Billingham's 'Billy Elliot' Jamie Bell finds big shoes to fill
PUBLISHED: 15:33 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 21:35 20 February 2013
In an exclusive interview, Sophy Grimshaw talks to Billingham's favourite tap dancer, Jamie Bell, on growing up without Billy Elliot
Im so excited that the Billingham Forum is about to reopen. Its one of my favourite buildings, enthuses Jamie Bell, of the unique theatre-cum-leisure-centre. Such unwavering attention to detail regarding events back in his home town should not be underestimated. These are, after all, the words of a movie star who lives in Los Angeles and whose nearest theatre is quite possibly the Hollywood Bowl. But the sentiment is no less genuine for it.
You have to keep track of your roots, and the Billingham Forum always represented something so exciting to me when growing up. The fact it was almost torn down - well, Id have been so upset. Ive always loved the way it looks and the history it breathes.
I feel emotional about my own personal experiences with it
because that was where I did my very first stage performance, so to see it being given a new lease of life is incredible.
While Billingham residents undoubtedly keep an eye out for arguably the towns greatest export, maybe the perceptions of Bells high-octane LA lifestyle arent as close to reality.
LA is actually very boring, he laughs. People eat soup and salad and go to bed at 10pm and are very disciplined. Its not what you expect at all. And although Ive been living in the States for years now I still feel like an imposter.
And when Jamie does step out of the house he says its usually to walk the dog.
Thats the only time I leave my house. Ill have a chat with my next door neighbour, who is a guy from Hull. Its weird. You move to LA but youre just these two northern guys having a chat.
Jamies transformation from Teesside schoolboy to internationally-known film actor was sudden. In fact, he didnt so much transform, in the sense of gradually achieving fame, but more accurrately collide with it.
At 14, still a gawky Jamie was cast as the eponymous hero of the Stephen Daltry film Billy Elliot. His portrayal of an 11-year-old aspiring ballet dancer, struggling to reconcile his talents with the opportunities available to him in Newcastle at the time of the miners strike, was both skilled and soulful. An unexpected commercial smash in the both the UK and US, the film gave Jamie a platform on which to become a full-time actor upon leaving school a couple of years later.
Today, Jamie is 25 years old and mature and courteous with it. He is talking to me from behind a large pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses and sipping absent-mindedly on a bottle of beer. Hes back in the UK to promote his latest film, The Eagle, an unlikely buddy movie set in Roman-era Britain of 140AD. A gaggle of paparazzi and autograph hunters are outside the London hotel where we meet, hoping to see Jamie and his co-star, the American actor Channing Tatum.
Jamie has worked continuously since leaving school with Billy Elliot on his CV, but in a quiet fashion, eschewing anything else dance-based and acting in a clutch of credible indie and indie-esque movies. He collaborated with big-name directors in the form of Peter Jackson, for King Kong in 2005, and Clint Eastwood, on Flags of our Fathers, the following year. Its an incredible rise for someone who still counts the North East as home.
I think people are sometimes surprised when you talk about the place in which you grew up - maybe thats because some actors like to distance themselves from their humdrum formative years, but in my mind, its something that should be celebrated.
Billinghams not LA, or London, or even Newcastle, but it represents happy memories and carefree days, events and memories that led me to where I am today, so Im massively thankful that it was my home and, to a large extent, still is.
Not that he makes it back much these days, given a hectic schedule that grows all the more demanding. This year sees Jamie back on cinema screens in a more conspicuous fashion than at any time since Billy Elliot, and will culminate in the December release of The Adventures of Tintin: Secrets of the Unicorn.
Its an ambitious, stop-motion feature for which Peter Jackson again directed Jamie - this time in the title role. Theres also a new adaption of Brontes Jane Eyre, for which Jamie spent time freezing on the Yorkshire Moors in period costume, and the New York-based thriller Man On A Ledge which he unapologetically describes as really cool, just to prove theres a bit of Billy left in him.
In the meantime, The Eagle takes top billing, with Jamie playing one half of whats essentially a two-man movie.
The story of a Roman soldier, Marcus (Tatum) and his native British slave, Esca (Bell), The Eagle is an historic epic along the lines of Braveheart. Jamie is very much the heart and soul of it, a character with emotional complexity in a film otherwise dominated by battle sequences and metal-breast-plated machismo.
I didnt know a lot about the Roman occupation of Britain; a lot of what is shown in the film was fairly new to me, he admits. But the film isnt a history lesson, its very much a journey film and for us as actors it was more important that the characters drove the story, as opposed to an emphasis on recreating the time period.
Ultimately, says Jamie, what drew him to The Eagle was that he feels its core theme is a timeless one. At the centre of it all is a really important message - namely, if you just listen to your enemy, you might find out something really important about yourself. Your saving grace in life could be your enemy.
Thankfully, this LA-based actors return visits to the North arent limited to dressing up in period costumes. Whenever Im in London for work I try to get the train up to see my family in Billingham, he says, with all the backstreet homeliness with which we first associated Jamie when he danced his way onto the scene way back in 2000.
To see my family, my grandparents; to chat about the really incidental and supposedly meaningless things, even if its only for a short amount of time . . . well thats so important. Thats what routes you. Thats what grounds you, isnt it?