‘I never watch any of the movies I’ve done ... the thing I am really most proud of is my son’
Jamie Bell has come a long way from Billy Elliott to starring in Hollywood blockbusters. The modest movie star talks to Patricia Nicol about fatherhood and new wife Kate Mara
It has been 17 years since Jamie Bell pirouetted his way into the public’s affections as Billy Elliot. He was just 13. Now, those numerals are reversed — he is 31.
“Don’t remind people of that”, he stage whispers, grimacing in mock horror as he leans back in his chair, apparently unrecognised, in the restaurant where we meet.
“People are saying, ‘Where’s that kid gone? What’s he doing?’ Also, people look at me and think, “S***, that means I’m getting old if he’s into his 30s, and he’s even got a kid, too’.”
Bell’s not just got a kid. He’s already got one marriage behind him, to Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood, mother of his adored toddler son — and he has just entered into another with House of Cards actress Kate Mara, of whom he talks rapturously.
He has also racked up an impressively diverse filmography, encompassing major blockbusters as well as indie projects. Aged 17, Bell moved to the US for roles in Peter Jackson’s King Kong in 2005 and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers the year after. Not everything he has appeared in has been met with an enthusiastic bell du jour reception — and Fox Studios’ Fantastic Four proved a colossal turkey (“no, seminal, seminal”, he murmurs, grinning). But he played the title role in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and he’s also worked with hotly tipped directors such as David Mackenzie (Hallam Foe) as well as Lars von Trier in Nymphomaniac Vol II.
Lately, he seems to have embraced more independent films, which perhaps suit his quirky English sensibility better.
When he turned up to work on his latest film, 6 Days, a tense drama that recreates the 1980 London Iranian embassy siege, he says: “The director (Toa Fraser) had cast these very large men around me and I couldn’t help but feel dwarfed. I’m a 5ft 7in jug-eared Englishman. It felt a little overwhelming.”
The film starts with a BBC voiceover from the time, reporting that “the last decade has seen a renaissance in international terrorism”, as, on screen, six armed Arab men enter a Kensington property and take all 26 people within it hostage.
Given the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, it feels strikingly pertinent. Bell is cast as Rusty Firmin, the SAS soldier on the ground who led the eventual storming of the embassy, freeing all but one of the remaining hostages and killing five of the six terrorists. This was the moment that defined the public’s perception of the little-known SAS unit as a crack, kick-ass corps.
Bell plays Firmin as taciturn, watchful, tightly wound — only just a goodie.
“My character becomes someone who really overcompensates for a seeming lack of masculinity by being the most willing to express violence.” You can still see the sweet, hopeful boy who played Billy Elliot in the lean-looking man in a Rag & Bone polo t-shirt and hear a trace of Teesside in Bell’s mid-Atlantic accent. But home is Hollywood now.
“It was probably the smartest thing I ever did, to get over there,” he says.
Vanessa Pereira, the long-term manager who he thinks of as family, went too. She is here now, sitting with the film’s publicist at a far table. At one point, they send across a bowl of fresh peas in their pods.
“It’s because she’s worried I’m not eating,” says Bell fondly. True enough, the smoked mackerel on sourdough, ordered with scrupulous politeness from the waitress, sits untouched before him. “I’ll eat afterwards. I’m a very messy eater,” he explains.
Besides talk of occasional longings for “stodgy British food like mince and potatoes”, you sense little nostalgia for Billingham, where Bell spent his early years with his older sister and single mother. He has never had a relationship with his father. Last summer, filming took him back to London. His mother came south to help with childcare.
Does he get up north much? “No.” And does he sometimes think about what his life would have been like without Billy Elliot? He grimaces slightly. “It’s a terrifying prospect because I don’t know how to do anything else. I would still be in that town, maybe.”
On Twitter, Bell is critical of Donald Trump, and urged Brits to vote Labour in the recent general election. What did he think about Teesside voting for Brexit last year?
“Did it really? I’m so out of touch with British politics. It’s tricky, because I’ve really laid roots across the world. My son is here (in LA), he’ll be going to school there and I work there a lot. And it’s just impossible to make that divide feel any smaller.”
His son has just turned four. So far, he and Wood, who also started out as a child actor, have kept his name out of the press. “I think it’s because of my own association with childhood exposure,” says Bell.
“Not that anyone’s ever been particularly invasive with me — I go around with relative ease — but it’s just a poppa thing to think, ‘No, no, no’; that’s a different side of my life that no one sees.
“I never watch any of the movies I’ve done. I never take any of it that seriously, but without question the thing I’m proudest of achieving is my son. I’m obsessed. Every moment I spend with him I fall a little bit more for him. It’s almost kind of painful,” he says, laughing in embarrassment.
“That thing when you are falling into something so unconditionally.”
If anything, the experience of becoming a parent has made him more understanding of his father, who left before he was born.
“It’s difficult raising a child,” says Bell. “It’s really stressful. It requires a lot of you. You have to sacrifice your life and some people don’t want to do that. It’s not particularly noble, but I could see why the easier thing is to leave.”
Would he walk? “F***, no.” He admits to sometimes wondering how his own absent father figure might inform his parenting. “You can’t be thinking, ‘I’m doing this because no one ever gave me this experience.’ The thing is not to love from a place of anger, because that is potentially devastating.”
He and Wood first got together in the mid-Noughties after shooting a Green Day video. She then went out with Marilyn Manson. In 2011 — the same year she first spoke publicly about being bisexual — they were reported to have rekindled their relationship.
They married in October 2012 and had their son in July 2013, but announced their separation 10 months later. Now they co-parent 50/50. “It’s tricky enough when you’re actors who are together. The kid is just going to have to get used to going here, going there,” he says, clicking his fingers back and forth.
“Once he’s in school there will be sacrifices when it comes to choosing work.” The ex-couple “thankfully” get on well.
“As kids from divorced parents we understood very quickly the importance of maintaining a good relationship. I think that is also a generational thing: we learned from our elders that it’s better if you have to share a space with someone to be able to look them in the eye. If you succeed, the kid succeeds.”
Although the film flopped, Bell has the press tour of Fantastic Four to thank for getting him together with co-star Kate Mara. The pair had moved in the same social circles for years in LA (they even once kissed for a screen chemistry test, though neither of them got cast), yet when they did get together it felt inevitable.
“There was an instant connection, like we’d known one another forever. It was obvious very quickly that we were going to get married.”
Bell and his wife come from very different backgrounds. Mara and her sister, fellow actress Rooney Mara, are scions of American football’s first family, an Irish-American dynasty.
Her paternal family founded and co-own the New York Giants; her mother’s family, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Her late grandfather, Wellington Mara, is regarded as a key architect of the modern National Football League and Super Bowl. The ball is even nicknamed ‘The Duke’ after him.
“It’s not just like they bought the teams; they are the teams,” says Arsenal fan Bell, who got an American pal round for a briefing before he watched his first game with the Maras.
“They’re an incredible family, so loving, connected and together. They’re functional. It’s kind of an amazing surprise to know that stuff really exists. I come from a broken home ... But to see parents who are together, who have raised four children, with no sign of splitting up, is a joy to watch.”
He says Mara has never flaunted her footballing heritage. “She doesn’t walk with a sense of privilege,” he says. “She’s carved out a name for herself, just as her sister has. All of her siblings are successful in their own right. I really admire that.”
For 6 Days, Bell did a boot camp with a former SAS unit. “It was scary,” he says. “People firing blanks at you and throwing smoke grenades. It’s all about engulfing your enemy with loud, aggressive violence, which is really not me at all,” he giggles.
His wiry physique is not a legacy from that shoot, however, but in preparation for a new movie, Skin, in which he plays a character based on Bryon ‘Pitbull’ Widner, one of America’s most violent and well-known white supremacists.
I wonder how he feels about raising a family in this world. “My general resting position is one of critical anxiety,” he says. “I’m genuinely unnerved by the scenario.”
He hopes there will be another Tintin film. Meanwhile, he is branching out into producing. Teen Spirit, a Cinderella pop musical written and directed by his friend, actor Max Minghella, already has Elle Fanning signed up as its star, with financing from the team behind La La Land. In this new age for musicals, might we see Bell dance on screen again? “I could do a Fred Astaire biopic, maybe,” he suggests.
He would like to do theatre in London, but it is not a city where he feels at home.
“It’s overwhelming to me,” he says. “I don’t have a mastery of it, or know any of the cool places. I only ever go to Dean Street. It’s embarrassing, like, this is the first time I’ve been in Spitalfields.”
Since the film’s publicist is approaching, looking anxiously at his watch, it seems unlikely there will be time for getting to know Spitalfields better today. Still, you hope Bell at least gets to eat his lunch.
- 6 Days is in cinemas later this summer