When, at only 13, Jamie Bell leapt into the collective consciousness with his debut role in 2000's Billy Elliot, the young dancer from Northeast England had no idea what was to come. In the 15 years since, Bell has both grown up and quietly amassed a very mature body of work, partnering with some of the most inventive directors in the biz, from Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin, 2011) to Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, 2006), and Peter Jackson (King Kong, 2005) to Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, 2011), among others.
Of late, Bell has gone bigger and bolder, playing a sooty rebel in Bong Joon-ho's 2013 postapocalyptic train thriller Snowpiercer and, that same year, doing dark comedy as a coke-y cop in Filth, adapted from the Irvine Welsh novel. Last year, Lars von Trier enlisted the actor to explore his dominant side as a sadist-for-hire opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac: Volume II; and Bell has also dabbled in the prestige TV drama, with AMC's Revolutionary War espionage thriller Turn: Washington's Spies, which recently wrapped its second season.
This month, Bell, 29, is going full superhero, as the massive rock warrior Ben Grimm, a.k.a. Thing, in Josh Trank's update of Fantastic Four, with Miles Teller, Kate Mara, and Michael B. Jordan. But as he tells his buddy and fellow English expat, Robert Pattinson, connecting the dots in Bell's wide-strewn Hollywood career hasn't always been so clear.
JAMIE BELL: How's it going, mate?
ROBERT PATTINSON: I'm all right. I spent the day prepping for this interview.
BELL: I expect fucking Charlie Rose. [both laugh]
PATTINSON: Let's not talk about any of your work. Let's only talk about your personal life. Your crack usage. Who are you fucking? Okay? What's your earliest memory?
BELL: That's a good question. I don't have one. My memory is fucking vague from when I was a kid. I remember having a Batmobile. It was a replica from the Tim Burton movies, and it fired these yellow missiles. I remember there wasn't a lot of sun in northeastern England. So there was one day in history when apparently it was sunny, and my mom was outside on a deck chair or something like that. I remember firing the missile and it hitting her foot. That's as early as I can remember. I don't even know how old I was. After that, it was basically the ballet barre; everything else, I'm wearing tights. I remember playing around my grandma's house. My sister was always in dancing class and stuff, so I was dropped off with my grandma a lot, picking vegetables. My grandfather makes wine, so I tasted his wine occasionally when no one was looking.
PATTINSON: Were you performing? Were you a drama kid?
BELL: Once I started dancing, when I was 6, all that stuff opened itself up to me, I guess. I did take part in a lot of school plays. I did local pantomimes in Billingham and in Middlesbrough. To me, it was amazing. After that, I went to the National Youth Music Theatre. There's a song in Pinocchio , "An Actor's Life for Me." I had no idea what the song meant; I just remember the melody of the song and thinking, "Oh, that's a fucking cool song. I don't know what an actor is." Then I figured out what an actor was. I was like, "Oh, wait! You get to be somebody else all the time." That was intriguing. But, yeah, I was a theater brat as a kid. I knew all the words to Les Mis and all that shit.
PATTINSON: Did Billy Elliot feel like a big movie when you were making it?
BELL: It did for me, because it was my first one. I had no reference. It was the circus that comes to town, a hundred crew members standing in the street, looking at you to do something. But I think for everyone else, for the producers and stuff, it was kind of a mini-movie that they didn't expect to do very much. Now that I think back on it, that was a really small movie—small crew, very contained. So what happened after was just crazy. It changed everything.
PATTINSON: When did you move to America?
BELL: I first started coming here around 17, 18. I made Billy Elliot, and then I had to finish school, and then everything was moving along so quickly that by the time I came back, everyone had completely forgotten what I'd done or who I was. Obviously, I'd changed as well. I wasn't 13 years old anymore. I was this adolescent, spotty kid, sitting in exec's offices. It was like, "Who the fuck is this kid?" [laughs] "Why is he in my office?"
PATTINSON: You were a child actor then, but you seemed to have an incredibly specific idea of what parts you wanted to do. Looking at the chronology of your movies afterwards, they're all very interesting parts. They're movies that I would be choosing to watch now, like Dear Wendy . What was your thought process in choosing parts after Billy Elliot?
BELL: I didn't have any thought process. I just had people, representation-wise, who just had better taste than I did. [laughs] I've had the same manager going on 16 years now. I've had the same agent going on 15 years. They've always had good taste, slightly left field, less mainstream, really into filmmakers, specifically. I was a kid. I didn't really know who Thomas Vinterberg was. I didn't know who Lars von Trier was. I didn't know anything about the Dogma 95 movement. All these new people that I'd been introduced to really opened up a wider version of what cinema was and is. In my mid- to late teens, while finishing school, I started watching all these movies and going, "Oh, wow." I got heavy into Terrence Malick and directors that moved a little slower and concentrated on different things. I think I have much more appreciation for directing and movies overall versus a performance or an actor. Their body of work is more interesting. It's hard to define somebody by one movie. I mean, unfortunately, my entire life was basically made by Billy Elliot. It was kind of created by that one catalytic moment.
PATTINSON: Do you see your body of work assembling itself when you look back at the movies you've done?
BELL: Not really. Someone described my movie career like a pinball machine. [both laugh] They were like, "Oh, you did Tintin. What do you do after that? You went for Nymphomaniac. That makes sense! You did work in an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel, fucking girls and doing blow." Trying to find continuity in it is tricky. Another actor pointed this out to me on a movie a few years ago. He said, "You're always playing orphans. I don't think I've ever seen you play a character where you have both of your parents." It's kind of true. I always read scripts, and it's like, "A character looks at a picture of his dead mom." I'm like, "Oh, dead mother—there you go!" I'm always kind of surprised that I managed to keep working as much as I have. But it's weird. It's an odd collection of work, isn't it?
PATTINSON: I don't know if I would say the orphan thing, but if I was to describe your spirit animal, it would be a very excitable lamb. [both laugh] Or a little baby goat. You're furiously beaten by the farmer, but just keep running back. To segue to Fantastic Four, the great thing about Thing is that you don't have to remember your character name or the name of the movie.
BELL: That's true. But, you know, he does have a name, Rob. His name is Ben Grimm. The other benefit is that you won't see my face at all.
PATTINSON: I won't see you?
BELL: Oh, no, you will. He's a human being before he turns into Thing. But there is certainly something about the anonymity of the character that is kind of intriguing. I like that. I think your anonymity has been somewhat jeopardized. [both laugh]
PATTINSON: But for any sequels, we're never going to see your face ever again?
BELL: There is potential. There's stuff in the comic books where Miles Teller's character, Reed Richards, develops technology where he can be changed back. My question, to filmmakers and to audiences around the world, is would they want that? It's unlikely. But it's possible.
PATTINSON: Do you even turn up on set? Is it totally animated?
BELL: Oh, no, I have to do it on set. We use performance capture, which is the same technology that Andy Serkis was a pioneer in the use of to create characters like Gollum, or Caesar from the Planet of the Apes movies or King Kong. I've worked with Andy a bunch since we did Tintin together, so I've seen how he's really harnessed this technology and used it to his advantage to create these lasting characters. I mean, I would consider Gollum to be a piece of cinematic history in popular culture, the same way Star Wars characters are. After my experience of seeing him work on Tintin and King Kong, I really saw how he could immerse himself in these characters. I was really excited by the idea of using the same technology and coming up with a character that could have a lasting impression, that an audience could connect with. I also think the idea of me playing that role, a six-foot-eight rock creature, was kind of bizarre. As you know, I'm a five-foot-seven, rather squat Englishman. All of that combined was kind of interesting.
PATTINSON: Do you have a job that you've been most proud of?
BELL: No. I don't really enjoy watching any of my work at all. It's useful, because you get to see what mistakes you think you made and what choices didn't quite work out the way you wanted them to. But at the same time, it's such an excruciating experience because it's final. You can't do anything about it. So the process of rewatching it becomes so pointless. To get me to sit down in a screening, you almost have to nail me to the fucking floor. I just never want to watch anything. I'm proud that I'm still working. But there's not one thing that I can put my finger on and say, "That is my greatest achievement. That's my proudest moment." That's so tricky to me.
PATTINSON: What job was the most satisfying to make?
BELL: I enjoyed my time when I worked with David Gordon Green [on Undertow, 2004]. It was satisfying because his approach to directing and with actors was so different from what I had been used to. The process of doing it was fun and experimental. And it was the first time I was playing an American. I had to do an accent to embody a character from the South. That was fun. That did feel fulfilling and satisfying. But, you know, that was fucking over ten years ago.
PATTINSON: And since then, zilch.
BELL: [laughs] I always enjoy myself! I work really fucking hard. Whenever I'm there on set, I always really try my best. I always put everything into it. I really enjoy the process. It's just that when it comes out, I'm always like, "Oh, God." I get so skeptical all of a sudden.
PATTINSON: What's the best piece of advice anyone's ever given you?
BELL: Probably always be yourself. I am quite unashamedly Jamie all the time. I think that definitely helped even in terms of sanity—not in terms of career, just in terms of keeping your head, especially when you start so young. I get asked a lot in interviews, you know, "How come you're not, like—"
BELL: "In rehab or anything?" I probably should be. The pitfalls of child actors ... It was drilled into me when I was a kid: "You have to be you, and you must be the best version of yourself." I think a mantra I always told myself is, "No matter how many times somebody pitches the ball at you, if you swing every time, eventually one of them is going to connect." Being yourself and persistence are two things that became my daily mantras, I suppose.
PATTINSON: Why do you think you're not crazy? [both laugh] I mean, you are a little. It's a strange trait for actors not to have, but most of them don't have a lot of humility. I find that you're one of the most humble people I've ever met. It's unusual.
BELL: I don't know. I think my demons are my demons, and we all have them, and we work on them. But, I'm always impressed with people. I'm always impressed that other people are not as crazy as I would expect them to be, or more grounded, or more human than I anticipated. I'm constantly surprised by people. When you see people who could so easily be a dick or full of themselves or not giving of their time or their attention or whatever, I'm always reminded to be humble and have humility. Because it's a great trait. It reminds me that I need to do the same.
PATTINSON: The lost humble orphan lamb: Jamie Bell.
ROBERT PATTINSON IS A BRITISH ACTOR WHO WILL NEXT BE SEEN IN WERNER HERZOG'S QUEEN OF THE DESERT AND ANTON CORBIJN'S LIFE.