Jamie Bell: 'Billy Elliot' grows up

Six years ago, Jamie Bell became the last thing he wanted to be: a child star. Today, he has Hollywood kudos and indie credibility. The canny 19-year-old tells Nicholas Barber how he outgrew 'Billy Elliot'
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'Clint could kick all of our arses put together," enthuses Jamie Bell, and, just in case you're in any doubt, that's Clint as in Clint Eastwood, who directed Bell in his forthcoming Second World War epic, Flags Of Our Fathers. "The first day of shooting, we were out on the Icelandic sea doing the landing-craft sequence where the marines hit Iwo Jima, and Clint's in the boats with us, and he's jumping from boat to boat. You know, he's seventy-something, but he flies helicopters and he drives four-wheelers and stuff like that. It's actually kind of amazing."

It certainly is. But what's more amazing is that Bell should have been handpicked by a living legend to play an American soldier, Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski. This, remember, is the big-eared adolescent from Billy Elliot. He might have done a fine job in that film, but he was a teenaged North-Eastern lad who loved to dance, and he was playing the role of a teenaged North-Eastern lad who loved to dance. It was hardly a stretch, and the acclaim he won for his pirouettes was no guarantee of a continuing career.

"The only way is down after something like that, it really is," agrees Bell. If you'd plotted his career path back in 2000, when Billy Elliot came out, you'd have predicted another heart-warming British comedy-drama, followed by a heart-warming British TV series. After that there should have been Joseph in the West End, a spot on Celebrity Ice Dancing and an album of show tunes that would have peaked at number 56, before he made his sad descent into My Drug Hell or an office job or both. What Bell did, though, was exactly what you wouldn't have expected.

Since Billy Elliot, he has been quietly and carefully building a rock solid career, with experimental indie projects as its foundations and high-profile Hollywood blockbusters stacked on top. It's typical of him to go straight from the colossal Flags of Our Fathers to Hallam Foe, David McKenzie's follow-up to the controversial Young Adam. Hallam Foe is a "sweet revenge movie", set in Edinburgh, and Bell counts it as "the most exciting and intriguing thing" he's done. Just a few months after his 20th birthday - "I'm not a teenager any more! Holy shit!" - the question has to be: where did it all go right?

His first smart move was to avoid rushing into his second film. He wasn't seen on the big screen for two years after the Billy Elliot circus left town, and when he was, in 2002, it was some way down the cast list in Deathwatch and in Nicholas Nickleby. Neither part grabbed much attention, but both proved that he could slot into an ensemble as a character who wasn't a miner's son with a knack for ballet. Two years later, he was in David Gordon Green's hallucinogenic Southern Gothic thriller, Undertow, alongside Josh Lucas and Dermot Mulroney. And that was followed by Thomas Vinterberg's poetic parable about America's love of guns, Dear Wendy.

These films were something else again. Both were offbeat, edgy productions that were never destined to get much of an audience, but the audience they did get learnt a lot about their young star. For one thing, he was capable of a perfect American accent, which would allow him to co-star with an all-American cast in Flags of Our Fathers. For another, he shrugged and glowered under the influence of his acting idol, James Dean. And for a third, he was intent on honing his skills and amassing credibility rather than cashing in on his early fame. Were these roles deliberate attempts to avoid typecasting? "Absolutely," says Bell. "Billy Elliot was such a big success it propelled me into this line of work, which I'm incredibly grateful for. But then, two or three years on you're starting to move away from that, and it's important that you let people know that you're changing. Those films were very conscious decisions to dig my feet into this industry, and to lose any kind of labels that Billy Elliot might have created."

And what about the American accent? "It takes a while," says Bell, who fields every question with the same casual openness. "On Undertow I was literally in a room for four hours every day for two weeks, just reading the script over and over again in the accent, and I guess it pays off. It's weird, but I think it comes from the dancing. Just having the discipline to pay attention to something, and focus on it, and try to follow your instructor as best you can." For Bell, everything came from dancing. Growing up in Bellingham, Stockton on Tees, he began tripping the light fantastic at the age of six, because that's what everyone in his family did. "It got me out of the house," he says. His only showbiz aspiration at the time was to make it to a stage school in London, and he hadn't thought seriously about acting until Billy Elliot came along.

After that, with two Baftas on the mantelpiece, he still wasn't sure he'd carry on in films. "I expected to go back to school and continue where I left off," he remembers. "But there was something inside of me that said, well, no, I really like this job. The best part of that experience was shooting the movie. The auditions were awful, the rehearsals were arduous, the shooting was amazing and brilliant and fun, the press was just... [he gropes for a tactful phrase] ...what it was, and the awards were just monotonous. But it was the working element of it that got me excited, creating a character, and I wanted that experience again."

Bell's preference for graft over glamour was apparent at the time, especially when the Golden Globes were televised. There's priceless footage of his fellow child star, Haley Joel Osment, gushing about how Billy Elliot had touched people all over the world - cut to Jamie, who has a look of smouldering hatred on his face. "It was a look of awkwardness," corrects Bell. "It was the look of a 15-year-old boy who's at a wedding or something, and his grandfather tells him to stand up and say a couple of words. Of course you're going to be really fucking embarrassed! It was such a weird moment. It was like, 'Why is this 12-year-old standing on stage with a bow-tie talking to a bunch of big movie stars, and telling me to stand up? I don't understand.'"

Osment, of course, followed his precocious turn in The Sixth Sense with monumentally annoying appearances in Pay It Forward and AI: Artificial Intelligence, both of which made Bell's decision to take a different, more roundabout route to Hollywood seem all the more canny. In conversation, he seems shockingly mature and grounded, but Bell is quick to pass the credit for his choices on to the friends and relations who advise him. One is his "amazing" manager, Vanessa Pereira. Another is Billy Elliot's director, Stephen Daldry, who became a substitute for Bell's biological father, whom he has never met. "It was kind of an inevitable thing to happen to me anyway," he says of his bond with Daldry, "because there was that role which needed to be filled at some point. But it wasn't just something that happened overnight. It wasn't like, 'Oh, by the way, you're my surrogate father now.' It's a relationship, and it develops, and I'm very grateful for that. Stephen has guided me so well on this trail of insanity. It just keeps getting wider and longer, with different roads you can take. But he's always been there to keep me straight. You really need people like that."

The people around Bell know what they're doing. As well as notching up the films already mentioned, he stars in The Chumscrubber, a US suburban angst-fest as yet unreleased in the UK, heading a cast which includes Ralph Fiennes and Glenn Close. And, let's not forgetKing Kong. Bell counts the film's Times Square premiere as the most mindboggling moment in his post-Billy career. "They'd erected a big King Kong in the middle of the Square, and Mayor Bloomberg declared it King Kong Day in New York City. And suddenly all the screens went black, and the King Kong trailer played on every single screen in Times Square. You see your face on every single screen - and that's just mad. That's when you see the effect that movies can have."

After King Kong and Flags of Our Fathers, Hallam Foe must have been quite a contrast. "It is financially," says Bell, "but money has never been a major attraction for me to do anything. The most important thing for me during these years, from the age of 17 until now, has just been about discovering who I am as an actor, working with some interesting people, and just trying to make my mark. And the thing all the films I've done have in common is that the director has a great passion. I go into meetings with some film-makers and they literally have nothing to say, they're almost bored by their own material. I'd rather work with people who are very passionate and very animated about what they want to do. People who just want to tell stories."

It's no surprise to hear that Bell hopes to direct films himself in the future. "I've just been blessed to work with these really great people," he says. "You can't help but be inspired by them almost every day. What's weird is that I work with these directors and then I start channeling them. I kind of turn into them a bit - which is cool when you're working with Clint Eastwood..." Could the ballerina boy really be the next Clint? If you were plotting his career path now, you couldn't rule it out.

'Flags of Our Fathers' is out on 22 December