Street fighting man
PUBLISHED: 15:50 14 January 2009 | UPDATED: 17:13 16 August 2010
NINE years since being plucked from obscurity as a wide-eyed 13-year-old to star in smash hit Brit flick Billy Elliot actor Jamie Bell, now 22, has racked up a series of meaty roles with performances as impressive as they are varied. He has worked alongsi
NINE years since being plucked from obscurity as a wide-eyed 13-year-old to star in smash hit Brit flick Billy Elliot actor Jamie Bell, now 22, has racked up a series of meaty roles with performances as impressive as they are varied. He has worked alongside Danish Dogme auteur Thomas Vinterberg as a gun-obsessed neodandy in Dear Wendy, starred as a troubled teenage voyeur who mourns his dead mother by dressing up in one of her floral dresses and wearing a stuffed badger on his head in Hallam Foe and shared the screen with a giant animatronic gorilla in Peter Jackson's remake of the classic monster movie King Kong.
Now, in his latest project the young actor is appearing alongside Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber in Blood Diamond director Edward Zwick's Defiance, a low-key, courageous drama which tells the true story of the Bielski partisans - a group of Polish Jews led by four brothers who spent two years living in the bleak, wintry forests of Eastern Europe offering shelter to escaped Jews and sabotaging Nazi supply lines. Bell plays Asael, the youngest of the siblings, who is caught between the fierce rivalry that emerges between his older brothers, the idealistic Tuvia, played by Daniel Craig, and the more cynical Zus, played by Liev Schreiber. As part of his research for the part the actor met some of the descendents of the Bielskis and he says it was then that the gravity of what he was to undertake really hit home.
"I've never been more intimidated by masculine presence than I was then. I grew up with my mother and sister, so I'm not used to a very masculine environment. And actually that was one of the draws of making this film - having brothers for three months. It was an interesting concept for me. Anyway, the modern Bielskis were like these tough Brooklynites who don't take any shit. And having that heritage, why should they? I think that they were very moved, and very honoured, knowing that Ed Zwick would do justice to their family. For them, it was monumental, and we felt responsible for bringing that legacy to life."
It is not the first time Bell has taken on a role based on a true story. In 2006 he played Private Ralph Ignakowski, a US Marine who was tortured and killed by the Japanese during the Battle of Iwo Jima, in Clint Eastwood's full-bore attack on wartime hypocrisy and profiteering Flags of Our Fathers. But despite both films being set in World War II and sharing several similarities the actor says he felt a pressure of a different kind this time around.
"Because it's such an amazing story that's never been put on celluloid, I think the pressure was greater. In some ways, my character is quite different from the way he was. In real-life he was the second oldest, and first got the fighters together. Then Tuvia took over and it became the Bielski Otriad. Therefore I felt that I could have a little bit of freedom with it, and, at the same time, trying to retain that Bielski bond that they all had. And in meeting the relatives you really got a sense of how they were together. They weren't that civil to each other. They treated each other like animals in some ways."
If it was his sexually-charged turn in Hallam Foe that marked Bell's coming of age as an actor his gritty, surprisingly muscular performance in Defiance seems likely to finally consign the tight-shorted prancing boy of Billy Elliot well and truly to the past. But however he is continued to be perceived Bell says he has found the often troublesome transition from child star to established actor surprisingly painless.
"That was now nine or ten years ago and certainly I don't think the transition happens overnight. It's a general progression. When you're recognised for something as a youngster I don't think you can rush it. I've been working on that progression for a long time, and that's been great because I've never rushed anything. I could take my time with things, working on myself as both a person and an actor. It's been a slow, natural progression."
Defiance is out in cinemas now.