As a blue-collar boy who discovers ballet in "Billy Elliot," 14-year-old Jamie Bell got a sense of deja vu while shooting scenes in which his character is taunted by other boys in his tough northern England mining town.
He saw some of the same grief when he was 8, after his schoolmates discovered he'd been taking dance lessons for two years on the sly. "But that actually made it more of a challenge for me," the young actor says in a distinctly working-class English accent, unconsciously stitching his brow for determined emphasis, "because I wanted to prove to them that it wasn't just for girls."
Mission accomplished, Jamie.
In the picture, which is quickly becoming a sleeper hit, Billy is the kind of kid who would give you a black eye if you teased him about learning ballet. His eyes burn with tenacity and struggling-class rage. He's got a quick temper and huge chip on his shoulder. And all of this goes into Billy's personal, distinctly masculine style of dancing.
Traveling the U.S. with director Stephen Daldry to promote the film (doing interviews and Q&A sessions after public screenings), sullen but sociable Jamie is collecting professional baseball jerseys from every city they stop in.
"I'm really into baseball now," he says with as much enthusiasm as any American kid might show for the sport. "I went to my first baseball game when I was in Manhattan. Now every city I go to, I get a baseball shirt. I got Yankees, Cubs, Braves, Giants, Blue Jays, and I'll be getting the Dodgers next week."
Director Daldry, a friendly, meditative chap who seems like he'd prefer uncomplicated yes or no questions to this interview business, explains that not a lot of thought went into making Jamie's dancing feel adequately butch.
"We were concerned that the dance come out of -- and is an expression of -- the child, rather than anything else. It needed to feel personal," he says. "In that sense we spent a lot of time with Jamie working out strengths and weaknesses, and how the character would express himself and what Jamie could bring to that in terms of his dance. So in terms of (the choreography being butch), that would be Jamie."
Because he doesn't consider "Billy Elliot" a "dance film," Daldry focused more attention on making the picture's informal musical numbers fit comfortably into the context of the story, which is about Billy reconciling his desire to dance with the far more conventional values of his ill-tempered, roughneck father, a coal miner striking against Margaret Thatcher's labor policies in 1984.
"We were keen that the dancing shouldn't feel like set pieces -- like film- film- story- story- dance- story- story- story- dance- film- story- story," he laughs. "In the best musicals the songs come at emotional or narrative turning points. The story doesn't stop for a song, and the story shouldn't stop for a dance."
Daldry integrated the dance scenes into the town's authentic bleak tension while maintaining a mirthful, incidental sense of humor and turning Billy's dancing into an expression of his personality that serves the story as naturally as dialogue.
"As I said, the dance needed to be an expression of the boy, not an expression of the choreographer."
Mission accomplished to you too, Stephen.