Jamie Bell on The Eagle, American Imperialism, and The Adventures of Tintin
Channing Tatum may be the brawny face of this week's Roman period adventure The Eagle, but British actor Jamie Bell is its scrappy, spirited conscience. As Esca, a Scottish slave guiding Tatum's Roman centurion through hostile territory on a mission of honor, Bell flirts with an ominous ambiguity that easily makes him the most watchable performer on the screen. And when you're sharing said screen with Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, and Channing Tatum's abs, that's really saying something.
An obvious influence, referenced by Bell and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), is Stanley Kramer's 1958 Oscar-winning prison break classic The Defiant Ones (remade previously in such reincarnations as 1972's Black Mama, White Mama, 1996's Fled, and that one episode of Quantum Leap). As in that film, The Eagle (based on Rosemary Sutcliffe's 1954 historical novel theorizing about the real life disappearance of the Ninth Legion) follows its two enemies, bound by circumstance, as they navigate unfamiliar terrain and build a grudging respect and friendship -- with swordfights, spy missions, and a bloodthirsty tribe of Pict-Celt barbarians thrown in for good measure.
Movieline spoke with the 24-year-old Bell about taking on The Eagle, the significance of its allusions to modern American imperialism, his attraction to documentary filmmakers and up-and-coming directors, and his work on the Indiana Jones-like winter franchise flick, The Adventures of Tintin.
What grabbed you about the script and what was it that ultimately made you decide to take it on?
I think when I read the script for the first time I went on the journey. I was really invested in the story of it all, and the really profound sense of honor in these characters. The thing that compelled Marcus to have to do this almost-suicidal mission, which I think in terms of his character specifically, he had all the possibility in front of him to be a great fighter, a great centurion. A great soldier. And that injury he sustains kind of takes him out of the game, and when I think about that I think of a great athlete who has all the potential and has something happen to him, and makes the ultimate comeback. I just have always loved those stories. Predominantly, at the heart of them is a person who's just really vulnerable, who's actually just a little lost. And I think Esca and him help each other find themselves. It's kind of similar to The Defiant Ones, the Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier film. I like the similarities between that film and this film.
Did you discuss those references with Kevin?
Yeah, actually. He had the same influences as well. I re-watched the film a bunch of times. It was good fun. Also knowing Kevin, knowing his work and seeing that a lot of his films are about two men and a landscape, that's the bones of the story. And I felt like that's what this film is, it's two guys traveling across this very dense and harsh landscape. So I thought he would do that really well.
One of the more conspicuous choices Kevin made was in the accents. All the Romans are clearly speaking in American accents, which was a deliberate choice that turns the film's period action story into a commentary on modern Western imperialism.
Right, absolutely. When you read it, I don't think you have that allegory running through your mind because you don't know how he's going to play it, but obviously talking to Kevin very early on, it was a conscious decision to do it this way and I totally got on-board. I don't think it's a complete commentary for America's foreign policy and the way it deals with the spreading of democracy or the taking of cultures to other cultures. Obviously it's there, but I think it speaks to this type of thing throughout the annals of history. You know, the British empire did it. We're also guilty of the same thing. We did it for a long time. The Romans, the Grecians did it. It's an age-old story, the foreign entity coming in and wiping the other out. It's just what man has done throughout the annals of history. So specifically having them be American is an attempt to make it current and maybe give a commentary about what's happening today.
Is that at all distracting when you're filming a scene, on set in period Roman gear, and your co-stars are speaking like Americans?
I think part of it was because Kevin wanted us to be the antithesis of each other, so when I'm speaking Gaelic and he's speaking American it literally doesn't get much more different. I think stylistically it's a choice, and when you're making a movie you have to go with what the director wants to achieve.
Having been an admirer of Kevin's work, was it the script or the idea of working with Kevin that ultimately hooked you?
I really liked the story no matter what; I think Jeremy Brock did a great job on the script. But Kevin is a guy who, like I said, does the journey really well. It doesn't matter what the landscape is -- it could be the Siula Grande mountains of Peru in Touching the Void, or the political landscape in The Last King of Scotland. He just sets it really well, he establishes it as a real place that's viable and has its rules and its dangers. And the two guys, especially in Touching the Void -- you're always rooting for them. What's weird about Touching the Void specifically is you're like, oh my god is this guy going to survive? And he's actually there talking to you, telling you a story. So your mind is going, he obviously survived because he's talking to me, but Kevin is great at making tension, making you care. Making you really believe that the suffering is real.
Since so much of The Eagle hinges on your relationship with Channing, did you two test for chemistry when you were cast?
I don't think so. I think they just sort of hoped that it would work. I'm not even too sure that they even thought about that, to be honest with you. But luckily we are different, me and him. Completely opposite people. Obviously we're very close, we're very good friends, but what happened when we got out there to Budapest was very organic and natural. And of course, competitive, and everything else that is good fun and gung-ho. But I still think the overriding thing with those characters is that you maintain that tension as long as you can. The tension has to be there, the difference in cultures and the conflicts between values have to be there between them.
You seem to go from project to project based on your connection with directors. Next you're working with Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) on Jane Eyre and Asgar Leth (Ghosts of Cite Soleil) on Man on a Ledge. How do those things come about? Do you gravitate towards certain directors after seeing their work?
Yeah, I mean Sin Nombre is a no brainer. As a first feature it's an amazing achievement. Also, someone doing that and then going on to Jane Eyre is like, what? That's kind of bizarre, and I want to be a part of that. With Asgar, I really respond to documentary filmmaking because I think feature films are a kind of cowardly way to make films. I think documentary filmmaking is a braver way to make films because it's real, and you're really there. And for him, he was putting his ass on the line, constantly. When I saw that, and when I saw what he wanted to do with the film, I went, oh yeah. I get it.
And even Kevin began his career as a documentarian.
Absolutely. He won an Academy Award for One Day in September. I love documentaries. It's actually my favorite medium of film. Exit Through the Gift Shop is going to win.
Okay, I have to ask. Do you think Banksy is really Mr. Brainwash?
So you think they're two separate artistic entities and the film is being completely straightforward with its audience?
I think so. I mean... now that I think about it, I think he probably is messing with us. It would be more fun if he was. [Not knowing] is part of the game, isn't it?
Looking forward to your next big 2011 film, do you think Tintin will be a technical achievement on par with Avatar, a game-changer?
I think Avatar is a passion project from however many years [James Cameron] had been working on it. So that's sort of a separate entity. But hopefully we will establish this character in this country and let it loose on the world, make people go, 'Yes, I should appreciate this because it's good!' We have the right guys to do it; Steven [Spielberg] is very passionate about Tintin, has been for a while. And I think for those people who are like, what is Tintin?, I wouldn't like to say it's a kids' film because I wouldn't want to pigeonhole it like that, but the majority of people who go see this film will be younger people. And I feel like saying to people, when you were this age and you went to see Indiana Jones for the first time, how did you feel? It's not too dissimilar to that. It's basically the same structure and idea, the same story. The great characters that take you on the journey. There are going to be thrills and spills along the way, and it's a great thing to be a part of. It's a big part of my personal life and I've loved Tintin since I was a kid.