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. Skin’s 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