Actors love to boast about their range, but in a pair of movies releasing in 2019, Jamie Bell will get to demonstrate his. Premiering at Cannes is Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher. In the musical biopic of the life of Elton John, Bell plays John’s longtime songwriter Bernie Taupin. And in a complete 180, Guy Nattiv’s Skin, which premiered at TIFF and will release later this year, casts Bell as a neo-Nazi struggling with his past. Absent from Cannes as he readies for a new baby with wife Kate Mara, Bell revels in the shades of gray he found in both stories.
We last met at a post-BAFTAs event in 2018, and as we were speaking, Taron Egerton came up to introduce himself to you. Had you been approached about Rocketman beforehand?
That is actually the first time that we had met—you did see the genesis of that friendship there. I’d known about him and obviously I’d seen his work, so I was very excited to meet him and tell him how good I thought he was. So it was a shared, mutual appreciation kind of meeting. But that was the first time.
And then I went off to make another film—Skin—a film entirely different to this one, that required much different kinds of elements of me. I’d done that, and that was exhausting and brutal, and kind of horrible in a way, and then I was back in Los Angeles and they sent out the script.
I’d known that something was gestating about Elton John, and my relationship with Elton John goes all the way back to Billy Elliot. I met him for the first time when I was a child, after the screening of Billy Elliot at the Cannes Film Festival. That was the first time I’d ever met anyone that famous, and that was quite overwhelming for me. He was so lovely and so supportive of that film, and obviously since that, he was involved in the musical, so he’s always been in my orbit to some degree. Not a huge degree, but we’ve been somehow cosmically tethered together in a way.
So when I got the script, I was obviously intrigued. I was especially intrigued because it was also written by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, so that synergy kind of continues.
What did you see in Lee’s script? What about this project drew you in?
I was enamored by how ballsy the project was, to be honest. I was enamored by how brave I thought the storyline was, the subject matter that this film would cover, and how deep it would dive into his life. It was unafraid to turn over stones and look underneath rocks, the ins and outs of his tumultuous life. But then also, the way that the story would be told using the catalogue of his music narratively, to take you through a 20-something year period of this guy’s life, I just thought was incredibly inventive. I hadn’t seen something like that for a while.
I talked to Dexter, and I admitted to him, “I just think it’s really f*cking brave for a studio film to really go this route.” I really believed in Taron, and knew his ability. Obviously I’d met him, and really loved him immediately—and I felt like I could bring something to it, as well. I had no idea who Bernie Taupin was. I then dived headlong into research, and went up to meet him. He wrote a childhood memoir, which I ingested, and then the ball just started rolling.
How would you describe the approach this film takes to telling Elton John’s story? It’s a kind of rock and roll biopic, but it seems to have elements of the big-screen musical, as well.
Having not seen the film—the final cut of it—I think it is very much that. As Elton’s life trajectory starts to take off, the film starts to take a lot of liberties with narrative structure, and we do go into these surreal elements. Just as Elton becomes more and more intoxicated by the world that he’s now inhabiting, and the effects of the drugs and alcohol, so do we as an audience. The film takes us to these quite surreal places, and these fantasy type places as well, to mirror how he was spinning off the planet.
I think that was very much intentional, from Lee Hall’s point of view. I know Dexter was really quite obsessed with those sequences, and making them more heightened, and more full-on. Really making it a spectacle for the audience.
Remember, we were also making this at a time where music movies suddenly just f*cking exploded. It’s not like we were making this after all of that stuff. We’re making it literally as all that stuff is being released and coming out. And what I mean by that is that this had always been distinctly very different. There’s no approach to it, like: “Oh, they did it that way. We need to do something different.” It’s not a reactionary way to tell the story. It was always conceived in this way, and I do think that it is the right way, because Elton is so extraordinary, and can be so larger than life. I don’t really see how else it could be told.
It’s become a bit of a joke that authorized music biopics will attempt to paper over the cracks. How is this different?
I think there’s a beautiful vulnerability to Elton John. He has really laid himself bare for decades, and that certainly hasn’t stopped just because a movie is being made about him. I think he went into this going, “If I’m going to do this, I have to show every part of me.” So, it can’t be sanitized in any way, and it shouldn’t be. He’s been through some stuff that I think a lot of people also struggle with—sexual identity issues, substance abuse, all kinds of serious, important issues. I think he would feel like he would be undermining those people who deal with that stuff if it was glossed over, and I appreciate that.
I think that’s really, again, a ballsy, brave and courageous way of doing it. He is kind of hanging himself out there for everyone to scrutinize, but I think that is the way that he’s always done it, to a degree. So why stop now?
Was he on set at all? I’d imagine you heard some pretty great stories, from him and Bernie both.
What’s interesting is that, at least to my understanding, Elton was never on set. I think there’s something between creative types, some kind of understanding, which is, “You need room to be the creative element, and I’m going to grace you with that space.” I think there is a graciousness in allowing Dexter and the actors to have that space, and inhabit that space, so I really respect him for that.
Bernie lives in Santa Barbara, and I drove up there to have dinner with him and his wife. More than anything, as an actor playing someone who’s still around, who did something so important, it was about saying, “This is me. Nice to meet you.” Out of respect, more than anything.
I did kind of want to dig. Beyond, “What were you thinking when you wrote this lyric?” or “What does this lyric mean to you?” I wanted to ask, “When did he piss you off the most? What most offended you?” or, “When were you most worried for him? What was the thing that you really thought, Wow, he’s really f*cking redlining right now and we could lose him?”
I would say over the course of a very public, over 30-year collaboration that he’s had, they quite rightly have become quite close-lipped about their relationship. Me and Taron, both of us in our research, in reading these books and interviews and watching various documentaries down the years, there is this sense that they want to toe the line of, “We’ve never had an argument,” which I can understand. You want to protect that collaborative partnership.
Of course, that doesn’t really offer us very much, in terms of a dramatic arc of a friendship, but I respected that. It was going to be up to me to find those places as the character—find those highs and those lows and everything else—and I didn’t really want to press him. It’s not really my place.
He was very forthright and he did tell me an awful lot, gave me a lot of input, and we’d be texting each other when I was on the set, saying, “Would you say this?” “Was this person here that night?” “Can we refer to that person?” He was very useful, but I can see him—and both of them, to some degree—wanting to protect that relationship as much as they can. Because it’s probably, for Elton, one of the most solid things throughout his turbulent life that has stayed true and stayed strong and solid. I could see him wanting to protect it a little bit.
What was Dexter Fletcher like as a collaborator?
He really charges the set; he really charges people. When you’re around him, there is this extra kind of spark, and it’s based in having fun, which I think is very different and actually quite refreshing. I’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers through the years where, if we’re at work, we all have to be quite serious, and not particularly enjoying ourselves. It has to be quite gruesome and quite self-flagellating and all that stuff. But he really enjoys having fun. He likes to pump up the crew, he’s very loud.
And he’s an actor at heart, you know? That element can never be removed from him. He’s performing along with you, and I really appreciate that as an actor. I think sometimes you can almost feel like you’re doing it in a vacuum. Having someone who’s interacting with you on that level is just very engaging and opens up different avenues that you hadn’t thought about.
But also, I think that energy for this kind of a film, you really need. You really need someone who’s energized and is looking at things with this kind of effervescent quality to make these musical numbers, and this music, and this surreal imagery really pop. I think it’s a good match of director and material for that reason, because it has to be fun, a little debaucherous and just energy, energy, energy.
You broke through in this industry as a dancer, in Billy Elliot. is it fair to say you got stuck into the song and dance of it all?
I do a little bit of singing in the film. I thought that was the more intriguing part of the role: no one ever hears the songwriter actually sing. To actually hear what comes out of the man who is the mind behind the words, to see him actually perform something. I really loved that I got to play that moment, and just to get to play it for Bernie, too.
I mean, Bernie did have a solo album which he put out, and he did have a moment in front of the microphone. But in terms of the context of Elton John and these songs that he’s obviously so connected with, to actually see him perform one of them, I felt was such a beautiful moment for the Bernie character to have.
But I actually don’t do any dancing in the film at all. None. I was like, “OK, sure.” But I was also like, “I hope we’re not missing the beat here.” I just hope that people aren’t expecting it and then going, “Why is he not f*cking dancing?” [laughs]
I don’t know if it’s too much to have this songwriter both sing and dance. Maybe that would be pushing the boat too far. In the film industry, we call it putting a hat on a hat.
What did you make of Taron’s work as Elton?
I think there’s a fearlessness to his performance, from what I saw, but also just from Taron as a person. He would probably say on the record that he’s terrified, and that he was very nervous about stepping into this role—and I’m sure to some degree, he is. But the way that he attacked this performance, I really didn’t see any of it. It really did become like a second skin to him.
The one thing I would say is that he was always advocating for Elton as a real human being. You can see how, in some of these studio-driven movies, they might want to sanitize and strip away and not want to look in certain areas—and him and Dexter both [were] always, always advocating that the character sometimes not be likable, sometimes be really f*cked up, and be really hard to watch sometimes.
As an actor, of course, these were the areas that we really want to get our teeth into, and he advocated for that on a daily basis, on every level, from what he’d be wearing in the film to how the scenes played out, not even to mention how much dedication and time and effort he put into the singing of his songs, which really can’t go unnoted. This is an actor who is laying himself bare, playing one of the most iconic people of the last century, but also then has to carry all of these songs.
I don’t know how many songs he sings in the film, but it must be close to 20. Over the course of the movie, he already came in with a voice. You know he could clearly sing—he’d showcased that on that animated film [Sing] that he’d done. But by the end of this movie, and all his sessions at Abbey Road with Giles Martin, the music producer on the film, I would say that he would easily be able to stand up with most of the really great artists and sing an arena show. Easily. His voice got so strong and so capable, and he had such a control over it.
Just that element alone is really mind-blowing, and I hope that audiences don’t take that for granted, because they obviously don’t see the work that goes into it, and they certainly don’t see the progression of it. But as someone who was just on the sidelines watching him do it, it was really very impressive, I’ve got to say.
This meant everything to him, this role. It meant everything. And from just sitting opposite him in some of those scenes, I would look over at Dexter and say, “F*ck, he’s really good, isn’t he? He’s really in control of his instrument.” And Dexter would be like, “I know.”
Naming no names, other music biopics involving gay musicians have struggled to address their sexual identity properly. Does Rocketman get this right?
I hope it does satisfy that want of audiences everywhere to depict people as they should be depicted. Certainly from the script, it was in there, and I know from some of the things that we shot that I was involved with that it’s not shying away from that stuff at all.
The fact that we’re even still talking about it in this kind of way is extraordinary, unfortunately. But I really do hope it satisfies people and that they do find connection in it. Certainly there’s no question that Elton struggled with it a great deal and made all kinds of mistakes, and gave himself all kinds of self-harm trying to come to terms with it. It’s a real struggle for people all over the world. It’s a real thing.
Let’s pivot—dramatically—to your other role this year, in Skin. You play a neo-Nazi forced to reckon with his beliefs. It’s an expansion of Guy Nattiv’s Oscar-winning short, but it’s quite a different film.
It is. For me and for Guy, the short was an exploration of a world. It was about going, “OK, how do I frame these people? Let me just see what tools I’m dealing with,” and it worked extraordinarily well. It was very tastefully done.
I feel this is certainly a singular story about a man who, from the age of about 14, had kind of been morally corrupted, and indoctrinated into hate—and through the generosity and kindness of complete strangers, even with threats against his own life and to those people around him that he loves, he managed to get out of a movement and try and change his life.
I like to stay away from defining the film as a redemption story. Because I think that the man himself, Bryon Widner, to this day still looks in the mirror and has just a f*cking endless abyss of regret that he deals with. I don’t ever think there’s a moment that he isn’t struggling every day with all of that stuff that he was a part of, and I think the film is not neatly tied up in a bow in a way which is like, “See? Bad people can become good.” I don’t think it is that.
I think it’s more of a question—can bad people become good? And I think that’s a better way of framing this topic. This is a topic that is not very far from the front page and from cable news. This is something that is happening, that is very much on the rise, and has very much been empowered of late. This is a film that unflinchingly is asking you to look at it, head on. But certainly from what we shot, and the performance that I wanted to give, it’s not letting anyone off the hook.
I have a really hard time with forgiving people. That’s something that I’m trying to work on about myself. I really hold grudges, which isn’t good. I do find forgiveness for intolerable cruelty and hate almost very difficult to overcome. So for me, it is a moral challenge, too. But I think the film asks more questions than it gives answers. And I think that is, hopefully, the right approach.
It’s certainly a topic that feels dangerously more relevant day by day. Were you surprised by what you learned?
There are certain elements about the story that are really unexpected. The fact that this hardened, basically career Nazi, whose life could be so affected by these little girls that come into his life—these children—and how they make him feel, and the kind of questions that they ask of him, and then the kindness of these unexpected people…
There’s a character in the movie called Daryle Lamont Jenkins, and he fights for the anti-fascist front. He is literally the person that, when they’re in Charlottesville or anything like that—a kind of gross public demonstration of horrible politics—is on the front line opposing them. He’s the man literally standing right in front of them, exposing them and asking questions of them. He’s also trying to get the ones who are on the fringes of it out, because their families are so embroiled in it, and it’s very difficult to leave a group like that once you’re in it. There are threats against your life, and all different kinds of reasons to stay.
There was an anonymous donor who helped Bryon. He was covered head to toe in tattoos, and part of his rehabilitation was undergoing an incredibly painful two-year laser procedure to have all of these tattoos removed from his face. That money provided to him came from an anonymous donor. It was only later, once that surgery had been completed, that he learned that that donor was a Holocaust survivor.
There’s something about balance in this film that we’re playing with, about where this kindness can come from, and if it’s the right thing to do—if we should extend generosity to these kinds of people, and if it’s worth it in the end. And is anyone really capable of completely doing a 180 on their beliefs? I just think it’s an interesting topic of conversation.
You went from this straight into Rocketman?
Yeah, yeah. I put on 20 pounds for that and got a bit of a gut and everything else, and then very quickly had to get back into those ’70s disco pants, which are incredibly tight pants. To be honest, I was so relieved to get this, to be a part of Rocketman, a movie which is just so joyous and celebratory, and hearing those songs every day, and wearing the funky clothes. It was such a relief to go to work.
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