Hallam Foe - Jamie Bell interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JAMIE Bell talks about the appeal of playing characters like Hallam Foe, jumping into freezing Lochs and overcoming his fear of heights…
He also discusses the joy of tackling a Scottish accent, working with Clint Eastwood and Doug Liman and the importance of diversifying his roles…
Q. How did you come to be involved in Hallam Foe?
Jamie Bell: Really crazy, in Berlin when David [Mackenzie] had Asylum there. We were at this crazy restaurant which was playing this Japanese anime porn all around us. We had these throbbing penises and wide open vaginas in our face. It was kind of good for David and this movie in particular, given some of its themes!
Q. How did you react when you first heard the idea?
Jamie Bell: Well, it’s a difficult pitch. It’s like: “It’s a kid who wants to f*** his mother… are you in?” It’s like: “Um, I don’t know…” And then he showed me the script which had, on page one: “Hallam takes off his shirt and circles his nipples with red lipstick.” I kind of said: “What is this movie?” But it’s those kind of movies that interest me. I felt David was the right guy to do this kind of a movie. I think he’s one of the very few people, especially in Britain, who just have a very edgy approach to filmmaking. It’s motivated a lot by music and a lot of old school kind of films. He’s very influenced by a lot of European filmmakers and he stays close to his roots. He makes films in Scotland about Scottish people that are set in Scottish towns and I respect that a lot. So, it was definitely his passion for the project and his confidence that was very appealing to me.
Q. How did you enjoy shooting in Edinburgh?
Jamie Bell: It was a lot of fun. We were actually shooting in the hotel that we were staying in! That wasn’t so much fun because you get to see the underside of the hotel, which was really weird. You know where the meals come from… it’s like: “Do you want room service?” And I’d be: “No, not tonight!” [laughs] On the other hand, it was really interesting because it kind of creates a family atmosphere because the cast and crew are all living together. Most of them live in Edinburgh, so they can just go back home, but David got a room there. I also never realised that the Edinburgh skyline was so interesting – it’s gothic and very urban and there’s a lot of church spires and old brownstone buildings. It’s kind of amazing and offered the perfect backdrop to this kind of movie. Again, it goes back to David using his roots.
Q. David has admitted that he put you through several tortures, such as the freezing lake, the pouring rain, food and rats….
Jamie Bell: Yeah, pretty much. But it’s weird how an actor can read a script and think ‘it’s really good, it’s really funny, that’s going to be really dramatic…’ and then you get there and say: “Oh, I have to get in it? I have to get in the water?! Are you kidding?” It’s amazing how I could block it out and not think it’s actually going to happen! So, then when you get there, it’s like: “Holy shit!” I think sometimes David was often holding back laughter behind the monitor. I think he was seriously about to crack up at times. In fact, the stuntwoman who was doubling for Claire [Forlani] wouldn’t even go into the Loch. Apparently, it was too cold for stuntmen. David was worried that he wouldn’t get his day of shooting, so I said: “David, I’ll do it – but do it now because this feeling will go away!” It was this sudden moment of courage but what was most amazing was that all that footage went to the lab for developing and it was all scratched and we had to do it again. We ended up calling the making of the movie a beautiful nightmare.
Q. What about rats? Are you any good with rats?
Jamie Bell: I don’t mind so much because they’re only rats – what are they going to do at the end of the day? But I was worried that when I stood up I was going to stand on them. There was a metal grate underneath and I was worried that I’d squash one into the grate! That would have been disgusting.
Q. And what about heights because the role required a lot of roof climbing?
Jamie Bell: I have a problem with heights in general – and climbing! What was interesting about getting into this character was that as a kid I never had the impulse to climb anything. I think that most kids who live in small towns or rural areas outside of the city, that’s what they do – climb walls, or trees, or whatever. To me, it was more dance classes and not being very boyish. So, it was interesting to go back and revisit that instinctual boy element. I’m still pretty terrified of heights.
Q. I guess the dancing background helped with maintaining a sense of balance when you’re up there?
Jamie Bell: That’s true! It made it easier.
Q. Was it easy to switch off from the character at the end of the day? Or was it emotionally draining?
Jamie Bell: It was pretty dark. What’s weird about this movie is that you watch it back and I had no idea we were making a romantic comedy. I remember being pretty twisted in places – wearing a dress and putting the make-up on. This kid is f****d up; this isn’t normal behaviour. So, it was hard sometimes coming into work every day and being this kid who’s so freakish and so weird that you kind of wanted to be normal for a second. Also, wearing some of his outfits… the kitchen porter outfit felt like you were in some kind of mental institution when you’re not doing it. So, yeah, it can be difficult to switch off. I’d never take it that seriously where I’m going to be Hallam all the time. I know people who do that and it seems to work for them but I think it’s really unhealthy to do it.
Q. How much of yourself did you bring to the character Hallam Foe?
Jamie Bell: Well, I’m definitely removed from some aspects, like wanting to f*** my mother! [laughs] But what’s interesting is the more distant I get from the movie, the more I realise I’m more like him than I thought I was. I find myself walking around New York and thinking about what Hallam would be doing. New York is great for people watching and there’s a bunch of amazing rooftops – we should make Hallam Foe 2 in New York! But it’s strange to think like that because when you’re making it you think: “Thank God I’m not like this guy! This guy has some issues!” And then you realise that you kind of are like him to a certain extent… but then maybe that’s just young person, big city kind of stuff.
Q. How easy was it to make Hallam relatable to audiences, so that he doesn’t alienate them with some of his darker acts?
Jamie Bell: Well, it’s hard because when I read the script, for instance, I got 20 pages in and realised I didn’t like him. I had to ask: “Why should I like him? Why should I empathise with this guy? He’s disrespectful, he’s kind of a bastard in that he treats his family like shit and he’s a pervert! It was a fine line and I think David navigated that very, very well. To his credit, it was usually him getting the tone right a lot of the time.
Q. How did you enjoy working with Sophia Myles?
Jamie Bell: She’s good. It must be hard to be a female in a David Mackenzie movie. I feel like women in his films are portrayed a certain way – like broken people. It’s usually the guy who ends up getting the better experience or coming out of it better. But I felt what he did with this character in particular is good. I’m pleased for her [at the end of the movie] because I don’t want her to be with Hallam really. They were so not right for each other and the note it’s left on is good. For her, doing that role it’s kind of a funny line because she’s playing a broken character and she must have constantly been asking: “Why am I into this kid? He’s perving on me, he looks odd, he looks like he’s 18, so why am I interested?” But I think she did that really well. She balanced that modest interest with the sense that it was actually a bit of fun.
Q. How did you approach some of the more intimate scenes?
Jamie Bell: Well, mine and her stuff isn’t really that intimate. You never really see any stuff. It’s more between her and another character. The stripping scene was awkward, of course, but what was most awkward was the scene where we’re giving all those profanities to each other in a romantic way. That’s actually more awkward than having sex with somebody. Saying “muff” to someone and trying to be romantic is incredibly difficult. It created a lot of humour and awkward giggling.
Q. How easy was the accent to grasp?
Jamie Bell: Well, I love anything that kind of removes me from myself and employs something else. So, I love accents and I love pretending. It kind of becomes an obsession. It was a similar process – reading the script over and over again in the accent and saying all my lines over and over. I also had to trust my dialect coach. But any time you can completely immerse yourself in something it’s fun.
Q. Following on from that, you seem to have immersed yourself in a number of different roles since breaking through in Billy Elliot. Is that something you’ve been pleased with and how hard did you have to work to achieve that?
Jamie Bell: I get really freaked out in some interviews because I think that some journalists are just out to say something – or say what they want to say just because… I was speaking to one recently who said: “I’ve seen all your films and I think they’re great but when are you going to make a big movie?” I was like: “Can you not tell from the choices I’ve been making that’s exactly what I’m trying not to do?” It’s just bizarre because of course they’re conscious efforts to move on and evolve as an actor. Who doesn’t want to do that and challenge themselves?
The reason I do small, independent movies is because I want to keep my soul intact and maintain some kind of integrity within this industry. I don’t want to be running away from monkeys my whole life. This stuff is much more rewarding as well. The recent choices have got zero thought about removing myself from that particular character because I feel personally that I let that guy go a while ago. But maybe with Hallam Foe it’s different because it is a British film, the name is the title again and it’s my first British film since Billy Elliot. So, I guess you do have to keep that in check and I am always aware of it. But in terms of decision making of late, that’s never a part of the process.
Q. But it’s also fair to say that you have mixed the big films with the smaller ones. I mean, you’ve mentioned King Kong and, of course, you recently worked with Clint Eastwood on Flags Of Our Fathers. But you’re working with really, really good directors. So, what was working with Clint Eastwood like?
Jamie Bell: It was a big deal. It’s a milestone in your career. I was 20 and I could have blown it at 15 or 16 and instead I was working with an American icon. This guy’s been directing for 30 something years and it’s daunting, intimidating and scary as hell. I was like: “I don’t know how to take direction from you because you’re not really a person; you’re an idea, this thing in my brain, this image.” But he was totally approachable, very sweet and an amazing filmmaker. Everyone gives him the utmost respect – really, I never worked on a set as quiet as that in my life. What’s weird is going from that movie to this one and the one I’m making with Doug Liman [Jumper], which is the noisiest set I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s amazing to see how different they all work.
The difference between someone like Clint, who’s seasoned and does it very, very well, is that he doesn’t really collaborate that much. He’s more like: “I’ve got my things to do, I employed you for a reason, you go there and say your lines and stuff.” He’s totally nice about it and totally cool but I prefer Mackenzie, who’s going to push me in the Loch or get up on the rooftop with me, or even wear the badger hat in between takes. That’s just a much more enjoyable and motivating experience for me, when I can see people who are just as obsessed with the idea as I am.
Q. A lot of actors have described the experience of working with Clint Eastwood as different from anything else they’ve experienced…
Jamie Bell: Yeah, the most takes he ever did was three. His action cues are also different. He says something like [mimics Eastwood’s voice]: “OK, what do they say? Action?” I was like, “I think that means go!” And he’s like smiling and nodding. Then you’ll do a scene and wrap it up and young actors are always looking for assurance that they’ve got it right – but it doesn’t come. He doesn’t need to; the reason he’s moved on is because he knows he’s got it. He actually says when he’s finished a scene: “That’s enough of that shit!” It’s a much different process.
Q. Do you intend to keep mixing up the roles on both sides of the Atlantic?
Jamie Bell: I think so. There’s a certain amount that you have to do over there because that’s where the work is, that’s where the industry is. But wherever the good work is I’ll go.
Q. Would you also like to do some stage work?
Jamie Bell: I’d love to. If the right thing came along at the right time, it would be an enormous kind of challenge. I think movie making can sometimes make you lazy in your approach. Occasionally you’ll be shooting a scene and it’s not even your coverage but you’ll catch yourself slipping away and you’ll see your mind going somewhere else. But you just can’t afford to do that on stage. It’s also a different vibe. It’s an immediate response you get more than anything else.
Q. You mentioned working with Doug Liman. How big a role do you have in Jumper?
Jamie Bell: Essentially, it’s me and Hayden Christensen. Samuel L Jackson plays the bad guy. It’s like a hip comic book movie that isn’t tied down by convention. I have my power but I’m not going to save the girl because it’s f****g dangerous! He uses his powers to essentially be an asshole at the beginning. Ultimately, he ends up being a nice guy. It’s a much more indie look at this newfound obsession that, I guess, is comic book heroes.