Oscar followers will be familiar with this year’s live action short film winner, Skin. Guy Nattiv took the Oscar home for his story about white supremacists. Not to be confused, Nattiv’s feature film Skin is on release and on-demand. The feature stars Jamie Bell and is based on the true story of Neo Nazi Bryon Widner, a man who seeks a change of heart, wanting to break away from his life of hated and violence.
Bell’s transformation needs to be seen to be believed. Bell gives an incredibly keen performance as he steps into the Skin of Widner. Wen we spoke, he talked about why it was hard for him to say yes when producer Oren Moverman first sent him the script. He talks about how Nattiv’s personal connection to the holocaust made him have a change of heart.
Read our chat below:
I think the last time we sat down was for the Teen Spirit Q&A, and then I saw Rocketman. But Skin is a whole other—
—Universe. Boris Johnson is Prime Minister now. [laughs]. It’s a completely different fucking world.
I know. I woke up and saw the news, and saw that he was trending.
It’s because he’s leading the country.
Oh God! I’m excited to talk to you about this because you are so good in this. I spoke to Guy the other day, he said it took some convincing for you to say yes to this. What was the turning point for you?
I had a long meeting with Oren Moverman about something completely different and something he was considering directing. That inevitably didn’t happen, but in that meeting, we drifted off and talked about family and kids. This script came in from Oren and he said, “My friend is directing this and I think you’re perfect for this.” I remember reading it and thinking, “What the fuck did he see from that meeting that made him think that I’d be good for this role.”
As you said, I was constantly on a see-saw of should I be doing it. For me, it was the fact that Guy, as an Israeli and someone whose family had been persecuted by Nazis. His grandfather survived the holocaust, and that’s who the film is dedicated to – if someone like him can find a way to look at this man with compassion and extend that hand of kindness, and still hold him accountable, then maybe he has the right way into this. I thought maybe I needed to see it from his perspective too. As someone who doesn’t forgive easily. In all my encounters with Bryon, I got to know the guy. I didn’t hold him in judgment, and I didn’t hold the character in judgment at all. It still is very difficult for me to forgive people who have done such heinous things. Knowing Guy’s history, and his family’s legacy and he still wanted to pursue this story, it felt for me like he had the interesting eye and that would be the way into it for me.
You met with Bryon and spent time with him for a week. What was that like for you to be with him and dig into him?
I was trepidatious. I’d seen the documentary on him. I’d seen how the authorities had viewed him back in the day when he was really in the movement. I’d seen how violent he was. I saw how he looked, and he looked like a monster with all that stuff on his face.
He’s also in the FBI Witness Protection program, so it’s all very serious stuff for me.
I didn’t know how he was going to respond to me because I certainly was coming with my questions and I was coming with a lot that I needed from him. I found a man who was willing to participate and answer the questions. He was very articulate. I saw a man who was extremely paranoid. I saw a man who was guilt-ridden. I saw someone who would be dealing with the reckoning of his actions for the rest of his life. I can see the conflict in him.
I wanted to know what his life was like before he got into this. I wanted to know the key factors that got him to the place that he ended up in because the script doesn’t answer those questions really. That to me was a crucial ingredient for me.
I think what I liked about the story was whether can bad become good. What was it like to portray that?
For me, that’s the journey of the film. The hesitancy with some of it was the choices the character makes. There’s an eagerness in terms of the screenplay for him to renounce his actions early on. I was trying to push Guy to let him believe it until quite late in the film. We just won’t believe it if he’s over it too quickly. Let’s keep him in it for as long as we can. More than anything, racism is learned. It’s inherited. It’s not something we’re born with.
For me, the real moment where he steps out of himself and chooses is when he sees that kid. He thinks, am I going to continue this? Am I going to pass this down to another generation or because of this great gift that I’ve been given — the surgery to remove this. It’s a new lease on life that he’s been given. Maybe I could change it for the future. That’s all connected to Bryon’s backstory and stuff he went through before he got into the movement. It is about being a role model and how influential that role can be, and how important and how it changes a man’s life – the role of another man.
That to me was the point where we should end the film and further the conversation of how far should we extend our compassion and how far should we rehabilitate these people? All those questions are in play. I always felt it was important for him to have one toe left in that world, otherwise, it’s just not believable. People don’t shift like that overnight, it takes something monumental for them to change.
Were you surprised at how fast and how timely this film has become as opposed to it being a story about past history?
Yes. It is really disheartening. I wish it were a piece of fiction or much more like a film about something that happened a long time ago.
I think it’s ironic that Guy and his wife were trying to make this film and the response he was getting was, “This doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. White supremacy doesn’t exist in this country, and it’s such an old trope.” Then cut to a few years later and people realize how urgent it is and they rush to make it. It’s funny how that landscape changes. It’s also horrific that this is where we find ourselves.
Even talking about the film feels so incendiary. Certainly, for an audience, you’re asking a very hard question. You’re asking them to look at something that is so brutal and so in their daily lives – in the newspapers and the cable news. It’s a hard ask. We’re not letting them off the hook. It’s very challenging.
What about your physical transformation and doing that?
We did a lot of different tests and techniques. I wasn’t really buying it. I’d look in the mirror and see a lot of myself. We started playing with a lot of different tools. I wanted to get rid of my ears. They don’t necessarily say monster or intimidating. We tried things to stick them back because any shot we did over the shoulder would be something that looked like a hearing aid, so that wasn’t going to work.
I also put on weight because these people don’t take care of themselves. Bryon was a major alcoholic at the time. So, we went away for a while. I piled on the pounds. I wanted to fuck up my teeth. We took a mold of Bryon’s teeth and shaped them to my mouth. We came up with this thing for the nose where it looked like I had broken my nose at some stage.
When the contact lenses went in and all the reflection went and there was dullness to the eyes, that made more sense. There was no sparkle. It felt like this void with this black thing staring back at you. I felt like a shark. I used this shark mentality of this intense predator that doesn’t stop moving, and that is extremely violent, rough to the touch and terrifying. When I saw that looking back at me, I thought that was a good place to start.
After this you did Rocketman?
Where did this come between Teen Spirit and the others?
We shot Teen Spirit three years ago. It was the longest post-production process ever because Max was stuck on Handmaid’s Tale, his Emmy-winning show. I’d already made Film Stars. Teen Spirit came out. I did Skin and then Rocketman.
That must have been a release for you.
It was. It really was. I was glad not to be dealing with all that stuff. I could let loose and sing some sweet songs. The pants were extra tight in the 70s, so all that extra weight I had put on. I had put on 20 pounds and I was trying to lose weight. It was really fun, though. The character of Bernie is such a warm loving person. I really needed something that was the antithesis of this. An accepting human being. It felt lovely to do something that was the polar opposite.
Skin Is In Theaters and On Demand July 26