Jamie Bell was a stranger to Gloria Grahame’s work. Not until he got the part to play Peter Turner in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, did he learn about the Hollywood star. In the film, he an aspiring actor who falls in love with Grahame. I caught up with Bell as he talks about how reading Turner’s memoir helped him and we discuss what it was like for him to dance again on screen.
Read our chat below:
I didn’t know who Gloria Grahame was until I read the book. What was your first encounter with her?
I was in your boat. I had no idea who she was and she didn’t mean anything to me. I was unaware of her life and her career. So, when I read the script it was very much a cold read. I was unaware of Peter Turner and the memoir and I really couldn’t have been less informed about a movie.
Getting into it and meeting Barbara Brocolli who knew Peter and Gloria personally and reading the book, the truth rose to the surface and I got to see what an extraordinary relationship it really was and how it affected this man so deeply. To this day, I still think he’s trying to make sense of it all and extend it.
What did Barbara tell you about Peter and what did you learn about him?
She knew them personally and what stood out to me was how extraordinary they were. They were just like any other couple. When you looked at them, you didn’t see anything abstract or beyond the norm. They fit together really well and I took that to heart. I thought it was important to remember that they are like any other normal people who’ve had extraordinary life circumstances, especially in Gloria’s own way.
At the heart of it were two people who met each other, fell in love and the film portrays their May to December romance and the inevitability of having to say goodbye.
Seeing you dance on screen was a beautiful moment. What it was like for you to dance again?
That was something that really happened. 98% of what you see in the movie actually happened and that was something that really did take place. In the shooting schedule, that was something I drew a circle around because the rest of the movie can be quite heavy and traumatic at times, so that sequence was a really nice moment for us to have fun and express ourselves with abandon. I think also for the crew who were heavily involved. When we’re in that bedroom, it’s not just Annette and I performing, it was a sense for us to relax.
For me to get to dance is something I’m always looking to exploit and I have that skill in my toolbelt and it’s not something I get to use very often. It came in very handy for this.
There wasn’t any choreography. Barbara suggested to Annette to get someone in to teach us period appropriate moves. Annette said no to that because it’s really about the awkwardness of not knowing what to do, especially for Peter when he crosses that threshold of entering her apartment and he has no idea of what’s going on and who she is. There’s the awkwardness of meeting someone, becoming physically attracted to them and doing that peacock dance of first meeting a person.
What was it like on set working with Annette?
She’s very prepared. She’s someone who is ready to go from the first take. I don’t really work that way, I’m someone who takes their time to get comfortable, but she’s on it and so that requires you to become OK with not being 100% comfortable and be willing to try things and prepare to fail that you ordinarily would be, but that’s because she’s so seasoned and experienced.
I was only treated as an equal. My questions were just as valid as hers and I felt very supported and trusted by her.
How much fun did you have doing a period piece, so to speak?
I really appreciated what that does and setting the story a few decades back. This is about two people meeting each other and falling in love. That concept is a totally different film in 2017. In the late ’70s, you didn’t have Google or social media to find out everything about a person before you meet them. You get all this inside information, and back then, that information was impossible to come by. He was meeting this woman as this extraordinary and eccentric creature that he ended up falling in love with. There’s a purity in that love that had the film been set now, we would not have been able to achieve. That’s part of its charm. It’s a time when we weren’t so quick to judge and have pre-conceived opinions about a person.
Peter Turner is very much someone who loves without judgment.
What was your most useful resource in crafting Peter?
Certainly, his book was so useful and I’d often refer to that during shooting. On the day of shooting, I’d refer to the book and try to get back to that and what he really said and what happened. Having him readily available was helpful. Annette just did an interview and said she’d wake up in the middle of the night and email him a question and he would always be so generous with his time.
I can’t imagine what it was like for him to re-live and bring this up to the surface for him. He was an enormously helpful source and just someone who was only excited about his story being told.
Was it intimidating to play him when he was around and involved in the film?
He was in the film and he was in pre-production a lot. He’d come and visit the set. It was really important to him and the door would always be open to him. For me, it was more the fear of failure to capture the feeling he had for her and just how extraordinary this very brief moment was. I thought if I didn’t do that justice, I thought I’d failed him. There was always that sense of hoping that we were doing the story the justice it deserved.