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Jamie Bell stays close to roots

After some big-budget films, the young British actor is back on an indie movie project.

August 31, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Since HE grand-jeteed onto the scene with his BAFTA-winning performance in "Billy Elliot" at 13, Jamie Bell has grown into a bona fide globe-trotter. He just shot "Defiance" in Lithuania with Daniel Craig (slated for a December release), went to nine countries for Doug Liman's "Jumper" and filmed his current "Mister Foe" partially in Scotland. And now the 22-year-old lives in New York. But after all that, he finds himself feeling surprisingly close to his small hometown in the northeast of England that he had jumped out of at the first opportunity.

"Billingham, probably about 16,000 inhabitants," he said in a Beverly Hills restaurant. "Margaret Thatcher shut down pretty much all the coal-mining industry, which was really the basis of the community. So the towns didn't progress, didn't move forward. Many people were unemployed. For me, growing up in that area as a budding sort of creative person, as a kid it seemed very oppressive.

"But I recently went on YouTube and looked up 'Billingham' and saw someone driving around in a car looking at the town center and the architecture's amazing. It's this cool, '50s, '60s English architecture. And, suddenly, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I have to go back there and photograph it before it changes.' "

Slight of frame and scruffy of cheek, Bell added, "Seeing the thing on YouTube, I was proud of it, I felt a certain ownership. . . . I can embrace it and say, 'Actually, I'm from Billingham,' which is cool. . . . "

Bell has been doing a lot of getting back to his roots lately, particularly film-wise.

"I had just come off 'King Kong' and 'Flags of Our Fathers,' and felt like I much more belonged in that independent world," he said of taking on "Mister Foe." "I was desperate to work with a director who would be very hands-on with me and know the character better than I did. So [David] Mackenzie was the perfect person for that."

Mackenzie's rough, beastly "Young Adam" (2003) made an impression on Bell and starred two of his favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor, in earthy, daring performances.

" 'Mister Foe' is a bizarre, twisted, multilayered character study," Bell said. "It deals with very many dark subjects, but David brought this incredible lightness to it as well, comedy elements. There's a sweetness which I think the film really needed. And also, it was the first time I'd explored myself sexually on-screen; especially because of 'Young Adam,' [Mackenzie] definitely does it in a way that's very visceral, very alive with energy."

Bell clearly put a great deal of thought into his title role in "Mister Foe": his motivations before, during and after the film. The complex story involves a young man struggling to understand the death of his mother, touching on voyeurism, suicide and Oedipal themes. "I don't think it's going to gross $40 million in its opening weekend," he said with a smile. "Even in England to some extent it was, 'That's really pushing boundaries.' But I enjoy that. It played very well in Germany!"

Although Bell had been working with top-notch directors such as Clint Eastwood and Peter Jackson on major Hollywood projects, he missed nothing in switching back to shoestring cinema.

"Loved it. Really loved it. Working six-day weeks, freezing Scotland," he said, beaming. "Because my first film, 'Billy Elliot,' was such a collaborative, small, communal experience, that's what I'll always prefer, rather than bigger things. If you're a mechanism in a big machine, of course you care and you put your energy into it, but it's not the same as if you are the machine."

Not that he is averse to big productions. Describing himself as a "pacifist who loves guns," Bell confesses he would "absolutely, absolutely" love to do a full-on action movie.

" 'Defiance,' as much as it's not an action movie, there's still a lot of guns in it. That part of it was incredible," he said. When Craig, the newest James Bond whom Bell had long admired as "the leading theater actor of his generation," arrived on set of the movie about resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Poland there was much anticipation from the cast. He was to shoot a dynamic rescue scene and did not disappoint. "It's 'Action!' and he runs and does all this head-ducking and diving, and I was like, 'That is the coolest thing I've ever seen,' " Bell said. "It's a drama about surviving and sacrifice, but just seeing him do that, I was like, 'I'd love to do that as a job.' It's a stretch, Billy Elliot as an action hero."

He laughed, then added, "I think it can be done."

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