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Interview with Jamie Bell, star of Billy Elliot, and Stephen Daldry, director
From a September 15, 2000 group interview with Jamie Bell and Stephen Daldry by members of Bay Area online media, including Michael Phelan of BayDance.com.
Jamie Bell is thirteen years old now, eleven when he made the film. He was chosen from among hundreds of prospects not only for his dancing and acting abilities, but for his authentic working class accent distinctive of the northern England region where the story of Billy Elliot takes place. Jamie's declarative sentences tend to rise at the end, like questions. Stephen Daldry, on the other hand, speaks with a polished English accent. The two of them have been touring North American cities for two weeks to promote the film BILLY ELLIOT, and have just come from the Film Festival in Toronto.
Jamie Bell and Stephen Daldry
While waiting with other members of the online media at the Sony Metreon before the interview, I see Jamie Bell come out of the office. He runs around the escalators to his mother, and remains in motion. During the interview, Jamie appears restless, bored, and a little tired. Clearly, this is a person who would rather be moving than sitting still and answering a lot of questions. Nevertheless, his answers are intelligent, articulate, and to the point.
The questions were asked by four representatives of Bay Area online media. We had twenty minutes to conduct what's called a "roundtable interview," taking turns asking questions.
Q: Is Billy Elliot a dance film?
Stephen Daldry: What is a dance film? Tell me what a dance film is. No, it's not a dance film. It's a film film ... Top Hat is a dance film. Classification is hard. In terms of trying to classify it is hard, is probably the issue. Is it a drama? Is it a musical? What's interesting is listening to the audience. The audience usually tells you what it (a film) is. Commentators try to put it in a box, and the audience is trying to get it out of the box most of the time.
Q: You didn't set out to make a dance film?
SD: Well, it's a film with dancing in it, isn't it? But it's difficult to know what a dance film is.
Q: I think whatever people are going to call it, it's going to be extremely popular. Is that exciting or is it kind of terrifying?
SD: Very exciting. I don't think that we necessarily expected it to be immensely popular, to be honest. I think we were making it just for ourselves ... The first time we showed it in front of an audience was in Cannes, and that was a shock, that they responded in the way that they did.
Q: How much thought went into making sure that Billy came off as not being effeminate?
I think that in terms of the dance, Peter Darling the choreographer and I worked together quite a lot, we were very concerned that the dance comes out of and is an expression of the child rather than anything else. It needed to feel personal to you. In that sense we spent a lot of time with Jamie working out strengths and weaknesses and how the character could express them, and actually what Jamie could bring to that in terms of his dance. So, in terms of what you just described, that would be Jamie.
Q: (To Jamie Bell) So you had a lot to say about that?
Jamie Bell: But, dancing's very masculine anyway. It's not very effeminate. And that was because of the character. We worked very hard on the dance.
Q: How much time did you spend rehearsing?
JB: Two months.
BayDance: You say dancing is very masculine, and not feminine. But, I think most people perceive it as feminine. Billy starts out as a boxing student. Do you think boy dancers have to have a fighter within to fight against the conventions of society and peoples' expectations and stereotypes?
JB: Yeah, you need a lot of confidence because you know that a lot of people are going to get you down. I got a lot of hassle when I was eight because I was going dancing. It was actually a bit more of a challenge for me, because I had to prove to them that it wasn't just for girls and it was for boys as well. It just gave me a lot more determination to do it. I guess they didn't do it because they thought it was puffish or anything like that, they just thought it was different, and they didn't really want me to be different. They just wanted me to be like what they were. But, you do need a lot of confidence, from where I come from anyway.
BayDance: So there are parallels between you and the character Billy?
JB: A few, yeah.
BayDance: Billy obviously inherited his artistic side from his mother, his love of music and movement and so on. Do you Billy could have overcome the obstacles if he hadn't inherited his father's sense of defiance and fight. His father was a strong man. Is that a necessary element for confidence?
JB: I'd like to say that he could do it without his father, but then again he might not be able to. Because he wasn't very good at the boxing anyway, so he wasn't very strong anyway, so it didn't really matter that he got a lot of things, like the boxing, from his dad. I just think he had a lot of confidence inside when he wanted to do it.
BayDance: One of the people I saw the advanced screening with is a retired 20-year veteran ballerina with the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet. (Daldry interjects, "Wow!") She said that the line in the film that struck her most was when Billy said, "I don't want a childhood, I want to be a ballet dancer." Is that the kind of sacrifice you have to make, give up childhood?
JB: Hmm. Yes. You have to start training from when you're young. They like to do that. Not just the Royal Ballet School but any school. They make them start young to get lots of balance, and just to shape them. They need to do exercises to shape the backs and things like that. But they do need to start young to make them develop these things. It's true that you can't really have a childhood because it kind of takes over your life. If you go to the Royal Ballet School, you haven't just got your ballet things to do but academic work. You don't really see your family for at least two years. I think there's a half term either after one year or two years, and that's when you get to come home to see your family and things like that. You're away from your family for such a long time.
SD: There are two different schools of thought on that - either the Royal Ballet School is a Jesuit incarceration of children - or not. And it does depend on your attitude towards it. It can get very violent.
Q: Was the dancing harder to choreograph because it was not supposed to look perfect?
SD: We were keen that the dances shouldn't feel like set pieces that were, you know: Story, story, story, story - dance! Story, story, story, story - dance! And that's where the link is in musicals, the best musicals anyway. The songs come at either emotional or narrative turning points. The story doesn't stop for a song. The story shouldn't stop for a dance. The dance needs to be part of and integral to the narrative and only come at major turning points, either character turning points or narrative turning points. In terms of dance, the dance needed to come from the boy, to be an expression of the boy, not the choreographer.
Q: Did that make it more difficult to create the dances?
SD: More difficult? That doesn't feel like the right way of describing it. It just feels different.
The Universal Pictures publicist interrupts us, "One more question, guys."
Stephen Daldry protests, "A little bit longer."
"One more question?" the publicist asks.
"Two or three," answers Daldry.
Q: You got dragged off to dancing when you were a kid. You took tap and ballet?
JB: Yeah, when I was six. I started with tap dancing because you get a lot of tap and you get a lot of rhythm inside you, then move on to ballet, and then jazz for about two years.
Q: One scene looked like step dancing. Was that the choreograpers work?
SD: There's a whole variety of influences there. The actual reach of a lot of that stuff is Northumbrian folk dancing, which has a lot of tap within it, but it's actually Northumbrian folk dancing, which is a local folk thing that the choreographer researched and we spent some time on.
Q: Why was the Swan Lake scene Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake?
SD: There's a whole variety of reasons: I'm Matthew's friend, I like the show, he let us do it. Those would be the simple reasons. It's more of an angle. It's not expected, and literally the boy becomes a swan, he plays a swan, so it felt like, oh let's get the kid to actually to be the swan.
BayDance: Were the coal miners a metaphor for everyone who is trying to improve their lives, but just getting pushed back by life's boundaries. Billy soars above all this, but the miners descend back into the coal mine.
SD: To me it was much more about the nature of grief and the grief about a mother dying, but also I think everybody during the strike was aware that it was the last battle, and if they lost then they would be wiped out. So there was a sense of desperation to that struggle. I suppose we used it because we knew a lot about it, we were around during the strike. In character terms, once the father realizes he's (lost the strike), the kid's going out is really important. And I suppose I have my own feelings about that, the loss of that way of life and hardness of the passing of an age, that industrial age, there's a huge sadness to it. And it seemed a very extreme situation to the boy trying to break out against the mold. And also my own feeling that art, in this case dance, is a vital and primary means of self-definition that should be accessible to everybody.
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Background photo © 1999 Michael W. Phelan
W. Phelan, email@example.com