Jamie Bell first leapt onto our screens back in 2000 with the eponymous role in Billy Elliot, the story of a miner’s son who becomes a ballet dancer. Following on from the Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning film, Bell went on to feature in the likes of Hallam Foe, King Kong, Jumper and Flags of Our Fathers, proving he could do more than just pirouette on command. With upcoming roles in Jane Eyre and The Adventures of Tintin, he is becoming a staple part of both the British and American cinema scene.
Recently in London to talk about his character in the cinema adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, he spoke to View’s Matthew Turner about the physical nature of doing your own stunts, working with Channing Tatum and the differences between CGI and real life filming.
Do you think you sometimes went above and beyond the call of duty as an actor on The Eagle, given the physically demanding nature of the shoot in such extreme environments?
I think Kevin [Macdonald, director] and Duncan [Kenworthy, producer] got very lucky having me and Channing do it! We’re very good physically. We both have physical backgrounds, obviously predominantly in dance of course [Billy Elliot and Step Up], so, when you apply that to things like sword fighting or even horse riding … I’d never ridden a horse before, which was a big gamble for them. I was very honest about that going in - a lot of actors lie about it. They say, “Oh yeah, I’m totally fine on a horse!” But I had to learn from scratch. I really felt like the physical nature of it, the arduous nature of it, was part of the struggle of the characters in this story and it’s their endurance and stamina that gets them through it. I don’t think we had the same endurance and stamina, really. There were moments when we had to keep each other going and press on.
It was very strange to go from one grey room to the Highlands of Scotland and interact with real animals, real people and real situations...
This is a film that prides itself on authenticity ... but what were the rats that you’re seen eating really like to eat?
I don’t know what it was that they gave us to eat. I still don’t really know, in fact. They said it was kind of like the gelatine that holds together the Haribo treats ... but it wasn’t. Actually that scene came together on a day when it was just like sheet rain. It literally just didn’t stop and you were just in water on that moor. It was unbelievable. It was the end of the day, so they decided to do it then.
You’re obviously naturally very slim anyway, but did you lose any more weight to play a slave?
No, I’m just a small guy so if I’d dropped any more weight it would have been a bit ridiculous. I tried to bulk up a little bit. We wanted these guys to feel like they could definitely take care of themselves. Channing’s character, for instance, is a trained fighter and part of the military, so we wanted to be able to differentiate. Esca is a very feral, wiry, instinctual fighter. So, we did that in rehearsal.
How did the process of shooting this film, where it’s all done for real, compare with motion-capture on Tintin?
They are two completely opposite things: one is technology and one is nature. They’re literally that different. You’d think that one would be more freeing than the other – being in nature and having the physical environment to interact with would be incredibly helpful and inform the performance. But I find that with motion capture it allows you to fill in the blanks and it becomes a really inventive space. So, it’s actually much more creative than you could imagine. But it was very strange to go from one grey room to the Highlands of Scotland and actually interact with real animals, and real people and real situations and landscapes and all. But it’s funny, it works against the way you think.
Did you do all your own stunts? And did you pick up any injuries?
I think when you have fellow actors who are incredibly game for doing this stuff, and incredibly competent at doing it because they’ve done it before, it requires you to really step up because you can’t really pussy out on them. You have to step up to the plate, which is great. But we were both really competitive with each other. We’re really competitive individuals and we really pushed each other through some of the harder scenes and the harder parts of the schedule. It was like, who has the fastest horse? Who has the best fight scene? Who can stay in the river for longer? All stuff like that. So, it was challenging stuff. We were going around throwing swords and spears on horseback, chasing stuff, but it was really good fun.
Had you been aware of Rosemary Sutcliff’s source novel, The Eagle of the Ninth?
It came to me as a screenplay, so I was completely unaware of these collection of novels. So, it was Jeremy’s first screenplay that I read a long, long time ago and the story, its sensibilities and themes, and the journey of the character. But having met Kevin Macdonald, I then went and read the novel, which obviously features a fantastic set of characters. But I also realised what a genius Jeremy was at taking a great story and adapting it into a really cinematic piece. I liked the way he kept the mistrust and the role-reversal that happens in the latter part of the film. So, I really had a great appreciation for Jeremy’s work.
Channing Tatum Interview