Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Max Harwood: ‘Queer people need to know the shoulders we stand on’

The 24-year-old makes his movie debut as a teenage drag queen in the adaptation of the hit musical. He talks to Adam White about the importance of passing on the torch of history, transphobia, and why he prefers a cup of tea to clubbing

Thursday 16 September 2021 06:30
<p>Max Harwood: ‘We rise horizontally, and we only rise when we rise together’ </p>

Max Harwood: ‘We rise horizontally, and we only rise when we rise together’

Max Harwood, the star of the film version of West End smash Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, knows there’s something powerful about releasing the movie at this moment in time. “Just because I’m there,” he says, lifting his hand high, “it’s important to recognise that other people aren’t, so I need to use my voice to help those people. I’m specifically talking about trans people.” Jamie, about a teenage drag queen playing with gender, sexuality and performance, is being released amid rising instances of anti-queer violence in the UK, and a tidal wave of transphobia in the British press. An incredibly commercial reflection of queer joy, then, feels not just welcome, but potentially life-saving.

“Over this past year there has just been some awful transphobia circling the internet and in real life,” Harwood continues. “So I think it’s important as a community that we step up and forward for other people in our community, even if we feel like things have become easier for ourselves.” He calls back to something he’s always saying to his friends. “We rise horizontally, and we only rise when we rise together.”

Harwood makes his professional acting debut in Jamie, but truthfully he’s always been a star. As a child, he was the self-appointed “CEO” of family productions, “bossing around” his little sister and his cousins as they recreated famous films in his living room.

“We had this dressing up box at my house full of different wigs, and one day I was like, ‘We’re gonna do Grease.’” This time would be different, though. “Lily,” he remembers telling his sister, “I’m gonna play Rizzo today, and you’re going to be Kenickie. And we swapped outfits behind our curtains and did ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’, and my nan absolutely wet herself.” Harwood’s grandmother was a heavy smoker and, over Zoom, he enthusiastically emulates her ecstatic wheezes. “I think that was the moment I realised I could entertain people.”

The funny thing, though, is that Stockard Channing’s Rizzo – in that scene, at least – is totally a big ol’ drag queen, all camp and wigs and playing with gender roles and femininity. “Oh my god, 100 per cent!” Harwood nods. “It’s as if that determined this whole route for me.”

Harwood would recall the Rizzo story in his audition for Jamie. It might have been what clinched it. In 2019, Harwood was one of more than 3,000 young people to answer an open casting call for the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie movie. The film, released on Amazon Prime on Friday (17 September), is the latest chapter in the wild story of Jamie Campbell, a County Durham teenager who – in 2011 – used his end-of-year prom to introduce to the world his drag alter ego Fifi la True. The story became a BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which then served as the basis for the musical.

The film adaptation, like the stage show that inspired it, is not intended for the cynical at heart. So insistently nice that it makes Glee resemble a snuff movie, Jamie is pure feel-good, with cheery song and dance and no heart-strings left unpulled. Harwood plays Jamie New, a starry-eyed teenager given a pair of red high-heels for his 16th birthday – a gift from his caring mum (Sarah Lancashire) – and eager to embrace the queen within. With guidance from a new mentor, Richard E Grant’s compassionate drag mother Loco Channelle, Jamie takes his first nervous steps into a world of costumes and lip-syncs and, later, plots to wear a dress to the school dance.

Everyone's Talking About Jamie: (Trailer 2)

Harwood could spot parallels between himself and Jamie New early on. “I was definitely the kid at school always climbing out the window,” he remembers. “I was a big dreamer, and a very creative person. I’m also from a smaller, more working-class town in Basingstoke. And while I never wanted to be a drag queen, me wanting to be an actor is probably the parallel to wanting to be a drag queen.” There were obvious differences, too. Unlike the fictional Jamie – who has an absent father and faces off against an unsupportive teacher played by Sharon Horgan – Harwood had a vast support system at school and at home.

“I have incredibly supportive parents in my mum and dad, both for my performing and for my queerness,” he says. He was popular at school, a by-product of having a cool older brother and a large group of female friends. “I didn’t come out until I was 18,” he remembers, “but I was very lucky that I was friends with a lot of the popular girls. I was quite well-liked and, you know, if the boys wanted to pick on me, they knew they weren’t gonna have any chance with the girls.” He smiles at the memory, as if he’d cracked a secret survival code back then.

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Fresh from watching Jamie, I find Harwood surprising. Partly it’s due to his distance from the film itself – Jamie was filmed more than two years ago – but also our preconceptions about first-time actors: that they must be, on some level, incredibly similar to the characters we meet them playing. But Harwood is worlds away from Jamie New. He’s more mature and serious; his wet-look hair is black and lightly windswept, not shocking white like in the film. And it accentuates cheekbones so sharp you could probably grate cheese on them.

Harwood takes centre stage in ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie'

When we speak, Harwood is a few hours away from spending his 24th birthday at gay nightclub Heaven in London’s Charing Cross, where he’ll appear alongside Campbell, Drag Race alumni Brooke Lynn Hytes and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. It’s a promotional event for the film, though, and he is excited but not overwhelmingly so. “I’m a little bit of an introverted extrovert,” he jokes. “I like my own space and I like to be tucked up in bed with a tea and watching Netflix rather than being out clubbing.” He’ll give it a go, though. “I will have fun!” he adds, half to me and half as if he’s trying to convince himself.

As if to punctuate how far he’s come in just a few years, Harwood recalls first visiting Heaven as just another queer young man making his tentative early steps into the big city. He had moved to London to train at the Urdang Academy, a theatre school. “I may be wrong and someone from Basingstoke is gonna come for me and be like, ‘There is this space!’, but as far as I’m aware there are no queer spaces in the town where I’m from,” he says. “When I moved to London, I started going out for the first time and had my first experiences of going to Heaven and G*A*Y and it was so overwhelming. I hadn’t been in a club surrounded by that many queer people ever in my life.”

Harwood with the real Jamie Campbell at the London premiere of the film

Similar acts of slightly anxious self-discovery occur in the film, from Jamie meandering by the door of Loco’s drag shop, unsure of whether he should step inside, to a heartbreaking moment in which Jamie is educated on queer history. The latter is the only scene written specifically for the movie, which was adapted by the creators of the musical, writer Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells of rock band The Feeling. It sees Jamie watching a grainy VHS tape of Loco’s drag heyday. To an original song, titled “This Was Me”, we see a younger version of Loco (played by John McCrea, who originated the role of Jamie New on stage) and his boyfriend dancing beneath glitter light, only for their joy to be cruelly snatched away by Aids.

“I truly believe ‘This Was Me’ grounds the film for us,” Harwood says. “This is very much a generational story about the passing of a torch and carrying history with you. Like [Loco] says, drag isn’t just a TV show. We’ve come so far from when the government passed Section 28” – the law passed in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party that stopped councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, which lasted until 2003 – “but it’s important to tell the history because similar laws are being passed in Hungary right now to limit the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. It’s just so important that we’re still continuing to nod back to history. As queer people, we need to know the shoulders that we stand on.”

Harwood has been immersed in Jamie-world for three years now – what has he learned about drag and gender and sexuality in that time? “So much!” he says. He mentions the vast binary spectrum, and the pleasures of playing with gender. “And I’ve also learned how diverse our community is within the LGBTQIA+ bracket. This is just one story out of hundreds of stories that are very different, and there is still so much work to be done.”

‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ launches on Prime Video on Friday (17 September)

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