The Eagle - Jamie Bell
Esca (Jamie Bell, left) © 2011 Focus Features

Jamie Bell shot to stardom in the title role of Billy Elliot and went on to perform in such eclectic movies as King Kong, Flags of Our Fathers, Defianceand the upcoming Jane Eyre. He has just completed production on The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn for director Steven Spielberg.

In The Eagle, set in 140 AD, he portrays Esca, a British slave of Roman commander Marcus (Channing Tatum), who is forced to accompany him past Hadrian’s Wall to the highlands of Caledonia to discover what happened to Marcus’s father, Flavius, and the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion under his command.

Throughout the movie you never know if Esca is a good guy or bad, did you find that interesting to play?

The Eagle - Jamie Bell
Esca (Jamie Bell) © 2011 Focus Features

Yes, it’s great because you get to have that sense of honor unfulfilled, the personal journey of the guilt, but you also get, ‘I hate these bastards,’ which is very specific too, I think.

There is a lot of anger and resentment in there and I think there’s the air of pomposity that Marcus has about his way of life, his values. I think it was important that Esca released some of that aggression.

In the Rosemary Sutcliff novel, which is from the 50s, Marcus and Esca become friends very quickly, like ‘I’m Esca, hi Marcus, oh, we’re the best of friends,’ which doesn’t really leave for a very interesting dynamic or cinematic journey. So Jeremy Brock (the screenwriter), came up with the idea that the master/slave role goes the opposite way, which I think was a very smart idea. So it was a lot of fun.

You and Channing have a nice relationship in this, I wondered if your dance background had anything to do with that?

The Eagle - Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and Esca (Jamie Bell) © 2011 Focus Features

I think it’s funny, two dancers wielding swords and riding horses. There is a great competitive nature between the two of us, who’s got the biggest sword, who has got the fastest horse, who can dance better, which is great because it’s exactly what these two characters need to go on their journey with.

The first time I met Channing, I described him as the nicest person in the world. He’s so charismatic and his energy is so warm. And our working relationship was really great, we got along really well and we kind of pushed each other. We had a great relationship and a great time on this. I’d cross the wall again with him, for sure.

What was the worst condition you were in shooting this?

The worst part was when we were in these rivers. The lochs in Scotland are very deep, very cold water. And literally it affects your body in such a primal way, it basically says to your brain, ‘You need to get out or you’re going to die.’

We had to do this [scene] where I’m pulling Channing, because he’s all messed up, and we’re falling down these little waterfalls and we have to swim. I could only do it twice and I had to stop because I literally was going into a mild hypothermic shock.

I couldn’t really stand up properly, everyone was talking at me but I couldn’t see anyone, I couldn’t stop shaking, so the medic said, ‘You know what, you probably shouldn’t do it again.’ That’s the worse thing I’ve ever done.

How about horseback riding, because I read that you were intimidated by horses?

The Eagle - Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum
Esca (Jamie Bell) and Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) © 2011 Focus Features

I think there is kind of a general misconception about horses, because they are so big and you’re told they are unpredictable. There is a kind of built in fear that you have, and don’t even really know where it has come from.

I learned to ride with this girl at this horse school. She made me forget that I was riding a horse. She asked me really personal questions while we were riding, and because I was so scared I told her everything about my life. So it’s like a therapy session on horseback.

Then you realize, ‘Oh, I’m riding it backwards.’ And literally within two weeks I was bolting on and off, I was riding the thing backwards, I could literally parallel park it into a parking space

Galloping across the highlands on the horse looked very dangerous, did you have any accidents?

The insurance people said, ‘You guys can’t gallop.’  We were like, ‘But hold on a second, the second half of the film is about galloping very quickly to get away from these people who are chasing us. So how do we do that without galloping?  I didn’t train for six weeks to trot around the highlands of Scotland.’ They were trying to protect us.

So did they allow you to gallop?

The Eagle - Jamie Bell
Esca (Jamie Bell) © 2011 Focus Features

No, we just did it.

What was it like shooting Tintin?

My initial thing was what is motion-capture, how do you do it, what does it require, how does it work, does it even work? Let me see some evidence of it working. I watched some of those motion-capture films which are kind of very early and primitive in terms of the technology.

But I knew everything about Tintin, I was a Tintin-ologist. So it was literally trying to just understand the mechanics of the technology.

You want me to stand in a grey room, not too dissimilar to this, and act as though I’m in a seaplane in the middle of the ocean with nothing around me that informs anything about this character’s journey, anything in the physical world? And that’s great because that just means that I can make it all up.

Have you seen the stage show of Billy Elliot?

Yeah, of course, it’s great, I think taking something from a different medium and putting it onto [the stage] is very complicated, but I feel like Lee Hall, who is the writer, did a remarkable job.

I think it transcends the politics of the time into a very universal story about a kid who wants to achieve something and who can’t connect with [it]. It’s the best show on Broadway.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.