Jamie's Next Step; Jamie Bell Shot to Stardom at 13 as Billy Elliot. with His New Film 'Nicholas Nickleby' about to Be Released, the Teesside Teenager Talks to Lydia Slater about Girlfriends, Hating Hollywood and Those Tabloid Rumours-

By Slater, Lydia | The Evening Standard (London, England), June 20, 2003 | Go to article overview

Jamie's Next Step; Jamie Bell Shot to Stardom at 13 as Billy Elliot. with His New Film 'Nicholas Nickleby' about to Be Released, the Teesside Teenager Talks to Lydia Slater about Girlfriends, Hating Hollywood and Those Tabloid Rumours-


Slater, Lydia, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: LYDIA SLATER

Jamie Bell looks terrible. His face is a pale grey, his eyes and nose red-rimmed, arms covered in scratches and mosquito bites, and he's wearing a baseball cap pulled right down to disguise his unwashed locks. 'Sorry,' he mumbles, 'I've got hay fever and I've only had about four hours' sleep in the past four days.' He tears open a packet of sugar to pour into his triple-strength coffee, but his hand is shaking so much that half of it scatters over the polished table.

Jet lag is responsible. Jamie is just back from two months' filming in the swamps of Georgia, where he's been working 16-hour days on Undertow, leaping into alligator-infested rivers and on to beds of nails. Frankly, he looks like he needs to sleep for a week. 'People think this job is so glamorous,' he says, 'but it's really hard work. It's fun, though.

When I'm filming at night, it feels like I shouldn't be doing it. You think, "I should be in bed. Does my mum know I'm doing this?"' Aah.

Jamie, 17, has seen and done more in his life than most adults. Alligator swamps aside, he's flown all over the world, attended the Oscars, been Nicole Kidman's escort and beaten Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and Geoffrey Rush to a Best Actor Bafta. But today, he doesn't seem all that far from Billy Elliot, the sweet-faced miner's son turned ballet dancer in the eponymous film that shot him to worldwide fame at 13.

This, it turns out, is something of a problem. 'If I went down the commercial, kiddy route, I'd be over in ten seconds,' he says in his loud, confident Teesside accent. 'People would write me off as just a child actor.

After Billy, I had to change my image very quickly.' Certainly, it's hard to see any trace of Billy in his latest role. Jamie plays the crippled, downtrodden Smike in a new film of Nicholas Nickleby. It's a ruthlessly unsentimental portrayal.

'I didn't want to be pathetic with the role. I wanted a harshness. I didn't want to be the sympathetic character; for the first few scenes with Nicholas, I wanted it to be like, "Don't come near me, I don't like you because you might hit me as well."' It's a mature and moving performance that had one hardboiled hack sobbing at the screening.

Jamie even manages to look hunchbacked without his shirt on. 'It was difficult keeping the hump,' he says. 'I had some flexibility through my dancing but a few times I pulled a muscle.

Such a physical role was great for me. It was like, "Forget every grand stance you've ever done, turn your feet in, arch your back, bend your knees."

It was interesting to try and get it right.

Anyone can do the stupid walk, but can you sit down properly?' But the real reason Jamie is able to give such a powerful performance owes more to his domestic circumstances than his ballet training. The central message of Nicholas Nickleby is that family is a question of personal choice, rather than genetics. Jamie, who met his real father for the first time at his sister Kathryn's engagement party two years ago, has followed Dickens' precepts and adopted Stephen Daldry, the director of Billy Elliot, as his surrogate father. He has come to the interview from Daldry's mansion in Hertfordshire, where he has his own bedroom.

Jamie describes the situation as similar to the one in Nick Hornby's bestseller About A Boy.

'Some people find it hard to understand that you can choose who you want in your family,' he says.

'It's not that big a deal. You find someone you enjoy spending time with, and they become part of a family that's not necessarily genetically linked.

That's the point of the movie.' Daldry (who once lived with stage designer Ian MacNeil) and Jamie read scripts together and discuss each other's work; both seem inspired by the other. Jamie's ultimate ambition is to become a film director. Meanwhile, Daldry, after discovering via Jamie the joys of parenthood - 'Playing the role of Dad is hugely enjoyable- I've loved it' - recently married dancer Lucy Sexton, and they now have a two-month-old baby girl. …

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Jamie's Next Step; Jamie Bell Shot to Stardom at 13 as Billy Elliot. with His New Film 'Nicholas Nickleby' about to Be Released, the Teesside Teenager Talks to Lydia Slater about Girlfriends, Hating Hollywood and Those Tabloid Rumours-
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