish. Bell takes the view that you should treat acting like any other kind of business. "It's about showing your range. You do something like King Kong, and it's a different way of acting and working, and it looks good on your [resume]."

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