Jamie Bell plays a neo-Nazi in Skin’, his best per­for­mance to date

The actor is unrecognisable as a tatted up, tough-talking skinhead – trying to aban­don a life of hatred – in this must-watch film.

Direc­tor Guy Nattiv’s fea­ture debut Skin – not to be con­fused with his Oscar win­ning short of the same name – on paper reads like quite the redemp­tion sto­ry: a neo-Nazi meets a woman (Danielle McDon­ald) who sees the good in him. They fall in love, and he attempts to aban­don his life of hatred. It would seem some­what uplift­ing, except to the film’s star Jamie Bell. I cer­tain­ly have a hard time for­giv­ing peo­ple for their pre­vi­ous actions,” Bell says. I think peo­ple need to be held accountable.”

In Skin, Bell plays Bry­on Wid­ner, a for­mer skin­head on whom the film’s sto­ry is based. Widner’s redemp­tive jour­ney would have been sim­pler if it weren’t for the hate­ful mes­sages inked all over his face and neck. As the movie depicts in grue­some detail, how­ev­er, he was for­tu­nate enough to have a South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter donor pay for the exten­sive surg­eries to have them removed – a process that took 16 months. Skins con­ceit is that the hatred of white nation­al­ists is like Widner’s ink: no one’s born with them, and they can be removed – albeit painful­ly and painstakingly. 

Bell’s per­for­mance is enthralling, a trans­for­ma­tive turn for the actor whose weight gain, dark­ened con­tacts and tat­tooed appear­ance make him hard­ly recog­nis­able. His depic­tion of Widner’s ascent from hate is volatile, as moments of new­found ten­der­ness are cou­pled with pro­found bouts of extreme self-loathing and paranoia.

We caught up with the actor to dis­cuss how sharks inspired his per­for­mance, his expe­ri­ence on Twit­ter, Boris Johnson’s recent appoint­ment as Prime Min­is­ter, and fatherhood.

What was your rela­tion­ship like with the real life Bry­on? I under­stand you spent some time with him pri­or to shooting.

I went up and hung out with him for about a week. It’s a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with some­one who’s going to live their life like that. I was sur­prised [by Bry­on]. I antic­i­pat­ed meet­ing what you would imag­ine: an aggres­sive, fero­cious, gre­gar­i­ous char­ac­ter. What I actu­al­ly found was some­one who was extreme­ly thought­ful, very artic­u­late, very fam­i­ly ori­ent­ed. He’d often stop inter­views to pick up his kids from school. He was also some­one who was intense­ly para­noid – some­one who was con­stant­ly reck­on­ing with the things that he’d done. In a way, he’s kind of in his own pur­ga­to­ry, his own prison that he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.

I read that you took inspi­ra­tion from sharks for your por­tray­al of Bryon.

Yeah, that’s what I came to. We went through var­i­ous dif­fer­ent con­tact lens­es. We had 20 dif­fer­ent ver­sions of brown that we went through before we found the one that would reflect light the least. We shaved my head and mold­ed Bryon’s teeth and fit them to my mouth, cause he has quite a fucked up grill. There’s some­thing with this tooth com­ing out and the shaved head and the dull eyes, it does kind of look like a shark. This char­ac­ter is cold-blood­ed. He’s vicious. He’s con­stant­ly mov­ing. And he’s iso­lat­ed, and sharks are alone and they’re in the dark. It just felt appro­pri­ate to me. I used that as much as I could. If I didn’t know what to do I would just fall back on what a shark would do.

I know you have a Twit­ter account, but how active are you on it?

My wife would say extreme­ly. [Laughs]

The rea­son I ask is because it is a very upset­ting plat­form to be on. There is a lot of vit­ri­ol and hatred on there.

I’m nev­er seek­ing that out. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s just pop­ping up on all the news out­lets that I’m fol­low­ing. You can’t help but read it and see it. There is an air of con­flict in all things, even in the film com­mu­ni­ty. Peo­ple are say­ing like, You’re not allowed to,” or, You can’t say that.” It’s very flam­ma­ble. I think it starts from the top down.

There is some­thing so unsta­ble about where we are. It feels we are in just a gen­er­al sense of chaos and imbal­ance. I think it affects every­thing. Like it feels like yes­ter­day [when I was so sleep deprived] I thought I was going to pass out any sec­ond. I live out west, and I got in last night quite late at night. I have a new­born at home, so I had a rough night sleep. I thought, God, I have a week of talk­ing about this film.” It did feel like, Fuck me. I want to actu­al­ly not do any­thing.” I want to dis­ap­pear, at least until 2020 when we have some­one else. Well, Boris John­son just got [cho­sen to be Prime Min­is­ter] today, so it’s like any­thing you guys can do we can do just as fuck­ing stupid.

Do you want to talk about Boris Johnson?

When I was a kid, he would be on this show called Have I Got News for You. It was a polit­i­cal satire week­ly show about the news, much like The Dai­ly Show. It was a game show. He was on that, and I always used to think, Who’s the fuck­ing clown that they brought on?” Now he’s the Prime Min­is­ter of England.

Do you feel a respon­si­bil­i­ty to take on polit­i­cal­ly mind­ed projects?

I real­ly hate mes­sage movies. I real­ly dis­like them. I see a movie that has mes­sage” on it and I won’t see it. I real­ly don’t want to! I don’t like that. [Laughs] I don’t know what else to say. Weird­ly, when we took this on, I didn’t know how incen­di­ary it was going to be when it came out. Even between Char­lottesville and now, we’re much deep­er in the mire of this stuff. I just didn’t antic­i­pate that this would be the cli­mate the film would be com­ing in.

I was won­der­ing if father­hood has impact­ed your act­ing at all. It’s cer­tain­ly a major part of this story.

Com­plete­ly. It’s changed my approach to the work. There is a lev­el of care and attach­ment that you have with a child that you’ve nev­er had before. You can love a per­son, but you’ll nev­er love some­thing as much as you love your kids. I think it just rais­es the stakes. When you approach a char­ac­ter and how they feel about things, it ele­vates every­thing. I think it’s a good thing for an actor – you tap into some­thing much deep­er, some­thing that’s more mean­ing­ful. You’re always putting that feel­ing of your kids onto the char­ac­ters that you’re play­ing, so that imme­di­ate­ly rais­es the bar of how far you’re will­ing to go. I think my career is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. I think I was sleep­walk­ing through most of my roles before. They just didn’t mean as much, and now they’re affect­ed at a whole oth­er lev­el with mean­ing behind them.

Skin is in US cin­e­mas now; there is cur­rent­ly no UK release date 

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