Given his recent slate of independent films and his starring role in Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" video, it's easy to forget we first met Jamie Bell as ballet prodigy Billy Elliot ... unless, of course, you're making a movie with him.
"When he has to focus, he does — and then when he doesn't, he's laughing and breaking into tap dance," said his "Chumscrubber" co-star Camilla Belle ("The Ballad of Jack and Rose").
Onscreen, however, Bell's no longer dancing, but playing the kind of roles fit for his acting idol, James Dean.
In "Wake Me Up When September Ends," he plays a young lover who goes off to war (see " 'Teen Spirit' Director Calls Green Day Clip His Career Highlight"), and in his two fall films, "The Chumscrubber" and "Dear Wendy," he plays soul-searching anti-heroes.
"I liked what [Dean] represented in the '50s, kind of like the post-war teenage rebel," Bell said. "That has existed in American culture ever since, like, the rebel without a cause you always look to: James Dean. There are a lot of aspects of that in 'The Chumscrubber,' because we don't really understand why my character is so isolated and so vulnerable, which he is in this bizarre community that these people live in."
In the film, which opened in select cities last month, Bell plays a boy — named, perhaps not coincidentally, Dean — who discovers the body of his best friend hanging in his bedroom.
"It's bizarre, because you'd kind of expect it to happen at the end but it happens right at the beginning," Bell said. "And throughout the film you kind of see my character constantly trying to get something off his chest, only his family and all the adults around him are oblivious to their kids and what their kids need. So there's this yearning for someone to listen to what his problem is."
Although it's Bell's image on the poster, "The Chumscrubber" features a cast of veteran actors and venerable newcomers, including Glenn Close, Allison Janney, Rita Wilson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lauren Holly, Ralph Fiennes, Camilla Belle, Lou Taylor Pucci ("Thumbsucker"), Justin Chatwin ("War of the Worlds") and Rory Culkin.
"It's very much an ensemble film — I can't stress that enough because all the actors I worked with are all tremendous," Bell said. "Many different things happen within the film, the characters kind of intertwine and by the end, they come to the same level and connect. So it's hard to explain, but basically it's about dysfunctional youth and families in suburban America."
One could also say "Dear Wendy," which opens September 23, is about dysfunctional youth with a fascination for firearms.
"The idea of it is that these kids are all pacifists but have this obsession with guns, so it's a bit contradictory in the subject matter," Bell said.
Helmed by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, "Dear Wendy" co-stars Bill Pullman, although again it's Bell on the poster.
"He's similar to Dean but goes through a little bit more of a transition," Bell said of his central character. "At the beginning, he is very closed-in and isolated, but then he finds his gun [and names it] Wendy — which he basically falls in love with. And it's called 'Dear Wendy' because he is writing these letters to the gun all the time. And he finds that this gun makes him become more powerful, and he kind of becomes a bigger person — he can look people in the eye and becomes a lot more confident and things like that. And then, really, what the film takes on is about people finding their inner self."
Bell is following up this pair of indies with a movie completely the opposite in terms of scope and budget: Peter Jackson's "King Kong," due December 14 (see " 'Kong' Cast Says Don't Judge A Movie By Its Effects Budget").
Currently, he's shooting the World War II drama "Flags of Our Fathers" with Paul Walker, Ryan Phillippe and Barry Pepper. It's directed by another oscar winner, Clint Eastwood, and written by Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby," "Crash").
Although Bell puts a lot of stock in the characters he plays, he said he picks his movies based on the directors.
"I love looking down my résumé and seeing all those great people on it like David Gordon Green ['Undertow'], and of course Peter Jackson and Stephen Daldry ['Billy Elliott']," he said. "When I look at it, I feel very proud for myself and the people around me who have managed to get me these roles."
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