Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on the true story of Peter Turner, a struggling Liverpool actor who, in 1978, met and began a passionate relationship with the eccentric American actress Gloria Grahame. Past her peak years in Hollywood as a femme fatale, Grahame herself was struggling to keep her career going after leading a life that was colorful to say the least. Her relationship with the much younger Turner went quickly from friendship to love and soon became a defining moment in both their lives.
In the film, based on Turner’s memoir, Jamie Bell plays Peter and Annette Bening portrays Gloria, and from their first moment together (an impromptu dance in Gloria’s rented room), the chemistry and compassion between these two actors is palpable and intense. Directed by Paul McGuigan (Sherlock) and produced by Barbara Broccoli (the James Bond series), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is one of the more unusual love stories you’ll see on the screen this year.
As for Bell, he started his own career as a dancer and broke through as an actor in Billy Elliot before embarking on a series of roles in movies like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Flags of our Fathers, Jumper, Defiance, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Snowpiercer and the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four, a troubled production for which he still got good reviews as Ben Grimm/The Thing. We spoke with him recently in Los Angeles about the Turner/Grahame story, his empathy for it, whether he’s interested in playing Bond himself and more.
Den of Geek: Annette really knew a lot about Gloria Grahame and had been interested in playing her for a long time, but you kind of came to this with a blank slate.
Jamie Bell: Yeah, yeah. It was very difficult for me to even believe its truth, honestly. And not knowing Gloria Grahame, the name didn’t resonate with me at all and I didn’t do any immediate Googling or anything. I just read the script totally cold. And at the end of it, I thought what a bizarre story to tell on film.
It was only when I then did kind of start Googling stuff and seeing this woman and meeting with Barbara Broccoli, our producer, and her telling me that she’d known Peter and Gloria personally when they were together and what they were like and then sharing the book with me. And I read it and I found out of about 98 percent of what you see in the movie is all true. And I was just kind of blown away by it. It’s just so extraordinary.
I never would have thought this kind of fish out of water character, the Peter Turner character, this young, charming actor from Liverpool would have such an extraordinary encounter with this woman who lived a thousand more lives than he had lived and had great success and disappeared into obscurity. But more than anything, their relationship, just at the heart of it, was something that was so pure and so non-judgmental and so accepting of one another that I really like the message that it was telling.
You got to meet with the real Peter, right? Do you try to keep some sort of creative distance in a way so you’re not too influenced by the real person at all?
I think if you play someone who existed, if they’re not someone of public note, if they’re not in the public consciousness, there’s kind of a load off because there isn’t a preconception of who they are, or there isn’t some sort of affectation that they have about themselves that is instantly recognizable. A certain voice, cadence, or a walk or whatever. So immediately, the pressure’s off because no one really knows, so you can kind of invent and you’re not going to be judged in that same way.
But certainly, there’s a responsibility of making sure that what this man felt…she was the most important person in his life, really ever. And I think in some ways, he is still trying to make sense of it and trying to understand it. That’s why he wrote that book. I think in some ways, he’s still kind of Gloria’s guardian. You see how much compassion he has for her and her family. And just how important a relationship it was. I felt that if I didn’t do that relationship enough justice, then I would have failed him and I would have failed his story. So that was always kind of weighing on my mind.
But he did everything he could to alleviate that stress, I gotta say. He was very generous, he was very loving towards me, he was very kind with his time. He’s very gracious to step back and allow just total authorship over his life and his story. He’s such a wonderful guy that I didn’t want to let him down.
Early in the movie, Peter’s brother sort of pokes fun at him, and actors in general, for wearing makeup and questions whether it’s a real “job” or not. I wonder if there’s like a little kinship with your own experiences when you started dancing at a young age and got that sort of reaction from other kids.
No, absolutely, of course. I mean, I felt very aligned with Peter for many reasons. One, because he was a working class guy. Especially from England, there’s something undeniable about that story, about that experience and existence. And certainly the fact that he came from a place … I mean, Liverpool is a little different because Liverpool is a place mostly known for its creative endeavors, you know? It’s given us great artists and people who went on to great successes.
So it is a little different, but I still think that there is a kind of, and certainly back in the day, back in the ’70s and ’80s, a little stigma towards going into a profession that maybe wasn’t as noble as some other professions. Industry or factory or things like that that a lot of men did in those places. And I certainly felt that in school growing up and certainly with dancing, being a boy, that isn’t really the done thing. So I felt very aligned with that.
I think that’s why Gloria was so important for him is that she can see that in him. She sees this creative ambition. She sees that he has a kind of artistic spirit that’s kind of desperate to be seen and be noticed. And she notices it, of course, and I think he feels kind of understood and identified by her in a way. I think that was part of that coming together.
Do you always enjoy the chance to dance in a movie?
Well, when I first read it, I thought, “Oh, I know why they’re sending me this script because I’m dancing in it.” But I mean, again, that really happened. They had a couple drinks and they started to dance. But yeah, I’m always looking for a way to exploit that little thing that I have. I don’t get many chances to do it. And also, in a film what it does is it’s a light moment, it’s a moment where you really get to fall in love with them a little bit and notice all of their awkwardness and their peacocking and their discomfort around each other and how they’re kind of warming to one another. It kind of is six scenes in one, really.
How much time did maybe you and Annette get to rehearse together?
Very little actual rehearsal. Whenever you kind of get to the set right before a scene, they do these kind of blocking rehearsals so that the crew can see where to put a microphone, where the lights are going to be, and just begin the coverage from. But in that regard, you’re not really rehearsing the emotional beats of the scene, you’re not running the dialogue, you’re not really doing it all out really.
So very little we got on its feet. Very, very little. And most of the time spent before production was spent looking at the script, going over the script, questioning the script, pushing it as far as it could go. Talking to Paul and going back to Peter and saying, “Did that really happen?” And going, “But how did it really, really happen? Can we move back towards that?” So we established very quickly doing that a sense of trust, I think. Because I think we both knew that we were committed to this relationship, this fictitious relationship, which meant everything. And because of that trust and because of the support we gave one another, I think it allowed us to go further with our performances.
Do you feel like you pushed yourself more in emotional terms in this film than maybe you had before?
Well, I just don’t think I’ve ever played a character who had found so much and then lost so much over the course of a movie. It really is a movie about feeling and falling in love and letting go. So that is really the gamut of the human experience in a way. So yeah, certainly, it was much more of an emotional challenge than a lot of the other stuff that I’ve done. Absolutely.
Have you spent a lot of time in Liverpool before?
First time I’ve been there.
How does it compare to where you grew up in terms of the size of it and maybe the cultural scene?
Well, it’s much bigger. It’s certainly a city. Like, where I grew up wasn’t a city at all, it was very much a small town. But Liverpool’s got a great sense of history. It really does. It was a very important shipping town. The docks there are crucial. The football team, it has two massive football teams, and it has a kind of unified identity. People who are from Liverpool wear that identity on their sleeves. They are people who stick together, they are people who stand up for what’s right. Much like people in Boston, how that is, their identity is very important to their being. So to shoot the film there for a week and get a flavor of it and get a sense of it and go around to some of the old haunts of Peter Turner and check those places out was very important. But nothing like where I grew up. Mine was much smaller, quieter kind of town.
Barbara Broccoli is known primarily for producing the James Bond films, but this has been a passion project of hers for many years. Does it make the whole effort easier in a way when you have someone like that behind you?
I don’t know if it makes it easier. To be honest, I think she pushes people harder to get it right. I mean, certainly what we felt, honestly, was I just felt a tremendous amount of space. Space to try things and space to not feel rushed. Paul was always like, “Take your time. Study this woman, look at her, take care of her. Just don’t worry about film going through a camera, just take precious time. This is very important.” And not all people are like that. Not all filmmakers have that tenderness in them. And I think Barbara allowed that.
Now, if a couple of years from now, Barbara calls you up and says, “So Daniel (Craig) just did his last Bond movie, you want to come down and take a swing?” Would you be interested?
I mean, you’ve gotta throw your hat in the ring for those kinds of things, of course. The Bond thing for me is something that I’ve never talked to anyone about ever, including Barbara. So I’m sure it’s because of the association with this film and at that time, Daniel’s future with it wasn’t really set and it was kind of up in the air a little bit. I don’t want to speak about something that is not even tangible in my everyday life. But if we’re speaking rhetorically, then of course, yeah.
Well, you’re British, you’re in the right age range, I think.
Right, yeah. The bones are still pretty good (laughs).
What’s next on your schedule?
I’ve made a film called Donnybrook. We shot that in Ohio, been shooting that and promoting this at the same time, which has just been chaotic and crazy and I really don’t recommend that to anyone. Annette was like, “How are you doing that?” I was like, “I have no idea.” I really don’t. I’m going to shoot another movie in, I think, February or March, this movie that Oren Moverman is producing. It’s a film called Skin. And then I produced a film this year, the first one I produced. It’s called Teen Spirit and it’s directed by Max Minghella. Elle Fanning is the star of that. We’re looking to put it out next year at some point, so we’re in post on that right now.
If Marvel planned to revive the Fantastic Four (now that Disney is going to buy Fox) and called you about coming back, would you be interested?
That’s a lot of ifs there. But no, of course. Marvel, what they’ve managed to accomplish is quite extraordinary, so much so that everyone is trying to replicate it and so far relatively unsuccessfully. But of course, it depends on the filmmakers and all that stuff and the rest of the cast. But of course, those are calls that I think actors love getting, I think. Most of them are all great characters steeped in rich mythology and great stories. That’s why you see so many fantastic actors playing these parts. So of course, I would love to do that again. I mean, the film that I’m in was a difficult process and quite a bruising one, but that’s an actor’s life. You never know.
What films do people recognize you most for?
I get kind of everything, honestly. I get people going “Jumper!” I obviously get Billy Elliot a lot. But it’s a real mix of things. Like I’ll have people who will be like “Nymphomaniac” and I’ll be like, whoa. That’s so specific. So yeah, all kinds of things, really.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens in NY and LA this Friday (December 29).