Many child actors peak at a young age and turn their careers into an embarassing lineage of poor roles in second-rate films. Not Jamie Bell, the breakthrough star of modern British classic Billy Eliot. The English actor is putting out some of the finest work of his career in 2014, with striking supporting turns for directors as diverse as Bong Joon-ho (in Snowpiercer) and Lars Von Trier (in Nymphomaniac).
Meanwhile, Bell has amassed his first major role since he put away those ballet shoes close to 15 years ago. He portrays Abe Woodhull, a member of American’s first spy ring, on AMC’s new drama Turn, which airs on Sundays at 9:00 (EST). Although it could be strange to watch a British actor portray an American who is spying on the British, Bell infuses his role with strength and vulnerability, in what could be a real career, ahem, turn for the actor.
Recently, Jamie Bell spoke to a selection of media outlets, including We Got This Covered, in a conference call interview. He talked about playing a historical character, how being a father impacted his role on Turn and the challenges of working on a show with such an ambitious scope.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
What kind of service do you have to bring to playing a historical character, and one whose story has not been told before?
Jamie Bell: There is a responsibility. There isn’t much that is known about this character. There isn’t a monument erected in his name. In Washington, he’s not in marble. The responsibility is huge because we’ve literally never seen him before, we’ve never heard of him before. And all of a sudden, we’re up close and personal. This was an everyman farmer, just like a lot of people are today. He was a blue-collar kid who suddenly had this calling and incredible responsibility.
Do we not know who he is because to be a spy at that time was considered a dishonourable thing?
JB: That was definitely part of it. Spies were hated. It was a cowardly game to be a spy. To be honourable was to wear a uniform and fight in the battlefield, to engage in the rules of warfare. You were less than a man if you were a spy. You know who Nathan Hale is because he got caught. There’s a reason why we don’t know the Culper Ring – they didn’t get caught. In their network, they were all best friends and they wouldn’t betray each other’s friendships. I think that’s the way it worked.
Growing up in England, you may not have been especially familiar with this time in history. As you researched the role and as you’ve been doing the show, what was the biggest surprise for you?
JB: I think that it wasn’t so black-and-white. What the show does and what I’ve learned, especially through Alexander Rose’s book [Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring] and through Craig Silverstein’s script is that a lot of this was families turning on themselves. The measure of divide between these people was just right down the middle, between father and son, as it is on our show, or sister and wife. Just how divided people were on the inside… that to me is fascinating, and I think the show looks at that a lot. It was probably a younger sibling trying to separate from an older brother, you know?
Also, just what life was like in those days, just how aggressive the British were at times. And, also, actually how close Washington was to losing the war a lot of the time. It took George Washington a second to become a great spy master. He wasn’t that amazing at everything. The Continental army is very much portrayed as an army that is in retreat, that is losing badly. I didn’t really know much of that stuff. So it’s been a real lesson, but luckily, the show doesn’t feel like a lesson.