Jamie Bell grabbed attention and won over a big chunk of the moviegoing audience in 2000's Billy Elliot, but he hasn't truly had that breakout role as an adult actor. After a decade or so ambling around the indie scene, Bell may well get that breakout opportunity on TV, specifically AMC's colonial spy drama Turn, where plays Abe Woodhull, a farmer and father on Long Island, who is recruited to begin spying on the British militia.
It's probably not too hyperbolic to say that Billy Elliot is, and probably will be, the defining role of Bell's career. As recently as September, he was talking about the part in an interview with The Independent. Back then, the story went like this: Bell—who, like Billy, loved ballet but hid it from his friends—won the role out of a field of 2,000 young men. Bell's performance as Billy was ferociously intense, especially in the dance scenes (just watch below), but he was also incredibly naturalistic, something that Bell now discusses. "That wasn't really acting to me. That was my life. I'd put ballet shoes down my pants to hide them from my friends," he told The Guardian in 2011.
Of course, many actors who got their start as children have trouble re-establishing themselves as adults, but there's also something curious about the fact that Bell has worked as often as he has in the years since Billy and yet hasn't landed on a role that can serve as a shorthand for his adult career in the same way Billy has for his child-acting. Billy Elliot is a sentimental favorite for many, but it is not Harry Potter, and perhaps shouldn't have become the overwhelming force in Bell's life that it has.
The Post-Billy Elliot Years
In the years following Billy Elliot, Bell played a series of misfit teens in a variety of indie films like The Chumscrubber, Hallam Foe, David Gordon Green's Undertow, and Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy. These are characters who find the bodies of their friends who have committed suicide, who sleep with their stepmothers, who rally groups of pacifists to carry guns. In playing these adolescent weirdos, Bell worked in a variety of dialects, proving that jumping out of his natural English accent would be no problem. Throughout this period, which lasted between 2004 and 2007, Bell also took the odd supporting role in blockbuster films. Peter Jackson cast him as Jimmy, the kid found on the ship in the 2005 King Kong, and Clint Eastwood tapped him for a part in Flags of Our Fathers.
Since growing out of his teenage phase, Bell has made some middling-to-bad films that had significant budgets, but ultimately didn't make much of an impact. He was in the terribly-reviewed science fiction movie Jumper, where he played second banana to Hayden Christensen, and he played opposite Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber in the Edward Zwick WWII movie Defiance, released at the tail end of 2008. Defiance, sneaking in a limited release at the end of the year before going wide in January, looked to be aiming for more prestige attention than it actually received. After a quiet period, Bell starred alongside Channing Tatum in 2011's mostly forgotten Roman Empire movie The Eagle, and had a supporting part in Man on a Ledge, which came out in the January doldrums of 2012. None of these films were particularly terrible choices on paper—nor were they particularly notorious failures—but they also weren't exciting or interesting in any way.
Bell's next big movie — Cary Fukunaga's elegant Jane Eyre — was quite well received by critics, but Bell himself was overshadowed by the leads, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. You had to see that one coming, on some level; no one ever cares about St. John Rivers. The biggest title Bell appeared in during this period had the drawback of being animated: he played the title in Steven Spielberg's motion capture The Adventures of Tintin. Big movie, big director, slim chance to enhance one's star power — the classic voice-actor's lament. (This is also why Zoe Saldana didn't receive the bump she deserved off of Avatar, but that's another career arc.)
Currently, Bell is getting back to his indie, foreign roots. In the second half of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, he is brutally cold as a dominator who Charlotte Gainsbourg's Joe goes to for beatings. He also has a part in the Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, and in the much anticipated science fiction film Snowpiercer from Joon-ho Bong. But none of those roles have the chance to give him as much as Turn. There is no guarantee of the show's success: buzz for its premiere has been muted, and it's fairly dense stuff starting out. The colonial era isn't an especially sexy one, and viewers may have to remember some of their high school history to orient themselves in the show.
That said, Abe Woodhull on Turn is a wholly mature role, one that in the show's first three episodes allows Bell to show a mix of swagger and the inherent fear that comes with a spy job. Still, he gets to show some of that earnestness that made him once so charming in Billy Elliot. It's unlikely that Abe will become the type of antihero for which AMC is known, but as the show goes on and Woodhull becomes a better spy, one can see Bell having the chance to make a bigger impact in the role. That impact could be put to good use when he assumes the role of The Thing in the Fantastic Four reboot.