Jamie Bell when he was only sixteen and long before he married Evan Rachel Wood and (later) Kate Mara

                           January 2002 By Philip Berk

Billy Elliot is all grown up, sorta.

When Jamie Bell — who endeared himself to audiences all over the world when he played that aspiring ballet dancer — arrives at his press conference in New York, he’s wearing an Eminem ski cap. 

Even after I remind him he’s there to promote MGM’s Nicholas Nickleby not Universal’s Eminem movie 8 Mile, he doesn’t remove it.

It’s obvious that Jamie is no longer the scared kid who had to be replaced by Haley Joel Osment at the Golden Globe awards because he’d throw up if he had to introduce a clip from his nominated film, Billy Elliot.

Today’s he’s a surprisingly self confident sixteen year old who can even joke about Russell Crowe. 

When they were up against each for best actor awards at the British Academy’s BAFTA award, Jamie was the winner.

Was he delighted when Russell mentioned him in his Oscar acceptance speech?

“I said to him, ‘If you don’t, you’re gonna get a kick in the…’ It was kind of a little game we had planned really.  But it was very sweet and I was humbled by it. We became friends because we were going to the same award shows, he was getting Best actor and I was getting best newcomer. So we’d see each other all the time for a period of two months. But it’s not like I call him up and he calls me.”

How come he’s promoting Eminem?

“I don’t promote Eminem. I just like the hat.”

Is he a role model in England?

“He’s huge in England, he’s huge everywhere.”

Is he a fan?

“I think he’s a great musical artist. I saw his movie and it has resemblances to Billy Elliot in a sad way. He’s not ballet dancing, he’s rapping. I thought the movie was brilliant  and I bought the hat. But I love his music and I think he needs to be recognized for his acting talent, which I think is brilliant.”

Is he equally impressed with Nicholas Nickleby in which he plays the tragic Smike physically abused by a sadistic principal of a boys orphanage?

“It’s brilliant,” he enthuses, “I think it’s an Academy award nominee.” 

And he wasn’t far wrong when two weeks later the film was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

In the film Nicholas Nickleby is his protector, his guardian angel?

Growing up did he have someone like that?

“My mum and dad got divorced before I was born so it was my mum who raised me. She’s was with me through all the auditions for Billy Elliot. She was there through the making of the film and the promotion tour, the whole crazy thing I went through, and I’m still with my mum, so she’s probably the most influential person I have in my entire life.”

Didn’t Stephen Daldry, who directed Billy Elliot, also play that role in his life, and doesn’t he think of him him as his adopted father?

“Everything that’s happened to me is all his fault. I blame him entirely,”  he jokes. 

Then seriously he adds, “When it all kicked off and Billy Elliot was a huge success, it was difficult for me because I didn’t have a clue what to do, but Stephen was there even though he didn’t have a clue either being that it was his first movie. So it was great for both of us  to discover and learn so much about it, and we got really close. So yes, he’s been as influential as my mum. He’s sorted me out with scripts and stuff.  He’s been supportive of my school work. We are very close. I talk to him and see him all the time. He’s a major figure in my life. In fact I consider him a lifeline”

What’s that?

“People I can always rely on, people that are always there for me, as opposed to my so-called friends.”

What happened there?

“After the film opened I wasn’t home very often. I had to take time out of school for the promotional tour across the U.S. I had reporters going to my school interviewing my school friends or so-called school friends, who said I was arrogant, big headed, and  cocky. When I read it it made me feel like I’d been stabbed in the back. It hurt. I felt I was alone. And then during the Oscars suddenly you’re huge and everyone wants a piece of you. But soon after they just kinda cast you aside. That was difficult to deal with, and I just came down with a bump. One day it was the Oscars, the next day I was in my maths class. And my school friends weren’t of much help. But now I’ve got other people who if they say I’m arrogant and cocky, then I’ve got problems. Because I know they’re there for me all the time.”

He took his school leaving exams while filming Nicholas Nickleby. Does that mean he’s through with his education?

“It was difficult juggling the two worlds, and to do it again for another two years was something I didn’t want to do. So I’m hoping to carry on making films for a while and then eventually when I’m eighteen go back to drama school and pick up on my education.”

How did he cope with the bump before he found his lifelines?

“After two months, school was out for the summer, and I just kind of escaped. I went down to London, just kinda did my thing there and chilled out. But it was difficult because I was unsure what I was doing, where I was going, what the next offer would be. It was hard  for me to deal with, but I found those lifelines to get me through it.”

Who else besides Stephen Daldry and his mum are his lifelines?

“I’ve got another really, really close friend who also wants to be an actor. I don’t live with him. He’s at home in Billingham, and he’s just moved to London. He’s struggling to find acting work. If I was in his position, he’d give me support that’s endless. He’d do anything for me. He’d go to the end of the world for me. And I’d do exactly the same for him. I’m really supportive of him. He’s the kind of person who when this whole business gets too much for me  I can rely on; I can fall back on him, and he’s there to catch me. And like me he’s a huge Eminem fan, a Play Station fan and a huge girl fan. We’re exactly the same thing so it’s like what we need. He and my mum are probably the greatest persons for me to fall back on.”

Is he the same age?

“Actually he’s eighteen, two years older than me.”

But they don’t live together?

“I live with a friend. Got a little place there, but mostly I’m back in northeast of London where I come from.”

Is that a girlfriend?

“No no.”

So what is his relation to girls?

“When I made Billy Elliot, I didn’t have a girlfriend — girls weren’t really important to me. And after the movie came out it didn’t really change. But a lot of my close friends are actually girls because girls are great listeners, they’re more understanding than sixteen year old boys. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a girl than a boy. And you need to find someone who’s with for the right reasons. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out why they want you, what they want you for, do they want you because you’re going to be in a movie?”

But doesn’t he have a girlfriend now?

“Yeah I do.”  

Can he tell us her name?

“Not for the world. I guard that with my life so that  you don’t hound her to pieces.” 

Is she in New York with him?

“I wouldn’t bring her here with me. She doesn’t do that kind of thing.”

So, like Nicholas has he also found his soul mate?

“Definitely not. I’m still sixteen. I’ve got a lot of parties to go to, a lot of people to see, and places to go. At the minute she’s really important to me because she’s real and normal,  but I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

Has he seen the year’s most acclaimed movie, The Hours, which Stephen Daldry directed?

“I have and I thought it was absolutely fantastic.” 

Would he like to work with him again?

“The chance to work with him is like once in a lifetime. When I did Billy Elliot I had no idea how important a figure he is in the theatre. I’d work for him in a shot.”

With all the money he’s made, how does he spend it. Does he save it?

“I’ve been very fortunate being in an industry where dollars and money flies about.. I take some of that, thank you very much.  But money isn’t  that important to me. I like giving it away.”

In America a fixed amount has to be kept in trust until  21. Are there laws like that in England?

“I’m not sure but I’m starting to make those decisions for myself. Eventually I’m going to control everything. At the minute I rely on my mum for that kind of thing.”

Is he concerned about the world around him. Does it worry him that we might be going to war?

“I’ve grown up around people who have strong views about that , and I’ve learnt from them, especially Stephen Daldry who’s very up on these things. I buy newspapers.  I read and wonder what’s going to happen.  These are volatile times and people worry. Theatre I believe can be important at a time like this. I’m hoping to do a piece that will bring awareness to a younger generation of what’s going on because at the end of the day it’s our generation that’s going to be affected so if we don’t know what’s going on, we’re the ones that are going to be screwed up.”

Does he still do any dancing?

“It’s something you have to keep up, and I haven’t had the time.”

Does he miss it?

“I miss the exercise and keeping fit and the social life that comes it.”

Elton John is writing a stage version of Billy Elliot. Is he involved?

“Not at all.”

Is it true that he auditioned to play Harry Potter?

“Never did. Never would,” is his quick answer.

Then he adds, “When Billy Elliot was screened at Cannes someone suggested it;  so the media jumped on it. But  I never got asked, and I wasn’t really interested.”

Did he like the film?

“Not really, no.”

But quickly he adds, “No, it was great. It was really good. I love it.”

For the record he has another film opening right now, Deathwatch, in which he plays a very young soldier who signs up under-age. 

“You’re meant to be nineteen to get into the war. He is sixteen and suddenly he’s in the trenches.”

Jamie has also been in the trenches, but he’s survived that “brilliantly,” as he would say.

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