Hail Might Readers and True Believers,
Our friends at 20th Century Fox have let us have an interview with actor Jamie Bell (Ben Grim/The Thing) from the 2015 Fantastic Four film released on Digital HD from the 29th November and Blu-Ray/DVD on 14th December.
Jamie Bell first came to prominence with his debut role in 2000’s British dance drama Billy Elliott. As the titular lead, Bell played 11-year-old Billy, an aspiring ballet dancer who has to face bullying and negative stereotyping. The film was set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 coal miners’ strike and its “feel-good” tone struck a chord with audiences worldwide. Both Bell’s acting and dancing received copious praise.
Since then he has been in several worldwide blockbusters - including Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Steven Spielberg’s Tintin and Doug Liman’s Jumper. He has also worked with acclaimed directors Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers), Edward Zwick (Defiance), and Lars Von Trier (Nymphomaniac), among others.
He has starred in period dramas such as Jane Eyre and Nicholas Nickleby, independent films, including Filth and Dear Wendy and now stars in the AMC series TURN: Washington Spies.
Bell also featured in 2014’s Snowpiercer, an international sensation and one of the best-reviewed films of the year.
Bell’s work on Tintin ensured he was familiar with motion capture filming, a technique used by the Fantastic Four’s director Josh Trank to help create The Thing.
Jamie Bell sat down for the following interview in Los Angeles on March 25, 2015.
Q: Tell us about what you think we can expect from this version of the Fantastic Four.
A: An original vision. It’s a very unique take on a beloved comic book property. Familiar characters with familiar powers, but told with a very new lensing. With a director whose previous work, Chronicle, was very similar in that he took what was a familiar idea – what happens when kids somehow get super powers – and made something very different. With this movie, you’re going to see something you know and love told in a unique way. I'm excited to be a part of it because I haven't really seen a superhero movie quite like this.
Q: This film sort of dips into various incarnations of the Fantastic Four from the comic books, is that right?
A: Well, I am not a comic book mythologist, but I did pick up a few of the early editions just to see the origins of these people. Like most comic books, as they progress and evolve, there's always new incarnations, new versions of these people all the time. Fantastic Four has its own versions of those things. So I think Josh [Trank] as a filmmaker and Simon [Kinberg] as a writer are influenced by the source material, but I just don't think they're dependent on it. I don't think this movie is being lifted from one set of pages anywhere, but they're agreed on a tone and have taken these characters into that tone. They are the comic world’s first family. That idea still exists. I think that's the best thing about Fantastic Four is that idea of family, and we stay true to that. But the rest is not specifically lifted from anything.
Q: So the idea of family is probably core to the Fantastic Four’s appeal?
A: Yeah, that’s a universal theme. But I also think you can take some strides with that – there’s all kinds of social commentary you can get into there...
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about your character, Ben Grimm, The Thing. It seems like it would be a good challenge for an actor, to play someone so physically different. And presumably your experience of motion capture work on Tintin helped?
A: I’d met Josh previously and we’d talked a lot about Tintin – about the process – which he was really fascinated by. A year later, he calls me and says, how would you feel about doing this? Suddenly his interest made sense because it's the same process that we would need to use for this character. I was intrigued. I mean, if you look at the work of the great Andy Serkis you can see how powerful a tool it can be in terms of bringing a character to life. I talked to Josh about the character and his simplicity. There's nothing too complicated about any of these people, really, but especially my character, Ben Grimm – at least in this incarnation. He's a faithful servant to his best friend. He's someone who errs on the side of caution. In some ways he is a parental figure for Reed Richards, who is not understood by his own parents. He has a gift of higher intelligence that can't be controlled; a thirst for science exploration that doesn't really belong in a suburban Long Island residency. And I think Ben knows this. Ben's his protector, and I think he understands that his role is to take care of him. Ben doesn't come from much of a loving home. He’s likely encountered bullying in his life and he kind of carries himself with a bit of a hard exterior. Which is ironic.
Q: Is there a sense that in some ways the powers each character gets are reflections of who they were or what they needed?
A: I think maybe they're all versions of their internal struggles. You know, Reed is always reaching for greatness. Literally his body then stretches ever further... reaches beyond what we know our body is capable of doing. Ben is someone who is conflicted, who is inside himself, who's kind of stuck. Lacking a sense of purpose & belonging, he's confused. He thinks that maybe baseball is his way out. Ironically he then gets stuck and can't find a way out. The bullying in his past is reflected because he's become literally a monstrosity that people will never be able to relate to and always will judge and condemn. And maybe Johnny in some ways was always a bit sparky with his Father, always a little fiery in his home. And Sue was probably always trying to hide…
Q: In some versions of the comic, can’t Ben go back and forth between those states? And in other versions he's always ‘brick’ solid. In this version it’s the latter, yes?
A: Yes, he is condemned to this life. I mean, there are versions where Reed develops technology that can help change him back, which would be great But not in this version.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the process of creating this version of Ben?
A: Well, obviously there is so much physically that is beyond my capability. Ben's supposed to be 6'8" I think, which I'm certainly not! And then he's also as wide as he is tall. The one thing that Josh was unmovable on was that this character still retains his human soul, and the way we access soul is through the eyes. So on every setup where I would play The Thing, there was always six to 10 reference cameras shooting my face, sometimes even just the back of my head, just to get everything, to capture reactions. With Tintin, that was a movie based solely in an animated environment: so you have so much more control, you're in a Volume. This was trickier. But the performance aspect always remains the same, in that you 100 percent come to life as a different being. It's so immersive, and it kind of has to be. For the technology to really work, you have to focus on every tiny little physicality. I would say, “When I come to a stop, can we just make sure that dust comes off me?” I just wanted to make sure that we never lost his organic matter. Fortunately, Kevin Mack (Visual Effects Supervisor)’s kind of a genius with that stuff.
Q: Is it like the Hulk, in that you can ‘see’ Mark Ruffalo in it? Will we be able to see Jamie Bell?
A: With this character, because he is not flexible - he’s literally made of rock -- to some degree his facial articulation is complicated, painful almost. His face doesn't move; he's kind of paralyzed. So I think Josh very wisely is going to use certain moments where drops a bit of light down and suddenly you're going to see these eyes looking like there's a human being in there. I think it’s more effective. I think with Mark, there isn't any restriction, you can see a real face.
Q: What did you and Josh discuss in terms of the character and what you're trying to achieve – what did he want? What did you want?
A: The one thing he always wanted was that Ben was someone who was affected. He carries himself in a certain way, in a way which was defensive, a little aggressive. He’s been affected by people. He's been affected by his family. He doesn't come from a loving place, and he carries himself as such. He doesn't connect with people, and he doesn't want to connect with people. And the shame is that when he becomes The Thing, he cannot connect with people, so he’s always running this edge of not engaging, not really looking.
Q: So it all stems from his childhood?
A: Yeah… I went through a tiny bit of that, stuff in school where I was just different from the other kids. I remember just having to kind of ‘hide myself’ a little bit, just so that it wouldn't attract attention. I’d say Ben knows what that’s like: people say things to you and it affects you. You learn to protect yourself. I think it’s that kind of thing. Josh talks very cerebrally when he talks about characters. He doesn't talk in broad strokes. He's very particular.
Q: Is that something you welcome and respond to?
A: Yeah, you want to get a wealth of information right down to the way that person walks, and that does inform all those things. As the character progresses… everyone has a metamorphosis in this movie. There wasn't really a lot of talk about what kind of a character Ben becomes other than, you know, “For three years, this is the way you've lived. Just live that always.” So I feel like I'd have to constantly keep reminding other people on the set: “Look, I know I'm dressed in a Lycra suit right now, but when you see the movie, you're going to be looking at something that does not look human. You have to remember.” Josh had a cardboard cutout of The Thing in his office. Life size. And he didn't tell me. He said: “Come in my office.” I walked in, and was like, ‘Fuck!’ It really scared me because I remember that. That's how everyone feels when they look at you, and that informs everything.
Q: How does Ben relate to the other three members of the Fantastic Four?
A: For Ben, Reed is his way into everything, you know? His way into problems. His way into excitement. His way into friendship. His way into life really. The other two, we don't really know. It’s an origin story, an origin of character, an origin of how they get all these problems and powers and stuff. An event happens in the movie, and there's a bit of a time jump, so now these people have been living with these problems for this amount of time. But there must have been a moment where Ben comes out and sees everyone else and he's like, “I got landed with this and the rest of you look like that?” So they're not the happiest family, I don't think. They're all kind of sizing each other up. They
don't really know each other at all and have to get to know each other in the most extreme of circumstances.
Q: Did you know any of the other three beforehand?
A: I'd met Michael and I knew Kate.
Q: Did that help?
A: Yeah, it helps a lot. It also helps to know that you're working with good actors. I'd seen everyone's work pretty much, so when the cast was coming together, I was really excited. It’s not an ordinary piece of casting. It's such a specific way of making this film. And I really admired that. I admire Josh's tenacity to make sure of everything, and also his audaciousness in thinking he could do it. Truthfully.
Q: Looking back over the shoot, what would you say was the biggest challenge?
A: Without question trying to imagine what it would be like to have such a monstrous thing happen to you at such a critical moment in your life. I mean, these are teenagers – 18, 19, on the cusp of figuring out what they want to do with their lives. And that is not possible anymore, especially for my character. Dreams are just gone. And physically, how do you bring that to life? The way this person would move, how comfortable he is with his body, how comfortable he is with looking at people, making eye contact. There is so much shame and so much… you know, he probably makes himself sick, the idea of himself. Trying to get all of that into a character and then wear these stilts to kind of try and simulate the height of him. And I would kind of move my face around and try to restrict myself so stuff would be harder to articulate. Trying to get under the nails of that was tricky and kind of tiring.
Q: Did you reference any other films or characters?
A: My influences for the movie were all sorts of things from Elephant Man to Edward Scissorhands to, you know, just movies of people where something happens to them, but there's still so much soul in the person from the actor. That was really what I drew from.
Q: What do you think was the biggest surprise for you over the course of filming?
A: I think just how clear Josh was about his vision and how he never wavered from it. The other day I watched 2001 again. I wanted to watch Interstellar again, so I thought I’d watch 2001 first, then Interstellar. But as I was watching 2001, I was struck by the thought: “Oh there's so much Fantastic Four in 2001.” There really is. I could see where Josh is drawing from. Kubrick obviously is unwavering as a filmmaker; that's his way. I think this film is heavily influenced by that movie, by that director. I can’t speak for Josh, of course, but I imagine he picked up on a lot of stuff. I haven't called him on it, but I saw it and that's a great thing. From the level of thought in the details, to trying to ground the movie in a reality... For a property like Fantastic Four, which is maybe one of the more ‘out there’ kindof ideas, it’s such a bold move, and a testament to a great young filmmaker who is so determined and believes in himself and has a vision. I mean, right down to when we get to the Baxter Foundation, and I'm bringing Reed into his college dorm, and the sign on his dorm room was a bit too comic book movie. Like “Reed Richards”, da, da, da! And Josh was like, “No, no, no, just get rid of it and put some tape up as if someone's just left and they put tape up and wrote Reed Richards. Things like that made it feel so much cooler to me. That's a world that’s very tangible. So in answer to your question, bringing that quality to this kind of movie was surprising.
Q: Presumably, it's reassuring for an actor to see that the director has a singular vision?
A: 100 percent. What you want is someone who believes in something that you believe in. It works. It just filters down.
Q: Do you think there are any particular themes, maybe about modern families, that the film is tapping into?
A: Yes and no. I don’t think people need to be blood-related to be family. Families aren't 2.4 children these days. The new construct of family is whatever you want it to be. I kind of think this is a movie about orphans, and I think in some way we're all a bit orphaned these days. We make more of our own choices. You end up finding whoever you find. So I think it maybe reflects a contemporary culture that’s not so straightforward anymore. Family can actually be whatever you want it to be.
Q: We have seen very light, poppy comic book movies and very dark, tortured ones. Where on the scale would you say Fantastic Four sits?
A: That's a good question. I can’t say ‘the middle’ because this movie doesn't exist in the middle, and most things do. The truth is it’s a law onto itself.
Q: So, you’re rejecting the scale!
A: I think so. [Laughs] Get rid of that scale! What I think is, if a friend of yours sees the movie and you ask, “How was the Fantastic Four?” I think the answer will be: “You just have to see it.” Because it’s not doing what a lot of comic book movies are doing. It's not X-Men - though I admire what they've done with that franchise. It’s not Captain America's and all that stuff. Those films have a certain formula and you can't get away from it, and they work. But Fantastic Four isn't playing to those rules, so I'm really excited to be part of something that isn't doing that. I do know that when people come out of the movie, because of Josh's dedication to it, they'll go, “I haven't seen anything like that.” It’s a real experience.
The all-new FANTASTIC FOUR comes to Digital HD, Blu-ray and DVD just in time for Christmas.
Set in contemporary New York, this retelling stars Miles Teller (Whiplash) as Reed Richards, Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) as Johnny Storm, Kate Mara (The Martian) as Sue Storm and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Ben Grimm.
The FANTASTIC FOUR make a triumphant return with MARVEL’s next generation of heroes—four young outsiders who teleport to an alternate universe, their physical forms altered in shocking ways. Their lives changed forever, Reed Richards (“MR. FANTASTIC”), Sue Storm (“INVISIBLE WOMAN”), Johnny Storm (“THE HUMAN TORCH”) and Ben Grimm (“THE THING”) must harness their incredible new powers and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy, the infamous DR. DOOM.
The strong supporting cast includes Toby Kebell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Victor Von Doom; Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards) as Dr. Franklin Storm (Johnny and Sue’s father); and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as an unscrupulous Baxter Institute board member.