By Alex Gonzalez
In the new movie-musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, 16-year-old Jamie New dreams of a lifelong career as a drag queen. While he’s not sure of his post-school path, he knows his journey will be fierce and sensational. That could likewise describe the path of star Max Harwood, who responded to an online casting call for the role of Jamie on his own (he didn’t have an agent at the time). To prepare for the role, he familiarized himself with the real-life story of Jamie Campbell, on whom the film and its original stage adaptation are based.
“I watched the documentary [Jamie: Drag Queen at 16] and throughout my audition process, I was making the decision to anchor my performance in his essence and energy,” Harwood tells MTV News.
That energy is on full display in the film, streaming today (September 17) on Amazon Prime Video Its description might suggest its a typical queer coming-of-age story, but Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is far from it. While Jamie does face the hurdles of bullies, an absent father, and a discouraging school administration, he knows what he wants, and he’s not afraid to go after it — making his tale more about boldly creating his own destiny.
Throughout the film, Jamie fights for his right to wear a dress to the school prom, despite the stern objections of his teacher Miss Hedge (Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan) and a bully named Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley). When we meet with Harwood at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas during a stop on the film’s press tour, he has traded the dress for a robust lavender Paul Smith suit and a pair of bright pink Manolo Blahnik Oxfords. His personality is equally as vibrant as that of his onscreen debut character. “Hi, MTV! Welcome to my Crib,” he says as we exchange introductions.
Harwood, 23, grew up in a town called Basingstoke in Hampshire, England, which he says is “nothing like Sheffield,” the Northern industrial city where the film takes place. As a child, he grew up on movie musicals like Annie, Oliver, and The Wizard of Oz, and he would sing show tunes around the house. His love of theatrics stuck with him as a teenager, when he worked at a cinema and would “steal posters of Jennifer Lawrence” and keep them in his room.
In the film, by the time Jamie is 16, he is out, proud, and unabashedly expressive, and although Harwood is equally as radiant, he says his journey was a little different.
“It took me a little bit longer in my life to get to a stage where I was comfortable with my sexuality,” Harwood says. “But my head was definitely always out of the classroom and my imagination is very colorful, much like Jamie's,” often daydreaming of taking the stage; but as an actor, not a drag performer.
During filming, which took place before the pandemic Sheffield, Harwood worked closely with the real Jamie Campbell to bring his story to the screen. While he had seen Campbell’s documentary, as well as the stage adaptation, Harwood felt it was crucial to portray Campbell as sensitively as possible. It helped that Campbell was present on set during much of the filming process.
“He was very open and honest and generous with his time,” Harwood says. “It really made the process less daunting. Often or not, the people that these stories are inspired by are not alive or [not] around to be involved. So I felt really grateful.”
Although Harwood is a fan of the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, he had never put on wigs or makeup before filming Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. He says the process of becoming Jamie’s drag person Mimi Me took two hours.
Even more complex were some of the dance numbers, which incorporated detailed, precise choreography. For “Work of Art,” a song in which Jamie announces he’ll be introducing Mimi Me at a nightclub called Legs Eleven, Jamie and the students and staff in his school perform in multiple costumes, which, in the film adaptation, change instantaneously, à la Beyoncé in the “Freakum Dress” video.
“There were marks on the floor [indicating where we needed to step],” Harwood says. “The hair had to be precise, and everything was so difficult because of the specificity and the technical aspects of producing those shots. It's that balance between being an actor and being a technician within your acting. It was a big learning curve for me, but I really enjoyed watching the outcome in the end.”
Throughout the film, Jamie gets by with support from friends and close family. He has his mother (Sarah Lancashire), who gifts him a pair of shiny red heels for his birthday; Ray (Shona Gulati), a friend who sits with them when called to a meeting at Jamie’s school; and his best friend, Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), who supports Jamie in all of his drag-related endeavors.
Pritti helps Jamie put on makeup at school and stands behind him in his decision to wear a dress to prom, even when Miss Hedge expresses disdain. While Jamie and Pritti come of age on-screen, traveling and promoting the film has made for new adventures for Harwood and Patel.
“We began this weird journey together, and it was a really strange process for us both, being our first time [onscreen],” Harwood says. “We’ve now flown across the world together. It's just really lovely that, after two years, we still click and still really get along. When I first met Lauren and I read with her for the first time, I'd already got the job. And I really liked Lauren. I met loads of wonderful actors, but I really really liked Lauren. And I remember staring across the room like, ‘You've got this,’ because we just really bounced off of each other. We're so similar in many ways.”
Before arriving in Dallas, Harwood, Patel, and director Johnathan Butterell had just premiered Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Outfest LGBTQ+ film festival in Los Angeles to a star-studded audience, which included 9-1-1: Lone Star’s Ronen Rubinstein and Good Trouble’s Sherry Cola.
It was Harwood’s first time in L.A., where he enjoyed healthy bites at Sweetgreen and got close to his idol, Judy Garland, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where Outfest L.A. held its opening gala.
“It was honestly like a dream come true for me, to have my film played when Judy Garland is buried,” Harwood says. “Which sounds bizarre, but The Wizard of Oz was such a huge movie for me growing up, and seeing those fantastic sparkly red shoes from The Wizard of Oz being projected years on as Jamie sparkly red shoes felt magical.”
Harwood may just be getting started, but he hopes that as Jamie and as himself, he can inspire younger queer people to be unapologetically themselves and live with authenticity. Like his character, Harwood credits the friends and family around him for encouraging him to express himself and live freely.
“I had a hugely positive coming-out experience,” Harwood says, “But I realize that's not everyone's story. But I hope in hearing that there are positive coming-out stories, people will see this and not be afraid, and see that they can share that part of their lives.”