`Billy Elliot' actor sees parallels to `8 Mile'

Jamie Bell says he's ready to take on more grownup roles

January 04, 2003|By Evan Henderson | Evan Henderson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Forget the travel, the limos, the premieres, the parties and the schmoozing. Sometimes the best part of film stardom is early Eminem access.

So says Jamie Bell, who arrives for an interview to promote his film Nicholas Nickleby wearing a ski cap, listening to a Discman and looking like he could polish off all competitors in a round of Marshall Mathers Jeopardy.

"You've got 8 Mile out over here, and it's not been released in the U.K.," says Bell, referring to the recent movie starring the rapper (real name: Mathers). "It's definitely the movie of the moment for me. I came out of it thinking I could probably take down Mike Tyson.

"Eminem would probably kill me for saying it," he continues, "but it's really a Billy Elliot kind of story. This kid from nowhere who's got nowhere to go is going into a world, like Billy, where he's not really accepted. By the end, he achieves his dream. He finds what he's good at and what he wants to do. It's an inspirational movie."

Bell, 16, sees the parallels. As a complete unknown, he beat out more than 2,000 actors to snag the title role in the 2000 sleeper hit Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry. Two years later, he's still listening to people tell him that the film changed their lives. Billy, a kid from a rural British working-class family, pursues - and achieves - his dream to study ballet.

And for his next movie, Bell wanted something as far away from the "happy, dance-y ballet kid that everybody got used to ... "

"[M]ost of the roles were kind of kiddie roles ... I didn't want to get typecast," he says.

There's nothing "kiddie" about Smike, the crippled companion of Nicholas Nickleby in director Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Dickens' 1839 novel. Smike is a prototype for Dickens' rogue gallery of abused and exploited children. He's an orphan, he limps, he gets beaten by the despicable school master Wackford Squeers, and he melts everyone's heart.

It's a scene-stealing role, says Bell, even amid a showy ensemble that includes Christopher Plummer, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Anne Hathaway, Nathan Lane and Tom Courtenay. Charlie Hunnam plays Nicholas.

Bell hopes to eventually be mentioned in the same breath as performers like Leonardo DiCaprio, another former child performer who negotiated the hazards of adolescence on screen and emerged as a respected actor and box-office draw. Bell wants to make his next film in America. A comedy? Not interested. Drama school? Definitely, he says, although probably not until he turns 18.

"I'm kind of exploring my range," says Bell, who won a British Academy of Film and Television Award (BAFTA, the British equivalent of an Oscar) for Billy Elliot. "I still have a lot to prove as an actor."

"I learned from Stephen [Daldry] the idea of what's the point in doing something if you're not going to be the best," he adds. "I'm not saying that I am the best by any means, but if you've got that kind of motivation, you're going to achieve something."

Preparing to play Smike, Bell worked again with a movement choreographer and studied such films as My Left Foot and The Elephant Man. He and McGrath decided against giving the character a mental illness, although actors who have played the part in the past have gone that route.

"You can be limping around in your jeans and a T-shirt in the rehearsal room, and it doesn't feel quite right, but when you get to the set, everything just slips into place," says Bell. "We realize that Smike's not thick at all. It's just that people don't give him a chance to explain himself."

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