“A Cinderella story!” Richard E. Grant exclaims, barely containing his excitement as Max Harwood recounts his journey to “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.” And a Cinderella story it truly is—only Harwood’s has more glitter, higher heels, and a fairy drag mother in Loco Chanelle, played by industry vet and Oscar nominee Grant.
Prior to being plucked from a self-tape stack of over 3,000 young hopefuls, Harwood was just a second-year university student studying theater in London. Agentless and with no professional screen credits to his name, he took the leap after some coaxing from a friend to get his materials in order and submit. Soon thereafter, at the end of a yearlong talent search with casting director Shaheen Baig, director Jonathan Butterell had his Jamie New, the teen drag queen sensation who dreams of a stage bigger than his South Yorkshire home can contain. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is adapted from book writer and lyricist Tom MacRae and composer Dan Gillespie Sells’ Olivier Award–nominated West End musical of the same name, which itself was adapted from Jenny Popplewell’s 2011 TV documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16” and the true story of Jamie Campbell. After some pandemic-induced delays, the film is finally set to hit theaters Feb. 26, 2021.
Richard E. Grant: Max.
Max Harwood: Hello, my love.
REG: Huge congratulations. You’re the only one that I know that’s seen [the film].
MH: Yes, I have! I literally saw it on Monday. Have you seen it yet?
REG: No! Who have you seen it with?
MH: I went to see it with Jonathan [Butterell] and Mark [Everson], the editor, in a screening room in SoHo. It was very surreal and strange watching myself on the big screen for the first-ever time.
REG: Was it what you expected? Did the feeling of what you were doing inside match with what you saw in your performance?
MH: Yes, I think so. I tried to not overthink anything too much when I was watching it back. That was really hard, obviously, because I was watching things that I’d done, but trying to go on Jamie’s journey with him and see if every moment landed. I feel like it did. It’s really hard to tell when it’s you. Definitely, the essence and the feelings that I had when I was shooting come across, especially in some of those earlier scenes that I remember shooting with you because we were first up.
REG: Before we get there, hold on. I’m going to go all the way back. I’m going to go back to: How did you hear about this movie in the first place, and where were you in your life?
MH: Well, I was at school. I was in my second year. A friend of mine, Lydia, said that Shaheen Baig was looking for someone for this part, and there was an open casting call.
“What is for you will come to you. You need to be uniquely and authentically yourself so the things that are meant for you drop in your lap.”
REG: When you say school, do you mean acting school or school-school?
MH: Yes, I was in my second year of uni. I was like, “Ah, surely not. It’s a movie. No.” I was training in theater at the time. I’d worked at a cinema growing up when I was 16; I always was the one that was sweeping the popcorn and hand-ripping the tickets. I never thought that I would be in the movie. Then [Lydia] basically forced me into sending a tape to Shaheen. After that, I was on the journey of auditioning and stuff, which was very bizarre, and it just snowballed into where we are now.
REG: What did you send on your first tape?
MH: On my first tape, I just had to say who I was, where I was from, an interesting story about myself, and how I connected to the project. That story was the time that me and my sister used to dress up as characters from “Grease” in my living room and perform mini-musicals. One time, my nan came over to watch said musical. We gave her the shock of her life when my sister exited the curtain in a leather jacket dressed as Danny and I exited the curtain in a little black wig as Rizzo. She almost wet herself, she was laughing so much. That was the story I shared in my tape. Obviously, that connects quite well to the character in terms of him doing drag or whatever.
REG: You knew that [the audition] was for a musical and that it was called “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.” You knew that?
MH: Yes. I had seen the show before I’d auditioned. I went to see the show in February the year that it came out in the West End. It had only been out a few months then, I suppose. I saw the show, and I really loved it. The music in it is amazing, as you know. Dan Gillespie Sells is just incredible; I love him. I watched it and I thought, Maybe this is something that I could do when I leave school.
REG: Do you know how many people auditioned for the movie role that you finally got?
MH: I don’t know. It’s in the thousands, I believe. Are you going to tell me the specific number now?
REG: Three and a half thousand, and it was over an entire year! Take me through [it]: You sent in your first tape, then what were the next stages?
MH: Then I think there were a few more tapes, actually. I taped a few of the scenes from the movie. Then I got the call to say that they were doing a group audition at the Old Diorama Arts Centre in London. They said, “You’ll be meeting the director and the casting director. Please prepare.” I think it was three scenes and two of the songs.
We went in and we all did a dance round together. Then they started calling people in one by one. When I went in the room, they said, “Dan Gillespie Sells is here.” I was thinking, Oh, no, I’m going to have to sing two of this guy’s songs in front of him—that’s really daunting! On top of that, when I got in the room, they were like, “OK, we’ll start with ‘The Wall in My Head.’ Do you want to wear the heels?” Then they got out these red heels, which he wears in the show. I was like, “Absolutely, yes. I will do the song in the heels.” I haven’t had much experience in heels at all, and I just thought, I’ve got to do this on a wing and a prayer here. Slipped on the heels—they were a little too big. Did the whole song.
I left that day thinking, That was a fun day. I’m not going to hear anything; back to school I go. Then I got a call to say, “Would you like to come to do a day with us?” The day was a screen test in a little studio in London, and then they put me in full drag for the first time. Obviously, to put someone in drag is quite a long process. At that time, I was thinking, This two-hour process—they can’t be doing it with hundreds of people. Surely not.
REG: Did you have an agent by this time?
MH: No, I didn’t have an agent or anything. I was just on my own. I was emailing back and forth with Shaheen myself.
REG: How long was it between being told by Jonathan that you [had] the part to us two meeting in Soho in a little rehearsal room and reading through all our scenes together?
MH: It was probably a week or two. Not long at all.
REG: Right, because I can remember, I was incredibly nervous. I came into the room, you and Jonathan had been there already. You were sitting on a very low sofa next to Jonathan, there was a chair that I sat on and you immediately said, “Can I give you a hug?” which I found so endearing. You broke the wall of it instantly. You knew every line of your dialogue. You absolutely nailed it. You were so on it that I thought, Oh, my God, this guy who’s never been in a movie has just—. You were so well-prepared and I was incredibly impressed by that. Instantly, I knew why you got the part. What was your memory of that meeting that we had for the first time?
MH: Well, I got there early because I was terrified. I was like, “I’m meeting Richard today. This is craziness.” I got there early and I told Jonathan, I was like, “I’m feeling really nervous today.” He was like, “Don’t worry. It’s just going to be really casual. We’re going to have a read.” I just remember you walking in and just shattering all illusions. You were just so full of energy.
Especially that first meeting, we did read pretty much all of the scenes together. The only reason I really probably truly knew all of the lines right now was because I had to do all of the scenes throughout my audition process. I have a slightly photographic memory, but I just remember that, at that stage, I was still in the space of not feeling like I had my brain going, “I don’t deserve to be here.” I always want to be making sure that I’m prepped and stuff like that. Especially in those early, early moments, I was taking as much advice I could from as many people as I could to try and make sure that I was prepared for meeting you. I didn’t want to meet you, someone who is a seasoned pro at this and have you think anything but: “He’s prepared and right.” I didn’t want to ever give across the energy that I didn’t care or didn’t want to be there.
REG: How nervous were you on the first day of shooting? Because your first day was my first day, as well.
MH: I remember feeling so nervous that day, and then, very early on, you said to me something like, “We’re not doing heart surgery here. We are telling stories, so we have to find fun in it.” That instantly put me at ease.
REG: I’m glad to hear that. From your drama training, did [filming] seem like a world away from what they had said you would experience? Because what I love about the industrial nature of filming is that there are cables and lenses and props and people to help you, and a real costume and a real set. You don’t have to go to the zoo and look at a chimpanzee for two hours and think, Well, how could I play a chimpanzee? It’s very practical and real. I think that’s something that as much as people at drama training try to give you, until you actually do it, it’s not the same thing. Would you agree with that?
MH: I totally agree with you on that, because I was overthinking a lot at the start. On a film set, it was comforting to learn that there were people there to touch up your eyebrow or to move a piece of hair. All of these little details are telling the story. I feel like I learned that my job was to deliver the lines with the right energy and be with the actor I’m with.
I think training, in some cases, can overcomplicate that process and put lots of blocks to you actually getting to—not an end result, but an A performance, like you say. Being on a set, you are sometimes in a real shop or a real nightclub, or you’re in a real street, or on the floor outside a real shop at 4 o’clock in the morning. That is your reality when you’re shooting: just actually being in the moment and going, “I’m really cold. I’m lying covered in blood outside a shop. It’s 4 a.m. I actually feel quite sick.” Do you know what I mean? The reality of it helps you so much.
“Because I was playing drag mother in this story, I was so struck by how you have to show enormous compassion and kindness but also be as tough as old boots.”
REG: Apart from the exhaustion of the long hours and you being in every single scene, what was the thing that you found the hardest to cope with, making your first movie?
MH: I think the hardest part for me making the movie was just the sheer amount I had to take on in terms of learning, which I loved. Also, one of the hardest scenes to shoot was my drag performance, because I’m not a drag queen and I hadn’t done drag before, and I love drag so much. I put so much pressure on myself to do justice to all of those lip-sync performances that I’ve seen and loved throughout the years.
REG: Did you find it helpful meeting the real person that the music is based on?
MH: Yes. I found it really interesting because I got to speak to him. Also, not only to speak to him but to observe him in real life. When I met him for the first time, it was really useful to physically see him and get to pick his brain about his life. Also in many ways, it was so lovely that he was on board with the project, because it took the pressure off me in some ways, just having him there to know that we were doing justice to his story. This is a sensitive subject matter. This is a man now who still doesn’t have a relationship with his father amongst all his success just because he’s being who he wants to be.
REG: Yes, in the three weeks before we started shooting, I was binge-watching 11 series of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which I’d never seen, and that was the common denominator that came through. That on the one hand you had people displaying incredible personal courage to be who they felt they really were, but the stories of families turning against them and especially fathers chimed through almost every episode. I felt that so strongly when I met Jamie. And because I was playing drag mother in this story, I was so struck by how you have to show enormous compassion and kindness but also be as tough as old boots—which RuPaul is. RuPaul does not take any prisoners.
MH: Absolutely not. Take your mask off, Valentina!
REG: At your vast age and vintage now, would you have any advice for a performer starting like you did?
MH: I suppose I would just say—this is going to make me sound a little bit cringe—[but] just being you is enough.
MH: Within acting or performing or being a dancer or a writer or a creative person, don’t try and morph yourself into someone else, because those things are for that person. What is for you will come to you. You need to be uniquely and authentically yourself so the things that are meant for you drop in your lap. And that’s what I would say. I don’t know if that sounds a bit too profound and a bit too old and wise, but that’s all I believe I can say.
REG: How old are you, Mr. Harwood?
REG: I am 63, and I am only just learning that. I can tell you the number of drama students that I knew from when I was training 40 years ago who would do brilliant imitations of well-known actors, and I’d think, Oh, my God, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Let’s be like that. None of those people have really, without exception, had successful careers, because they’ve been trying to be people that are already doing performances. They weren’t true to who they really were.
MH: What I’ve learned is that each individual person working with you—Sarah [Lancashire], Sharon [Horgan]—you all have completely different energies and ways of working. The energies that you bring to the characters and the performances that you deliver are all uniquely you at the root of them, despite things you add in terms of mannerisms or research that you do. The root of everything when you’re an actor is you. Your outward energy is the vessel, right? You can change and mold that, but it won’t ever be someone else’s heart within you delivering that promise.
REG: Absolutely. How difficult was it, once the shoot finished, to go back from that incredible intensity of three or four months that you were working, and then it stops
MH: I can’t lie to you, I did find it quite hard! Especially going from not having any work to being the No. 1 on a film set to going back to having no work, you go, “Am I going to do anything else? Is this for me?” I think every actor has impostor syndrome within them. [But] I’ve been really lucky. When I’ve texted you, you’ve replied and just been there to offer advice. I think that’s really important going forward. I really hope, Richard, in the future, [that] I’m at a stage where a young actor comes in [and] I can actually deliver to them what you gave to me, which is such strong support. Having that is the best thing, because we’re all just humans going through life. There will be ups and downs. You have to learn to manage those.
REG: I’m so touched that you’ve said that. The other thing that I’m struck by is that impostor syndrome. I’ve found that the common denominator for almost every actor I’ve ever worked with in all these decades is that on the one hand, we have low self-esteem but large ego—because you’re going, “No, no, no. Don’t give her or him the part. Give me the part!” And then as soon as you’ve got the part, you think, Well, do I deserve the part, or surely somebody else? I was just in a read-through a month ago for this job that I did in Atlanta, “Loki.” When we did the read-through on Zoom, I thought, Everybody else is brilliant. Everyone else knows how to play that part. But my part just sounded like concrete coming out my mouth. Knowing that every actor goes through that—it levels the playing field, because every job you start, you are at the beginning again. I thought that it would improve with age and that you get less fearful. It doesn’t! It stayed the same. Be warned.
MH: Oh, gosh. Yes. [Laughs] Maybe I should get out now!
REG: Jamie, at 23, how old were you when you consciously can remember thinking: “[Acting is] what I want to do?”
MH: I don’t know if there was any specific defining moment, but I think probably from when I was 16 and I was watching all of these movies at the Odeon Cinema in Basingstoke. It’s going to sound really cheesy, I remember watching “The Hunger Games.” That was really big when I was working in the cinema. That came out and I remember watching Jennifer Lawrence in that. I was just like, “Wouldn’t it just be the absolute dream to be Jennifer Lawrence in ‘The Hunger Games’?” Who knows, maybe Jamie is the next gay superhero.
REG: Because I played a gay character in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” opposite Melissa McCarthy a couple of years ago, one of the questions that constantly came up from journalists was, “How can you really, as a heterosexual actor, be playing a gay part?” I would imagine that in the zeitgeist of where we are at the moment, this is something that I will be having to deal with next year when the movie comes out. One of the things I said to Jonathan right up front when he asked me if I would do this part, I said, “Am I not going to be guilty of taking a drag role away from a drag actor?” He said, “No, no, no, no, no.” What is your feeling about that?
MH: I feel like parts and acting and everything like that is one thing. Being a gay man, I think that love is universal. As a gay actor, I would not say that only straight actors can play straight roles and only gay actors can play gay roles, because then do you say to gay actors, “Well, sorry, you can only play gay roles”? I don’t want to be in a space and in an industry where my talent is boxed in by my sexuality. My talent and my ability to play roles is outside of my sexuality, I believe. Considering these things and having these conversations is so important, too, and whenever you’re reading a script and you’re looking at the representation in the script, just having the conversation is the most important thing. It becomes an issue when these conversations aren’t had. That’s what I believe. That’s where I’m at—and you’re brilliant in the role. You’re so good.
REG: Thank you very much. Will you consciously want to play more gay characters in the future?
MH: I said early on, I think love is such a universal thing, so I feel like I want to just be able to play anyone, despite their sexuality. I feel like consciously making sure that LGBTQ+ writers and directors are doing work and telling those stories is really important. [But] there isn’t just one cookie-cutter version of a gay man or any person who’s part of that LGBTQ background. I feel like I will consciously be picking work for many different reasons, I suppose, is the answer to that.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photographed by Heather Glazzard at the Soho Hotel in London; Styling by Zadrian Smith and Sarah Edmiston; Grooming by Nadia Altinbas