Jamie Bell's youth belies his remarkable talent and considerable experience as a dancer and an actor. Now 14, the northeast England native started dancing when he was 6 years old, participating in numerous competitions, and toured England with a musical theatre group when he was 9. But with his title role in Billy Elliot, a British film about a working-class boy forced to hide his desire and aptitude for dance, Bell has successfully integrated his two precocious talents to deliver a startlingly effortless performance.
Through a friend, Bell secured the first audition for the film and heard nothing for two months, a nerve-racking length of time to wait for a callback. After seeing more than 2,000 boys for the geographically specific, dance-intensive part, director Stephen Daldry auditioned Bell another five times and finally offered him the role.
"[The casting directors] started going to gymnastics clubs trying to find a ballet dancer, and of course they can't do that because gymnasts have a bent back, and in ballet dancing you can't have an arched back, you have to be straight," Bell said in a recent interview. His dancing expertise seemed to have given him an edge, as did the fact that he had the proper accent for the film's setting.
Coming from a theatre background along with Daldry, a well-respected stage director (An Inspector Calls), the atmosphere on set was decidedly more open, with lots of rehearsal time, according to Bell, not much like a film at all. "The only difference was that it was in front of a camera instead of an audience," Bell recalled of both his and Daldry's feature-film debut.
Although he has no formal acting training, the young actor maintains a realistic perspective on his experience so far, which also speaks to his determination and perseverance. "I thought that being someone else was pretty cool, and I just wanted to do it."
Nevertheless, Bell holds a healthy respect for the craft of acting. "Ralph Fiennes does it very well," Bell explained. "He does at least two films a year and then goes straight back into the theatre, which I think is a very good idea." After a pause, he said, "So did I, actually, come to think of it. I did this film, and I'm starting to do a play called Kes," adapted from Ken Loach's 1969 film about a northern England working-class boy and his obsession with a bird.
Not surprisingly, the actors whom Bell admires are mostly "a bunch of English guys," including Cary Grant, Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Johnny Lee Miller, and Rhys Ifans.
With a slightly devilish grin and more energy than can be contained even in the body of a 14-year-old, Bell is decidedly a normal kid. With no plans yet for a full-time acting career, he lists his academic interests as history and English, with no intention of proper acting classes.
He's even anticipating some repercussions from the lads back at school in his hometown of Billingham, England, who have already chided him about being a dancer—a fact he has done his best to hide from his schoolmates. But Bell remains optimistic. "I'm going to have to get ready for another bit of hassle," Bell said of returning to school. "It won't be the same people who [hassled] me last time. I think it's going to be more the older kids, but if it happens, I'll tell on them. I'll tell Stephen [Daldry], and he'll blow their heads off."
Though kids can be cruel, Bell has nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, his graceful and magnetic abilities as a dancer are the perfect match for his innately emotional, stunningly realistic acting performance. He offers a character that is at once invincible and weak, immature and complex, full of that special something that makes the audience care very much about what happens to him. His preparation for the part? "I didn't, really," he said. "I just got it from the script, reading it aloud over and over." Bell clearly illustrates that he understands the emotional journey of this young boy, who is ironically not unlike himself, but he insists that the two are not the same.
Some would argue that Billy Elliot mirrors Bell's life: a young boy from a working-class family who discovers he has a talent for dancing but can't tell anyone because dancing isn't a manly thing to do. Bell disagrees. "He isn't the same, because he grew up in the '80s, he's 11, his personality is different, and he's got different responsibilities.
"Everyone wants him to be the same, but he's very much different," Bell asserted. "It was harder to play. I didn't really want it to be easy."
Though the film has generated quite a buzz stateside for the Brit, Bell continues to build an impressive resumé on his side of the Atlantic. "I've done two plays, two camera things, and a radio play, so I've been a busy boy this year."
Indeed, this busy boy has made quite a first impression in a role that identifies him as a formidable talent and an engaging performer with only more success ahead of him.