Jamie Bell is well aware that the mere idea of him playing a father feels jarring. But for the 37-year old father of three, he’s pretty used to it.
It’s that parental experience that prepared him for the role of ‘Dad’ in Andrew Haigh’s new film All of Us Strangers, starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal and Claire Foy. In the film, Bell and Foy play Scott’s parents – Dad and Mum – or at least a version of them. Set in modern London, late 40s Adam (Scott) begins a nostalgic look back to his parents who both died just before he was 12. Returning to his childhood home, he sees them and begins a relationship of reliving moments missed, including coming out them as gay and not knowing how they, as 1987 parents, will react.
For Bell, he had a keen understanding of the cruelty of kids, having been bullied himself for taking ballet as a young boy before his worldwide breakthrough in Billy Elliot. As an actor he’s been able to occupy queer spaces as an ally both on and off screen and I even share with him a Letterboxd account with a list called ‘Jamie Bell is straight, but he’s cool with you being gay.’
In my conversation with the BAFTA-winning actor, we dig into accidental parental cruelty, the brilliant work of both Andrews Haigh and Scott and much more.
Erik Anderson: You’re playing fathers now, when did that happen? How did this happen?
Jamie Bell: That’s how I feel like everyone looks at me and goes like, “Oh, no, I can’t even deal with that.” It’s horrifying to them, because I am a barometer of time. Then you start telling people, “Oh, I’m a father with three children, got a 10-year-old.” They’re like, “Wait, what?” They just start thinking about their own life and their own choices and things. I know, yeah.
EA: It is pretty interesting for those who grew up with you as well, and just seeing that any child actor that can survive and sustain themselves.
JB: No, I know. I’ve been very fortunate, really fortunate.
EA: It’s wonderful. Your introduction into the film is very, very cheeky. If you don’t know going in what your relationship is with Andrew Scott in the film, there’s language there that some people will pick on and hop on, and some won’t. How did you want to make sure that you played that that had its foot in all interpretations?
JB: Well, only Andrew Haigh I think would introduce a character in this way, especially one that then goes to the places that the character goes to. In some ways, it’s a bit of a tightrope walk in terms of how you enter something. But I like the fact that you use ‘language,’ because it is a language the way that you introduce characters and where you establish them. We are crossing over into some kind of surrealism, some kind of abstractness, some fragmentation, memory, dream, whatever that is. So, I like that the language becomes Freudian almost really, and we don’t need to go into the 101s of like, “We’re seeking out romantic relationships with our parents.” But that’s what it is, that’s what it is.
Paul, in a lot of ways, is a mirror of the dad in some ways, albeit a much more handsome mirror, but just he’s got a Northern-ness, a lot of these very basic things. But it’s a callback to that, so I like that we’re slipping into a different way of telling the story. By the way, it could be jarring. Some people will be like, “I don’t like that, because he’s his dad.” Well, yeah, but it’s a jump off point. It’s a test almost. If you can go with this, you’re going to go with the rest of it.
EA: Exactly right. Obviously, I think that would be the difference between a straight audience and a queer audience, being able to read it a little bit differently. Also, to your point, you, Paul in the film, and also Adam’s description of the cop, all have that same rugged bearded mustached appearance. So, you’re absolutely right, there is that element of us, not necessarily seeking out somebody that’s like our parents, but it’s such an easy thing to do.
JB: Like bumping into them going, “Oh, there it is again, there it is again.” We’ve all done it. Absolutely, absolutely.
EA: Andrew Scott referred to the accidental cruelty of parents, and I found that, as a parent, such an incredible description of how intention can sometimes get in the way of being a parent. Small and big. Do you find that yourself, and did you bring that to this a little?
JB: A thousand percent. Oh, my god. No one tells you that you’re going to go to bed most nights feeling guilty. No one tells you that, “Oh, what am I doing?” I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve become so aware of that; this is going to be a lifelong lesson. You will keep learning; you will keep failing and trying again. Yeah. It’s as simple as … I use this as an example all the time, but someone saying, “Oh, are you shy?” You’re going, “Oh, I’m a shy person. I’m shy now. That means I must have an issue with connecting with people, so therefore that must mean I must stay in the shadows.”
All these little things, and other people they don’t mean it with that intention, but you’re filling in these blanks of story for people. You’re creating this narrative for these little human beings. I like even in my scene that I have with Andrew, that he’s trying to say, “I’m sorry.” But even in the sorry, he’s still getting things wrong. He’s still twisting the barb. He’s still poking at him in these ways that he just cannot help. I think what Andrew says about it is so eloquent and so beautiful, and I think Andrew Haigh has captured that. Because so many of these … People keep saying, “You don’t see these things in conversations in films very often.” I just keep saying, “But you do see them, they’re just usually quite cliched versions of what it is.”
What Andrew Haigh is brilliant at doing is finding the mess in these conversations, the duality of people and the complexity, and how we strive for connection, but often miss. We anticipate a way of conversation’s going to go, and it ends up being completely different. The scene with Claire Foy when he comes out to her, she’s ready to go, “So tell me about your wife and tell me about your son. What do you do for a job?” She’s confronted with something incredibly different, and that’s what life is.
EA: Even with his coming out scene with you, which as many times as I can watch this will always just destroy me, it’s so beautifully played because it is a great balance of a little bit of wish fulfillment to be able to have that, but it’s still … It’s like when you get the thing that you wish for, and you realize maybe you don’t really want it like that.
JB: Right, right.
EA: There are parts of that in that scene, especially from him.
JB: Yeah, yeah. When he came out, he says like, “I think about it every time I cross my legs.” We just move on from that, but that’s 40-something years of that feeling of out of body discomfort, of recognition, of shame. 40 years that Andrew Haigh just goes, “Oh, we’re going to move off that now.” But you understand that that’s loud.
JB: That’s difficult. How do you atone for that?
EA: It’s a work in progress I think, like all of us are.
JB: Because dad is ultimately a son of someone.
JB: They even mention it, right? He says like, “My dad always used to think I was soft.” So then that, when you’re telling that story to someone, they go, “Well, I better be tough then. I better be like, ‘Fuck it.’ Be masculine and be the opposite of that.” Which maybe he was just more in touch with his feelings, maybe that was a good thing actually.
EA: I was going to ask if there were people in your life, friends or family whose coming out helped shape how you wanted to play this a little bit, but then I also started thinking about what your experience was making Billy Elliot and before that when you were in dance, where you were also picked on and called a poof and all of the things. I think you probably were able to bring something to this.
JB: Oh, definitely. Growing up in England at that time in that specific geographic place in time, heavily masculine, heavily not open, very shut and very specific way of thinking about the gay or queer community, very specific. On the playgrounds, on the football fields, I don’t even know how to tell … It was just the worst thing you could be was gay. Just the worst thing. To the point where it was like, “Well, they must not exist.” There was no visibility, at least because it was dangerous. So, making Billy Elliot and that film being so embraced by that community, fucking Elton John was crying in Cannes for fuck’s sake.
Then just to have your eyes opened, the generational prejudice that you grow up with is very difficult to overcome. What I like about what Andrew Haigh has done is to not judge these people, these parents. Don’t hold them in judgment, these are just products of their environment, of what they are used to, a societal stigma. Trying to work through it as best they can, and that’s all they can really do. So, there’s so many, obviously the absence of a father for me is a big deal, so that scene obviously has a lot of meta stuff for me, because I’ve been searching for the dad to sit down and say, “Son, I’m sorry.” Then you get to play that scene, just brilliant.
EA: I am in the same boat, so that the triggering level of it I wasn’t really quite expecting. Also, to your point about just the crossing the legs thing, when you realize that you have been even subconsciously thinking about for your entire life, but sometimes it takes the tiniest moment to trigger it. Our bodies never ever forget.
JB: The body keeps the score, right?
JB: That’s it.
EA: Always. Can you talk a little bit about working specifically with Andrew Scott? That scene definitely, I know that Andrew Haigh doesn’t like to do a lot of rehearsals, which I think is fantastic, because it creates a spontaneity that feels like it’s just happening in that moment.
JB: Very electric. A lot of the questions have always been like, “How did you prepare? Was it a lot of rehearsal and stuff?” It’s so odd, because when you think about it now it is crazy, because you are adopting these incredibly extraordinarily intimate relationships, that is the movie. Where the heart of the movie, the family, then Paul is the soul of the movie, and that’s a whole other section of film where ultimately, we’re not really involved with. So how do you conjure this? Where is it coming from? I guess he’s like a master of casting too because I would never have saw myself with Claire Foy. I don’t think I would have ever put myself with her in a film ever as a romantic partner, and certainly not as Andrew Scott’s dad and mom.
So somehow, he saw it. But the brilliant thing about it is that he questioned it all the time, and he was open to questioning it. He was open to go like, “Oh, actually this might be ridiculous, it might be absurd.” That openness and that willingness to, “Maybe it’s not going to work.” I think just gave us this trust with him. But the material, it was all in the material. It was all in the writing, because it was all so pure and so honest, so truthful that what I think the mistake would be to burden that stuff with your own bullshit in a way, and to bring enough of yourself to it, but let it speak for itself. That’s what we did.
EA: I think because this is such a small cast, and really you and Claire, you only interact with Andrew, so that level of trust is enormous.
JB: So surprised by what he was … That’s the other thing. He’s doing things within the scenes where you are just completely stricken with emotion, and in the best possible way, because you are so tuned into him. His trajectory, he’s disappearing into infantilism, so in that scene when I turn to him on the bed and I say, “We’re going to go now.” He reaches out because he doesn’t want me to say this, because children believe if you don’t say it, it won’t happen. It’s just an awful thing, but a brilliant piece of behavioral study from him. That would happen all the time, all the time.
EA: I think it was a lot of trust for the audience to be able to run with that too.
JB: No, exactly.
EA: You said that you didn’t think of you and Claire being together as parents, what was your time with her in developing that? Because you can see that there are fractures within that marriage through little bits of dialogue and moments as well.
JB: Yeah. It’s funny, even that, there’s a lot … Again, Andrew is clearly observant of stuff, and he understands that just a line here or a line there does the job. I think when we first bring him back, I say, “See? I told you it was him.” It’s implying they are already at war, and then I say something like, “If you want to fucking see her lose her mind, break that fucking thing and see what happens.” So, there’s a heightened anxiety within the house too, there’s a little bit on edge, it’s not really been spoken about, there’s a tension in this household.
At the end when she says, I forget her exact lines, but she says, “I do love you, and sometimes I’m not so sure.” Which I think is an honest thing, you can go through an entire life with a romantic partner, and you can feel distant at times and feel disconnected at times, and they’re there for each other in the end, which I think is lovely. But it’s something I did not think a second about, not a second. We didn’t build a back … None of it, none of it at all.
EA: It’s there.
JB: It is, it is. Also, the more you lean off it, the better it is. Even when Adam’s asleep in the bed, she says, “Move over-“
EA: Yeah, very much. It’s funny when I think about your films, and how much I have cried watching them. This obviously, Billy Elliot, Rocketman, Nicholas Nickleby.
JB: Yeah, right.
EA: Don’t even get me started on Nickleby. I feel like I should be compensated for emotional damage.
JB: Another orphan with a dad issue (laughs).
EA: (laughs) Really, totally. I think I should be compensated for emotional damage. Are you familiar with Letterboxd?
JB: Of course.
EA: Do you know there’s a Letterboxd list called “Jamie Bell is straight, but he’s cool with you being gay.”
EA: It has Strangers, Rocketman and Billy Elliot on it. It’s hilarious, it’s wonderful.
JB: That’s funny.
EA: It’s a neat idea. I liked it.
JB: It’s funny, that is a very clear direct through line, isn’t it? Then also because, the Annette Bening film I did [Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool], the character I play, he’s bi, he’s queer. There is something in there too.
EA: There’s always The Eagle.
JB: Well, hello. The gayest of them all, come on.
EA: The gayest of them all.
JB: No, interesting. See? There’re these patterns to your life that you are not aware of.
EA: As an audience, it’s also things that we bring to what we’re going to watch and who we’re seeing.
JB: I love that I occupy that space.
EA: I love that too. The songs in the film are so specific and both in context and out, “Always On My Mind,” obviously. What are some of the songs from your younger years that trigger that nostalgia?
JB: Well, a lot of the songs off the Billy Elliot soundtrack are quite difficult for me to listen to, things like “Cosmic Dancer.” That song really is … Because within the film being successful, and within everything that it’s given me, there is this thing of the life before of just being the kid and just being the dancer, without all the stuff that came with it. Which also so grateful for obviously, but there is a loss in it. There is a loss of like, you were just a kid. That was great. So that stuff gets me real nostalgic. Yeah, for sure.
EA: Yeah, even just thinking about it.
Jamie Bell: I hear the first couple chords and I’m like, (takes a beat) “Oh, man. That was a time, was a time.”
EA: Jamie, thanks so much, it was great to have a chat.
JB: Man, what a pleasure.
Searchlight Pictures will give All of Us Strangers a limited release on December 22 and expand in the following weeks, only in theaters.
Photo by Chris Harris. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.