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The Eagle’s Jamie Bell on Tintin, Scary Horses, and Almost Landing Spider-Man

Jamie Bell hasn't been seen in a movie since 2008, but he's about to make up for that with a vengeance. This Friday, he stars in Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle, where he plays a second century slave accompanying his Roman master (Channing Tatum) on an adventure into the Scottish highlands, and he'll then appear in Jane Eyre, the thriller Retreat, and Steven Spielberg's highly anticipated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, where he plays the beloved comic-strip character via motion capture. All this, and he just wrapped the Sam Worthington drama Man on a Ledge, too. "I know, it's too much," he laughed during a sit-down with Vulture, where he discussed the hardship of making The Eagle, Spielberg's foray into new technology, and the recent British superhero boom.

It's very intriguing that the Romans have American accents in the film, and their slaves are British. How do you think it will play in the U.K. to see the actors with British accents under the thumb of these Americans?
I don't know! I've been so aware of that conscious decision that to me, when I watch the film, it doesn't stick out. Obviously, it's an allegory of modern times and that puts some politics into it that it might not necessarily have had. But I think it's good to shake it up once in a while. The English are always portrayed as bad guys — if you see someone in a film with an English accent, it's like, "Oooh, he's a villain! He's bad!" So to mix it up a little might not be a bad thing.

Have you been offered those British villain parts yet, or are you still too young?
Well, it's a certain kind of English, too. I'm kind of a working-class English kid, so it's not really the same as being Alan Rickman.

What was the experience like of shooting The Eagle in these remote places? There's so much beautiful nature onscreen, and the movie is set in 140 A.D., yet is everyone trying to get reception for their iPhone in between takes?
All the time. No one had bars! [Laughs.] We were pretty cut off, we were pretty remote. I think the physical landscape will always inform your performance, and that's what Kevin Macdonald does well: two guys and a landscape. Whether it's the Sierra Grande mountains of Peru in Touching the Void or the tumultuous and harsh landscape of the highlands of Scotland, he does the story of two guys struggling with those landscapes really well.

Were you struggling with it too?
It felt good to get in your bed and be warm. After a day of shooting on the side of the hill where the rain is coming in sideways and there's four different seasons in one day and you're like, "Is this ever gonna end?" it's good to go back to your little hotel room in Scotland. But when you're making a film, you just have to get on with it, you know? I will say that every day, getting out of bed and knowing that you have to trudge up a hill and stand around freezing all day, after a while it really does start to get at you. But Channing's got great energy and Kevin's kind of a funny guy, so we pulled it together. It was difficult for everyone, though.

What was the toughest stunt to learn?
For me, there was quite a lot of stuff. I wouldn't say Channing was well-seasoned on a horse, but he was comfortable on one, and I'd never ridden a horse before.

Intentionally?
I think I was afraid, for sure.

Understandable. They're huge beasts!
But I think everyone has this misconception that they are this thing that's unpredictable that will snap if they get too close to them. I went and had three lessons a week for six weeks and just learned how to do it, banked some saddle time. Eventually I left the school and rode around and around in circles and went into the fields and just let go.

Is that like taking your car on the freeway for the first time when you're learning to drive?
Slightly! It is a little bit like, "Holy shit." But by the end, or even after two weeks of training, I was vaulting on and off, going backwards on the horse and parallel parking ...

That's hard enough to do in a car, Jamie.
It is, absolutely. But when you see yourself riding onscreen, it's quite liberating! I was really afraid, really scared, so when you overcome that, it feels good.

Let's talk about Tintin. Obviously, Spielberg is a director who's in total command of his form, but here, he was working with technology he's never used before. Could you see him figuring it out on set?
Oh, absolutely. He'd be like, "What does this do? Oh wow, it does that? I wish I could do that in the real world, I wish I could take out a lamppost and move it to the side of the street!" The simplistic things about motion capture that you can do with just the flick of a button are kind of amazing, but also, the use of light and color ... for a filmmaker who's incredibly visionary, I think it's exciting because it gives him so many more options. The palette is endless, it's infinite, and I think he definitely got a kick out of that. I think he said it made him more like a painter than he'd ever been before.

The look of the film is very painterly, just from the stills that have been released. Have you seen it in motion?
I've seen bits and pieces, yeah. It looks great. We call them "Tintin-ologists," and as one of those people who's really into it, it's incredibly exciting. To see these characters come to life is something you've been waiting for your whole life, and when it's you doing it ... It's actually got the vibe of a Hitchcockian film, a kind of noir film in a young person's action-adventure film. It's really great.

I'm assuming your friend Andy Serkis gave you advice on motion capture.
On everything. He's the guru of that technology.

What's the key thing you need to know if you're doing it?
Just to overarticulate. He calls it "breaking through the technology," and I like that idea because it means that you break through it and claim it for yourself. You don't let it do the work for you, you attack it aggressively and control it. Look, if there's anyone to listen to when it comes to motion capture, it's that guy, so to have him next to me throughout felt great.

How do you know if you're doing a good job?
You don't. You trust your director, and I obviously have a great trust with Steven Spielberg. You're in really good hands. There are some very specific beats with an action-adventure film, and you have to hit those moments of "I found a clue!" where you're about to go into another adventure in the story. So the acting is still kind of the same, you're still hitting these beats and those emotional peaks and lows. And you have to trust your animators, because that's where the real work is done.

What's your Tintin voice like?
Tintin is a native of Belgium, and we obviously couldn't do it in French, although I would have loved to. So we kind of found an English sound that won't distract people so much. You know, it's very easy to upset people quickly when you're taking on such a beloved character, so we want to remain as neutral as possible and not go too, too strongly in another direction. If Tintin had an American accent, I'm sure the rest of the world would be very upset!

It was rumored for a while that you were in contention for the title role in Marc Webb's Spider-Man. How far did that go?
Really far. I screen-tested and everything.

Did you get to wear the suit?
No, they didn't do that in the screen test. We did a bunch of scenes with Marc, and I was one of many people who did it. It was a great experience, a great opportunity.

There were several Brits up for that role, and it went to the British actor Andrew Garfield, as did Superman just recently, to Henry Cavill. What is it about young British men that makes them suddenly a perfect fit for these American superheroes?
You know, I'm not too sure, actually. The truth is, if you're [Sony chief] Amy Pascal, I think you just go, "God, Andrew's a great actor." That was a no-brainer, and I think it was a really great piece of casting, to be honest. Marc was a great director in the small time I got to work with him, so I think it'll be fantastic. I don't know much about ... is it Henry?

Henry Cavill, yeah.
No, I don't know much about him, but I don't know. They're obviously good actors.

Even the short list for the female lead in Superman is mostly Brits.
Is that right? We're gonna start upsetting people soon. [Laughs.] The Screen Actors Guild is gonna be like, "No Brits! Stop them!"

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images