Jamie Bell interview for THE EAGLE

With The Eagle, Jamie Bell continues to prove that he’s more than just that dancing fool. Paul Byrne puts on his red shoes…

Coming from a long line of dancing girls (including his mum, his grandmother, his aunt and his sister), Jamie Bell was pretty much destined to play the high-kicking coal miner’s son in the all-conquering Billy Elliot.

For the last five years though, Bell’s fancy footwork has been even more impressive, as he set out to prove that he’s more than just a pair of happy feet.

The range has been impressive, from the blockbusting (2005’s King Kong) to the indie (2007’s Hallam Foe), from the earnest (2008’s Defiance) to the just plain silly (2008’s teleporting teen thriller Jumper).

And now, in The Eagle, Bell is showing off his range once more, playing a Celtic warrior who has the somewhat challenging task of taking his Roman master over Hadrian’s Wall, and deep into the wilds of Scotland. Where the ruling Romans are far from welcome. And where the Roman’s emblem, a golden eagle, is being celebrated as the ultimate wartime trophy.

The year is 140. During the reign of Antonius Pius. As if you didn’t know.

“On the historical front, this is all pretty accurate,” says the English actor, who just turned 25 this week. “We wanted to be true to the times, and true to the people we’re portraying. It made it more believable for us, as actors, and hopefully, therefore, it’ll work for audiences too…”

Not so much Gladiator On Ice as Gladiator On Mud, this stirring swords-and-sandals epic got a mighty kicking by US critics (scoring a mere 36% on the tallying website rottentomatoes.com), but it’s actually quite good. Bell and Channing Tatum are fine as, respectively, Esca, son of a Brigantes chieftain, and Marcus Flavius Aquila, the young Roman centurion with a mission, but, once he arrives on the scene, all eyes are on the Seal Prince. Mainly because he’s played by Tahar Rahim, best known for his lead performance in the recent French masterpiece, Un Prophete.

PAUL BYRNE: Director Kevin Macdonald pointed you and Channing in the direction of some movies that might help you prepare for your roles. Any of them hit home?

JAMIE BELL: The one that really worked for me was The Defiant Ones. That whole relationship dynamic, of not wanting to help each other, but gradually embracing this respect for someone on the other side of your belief system. Someone you would happily kill under different circumstances, but you then begin to recognise that you’re just two sides of the same coin. There was that, and stuff like The Searchers, which just helped us tap into the emotional side of the characters…

And what of the physical side? I know Channing almost lost his manhood when, to combat the Scottish winter, piping hot water – which should have been cooled with some river water – was poured down his front. I’m guessing you were a little more familiar with our non-Californian weather…

Yeah, I didn’t suffer as much as Channing, having faced many a dreary, wet day when the rain just seems to creep inside your bones. And thankfully, I didn’t suffer any boiling hot water upon my privates. That was actually pretty scary; it was hard to tell, initially, what sort of damage had actually been done. For a while there, the guy was looking at the possibility of ending his family line.

There are some familiar Irish faces in here too – Ned Dennehy as the Seal Chief, Brian Gleeson having his throat shaved – and none of them look particularly pretty. Was the Gaelic portrayal accurate? The Painted People are shown as proud but pretty barbaric, and possibly even cannibalistic…

I think it’s all generally true. I think the colour they painted their skin was changed, but the research was done, definitely. I think they actually portrayed the Painted People as a very honourable people. It would have been easy to make them cartoon savages, but I don’t think our director would have stood for anything like that.

Your director, Kevin Macdonald, is a proud Scottish man who has given us such wonders as One Day In September, Touching The Void and The Last King Of Scotland. A period epic seems an unlikely choice…

I think that’s what attracts Kevin – the unlikely. The challenge of making a film he hasn’t made before. I think that’s the same for most actors too. It’s certainly true for me. I love being able to step onto a set, or take on a new character, and I just don’t have anything from my past roles that I can call upon. I’ve got to throw myself into it completely and blindly. It’s the greatest feeling, just going after something for the very first time.

You’re only 25 now, but you must, on some level, feel like an old hand at this. Your CV already has 20 titles on there…

That’s pretty wild. I didn’t know I had that many. I’ve been too busy working, which is all you really care about as an actor. Have I got work, and is that work good? I’ve got work, and it’s been great. Right from Billy Elliot onwards, I’ve thrown myself into roles that just thrill me. I haven’t had time yet to figure out what sort of career I’m forging for myself, but that very fact makes me think I’m doing okay. If I had time to think about it all, I’d be worried.

You’ve got the latest big-screen assault on Jayne Eyre due out soon, along with Retreat, with Cillian Murphy, Stainless Steel, with Harvey Silver and Judi Dench, Man On A Ledge, with Elizabeth Banks and Sam Worthington, and, of course, The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn, in which you play the lead. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are behind the camera, and this one is expected to be one of the biggest movies of the year...

Yeah, the pressure’s there, isn’t it? It’s going to be incredible; the way it’s been shot, it’s just going to blow people’s minds. And you’ve got Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson behind the camera, so, it’s not like this film is going to lack when it comes to the directing. There’s a great cast in there as well – Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Andy Serkis… I can’t wait to see the finished product.

Words – Paul Byrne 

The Eagle lands in Irish cinemas Mar 25th
Watch our video interviews with the cast and director of The Eagle next week on Movies.ie