Steven Spielberg approached Jamie Bell to play Tintin, the Belgian artist Hergé’s beloved reporter/sleuth, when the northern England native was only 15. Blown away by Bell’s BAFTA Award-winning performance in Stephen Daldry’s musical Billy Elliot, the Oscar-winning director thought the teen had the unique looks and dancer’s agility to play the lead in the animated film, The Adventures of Tintin. Now 25, Bell signed on to work with Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson in a project that has been on Spielberg’s to-do list as far back as 1983, and finally opens on Dec. 23. Bell calls Tintin one of the most physically demanding roles of his career, primarily because of Spielberg’s use of cutting-edge performance-capture technology, which required Bell and co-stars Andy Serkis (the salty Captain Haddock) and Daniel Craig (the villainous Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine) to act out myriad stunts as Tintin pursues the bad guy around a digitally rendered globe. Bell shares his views on the challenges of making a film that he feels does justice to Hergé’s inimitable, visual style.
Everyone involved in this film is heavily invested in Hergé’s oddly coifed hero. How old were you when you first came across the graphic novels?
I came across the Canadian-made cartoon first on Teletoon, which is definitely a generational thing given I saw it first on TV instead of reading the books. It’s kind of blasphemous to admit that, given what Tintin is. What I loved about the cartoon is that Hergé was genuinely dealing with adult subjects like political corruption. And I respected how Hergé treated me like an adult. I also found Haddock hilarious. I love how angry, how bitter he is, and yet at the same time, he’s really just as innocent as Tintin. I eventually started renting the books from the library, and then I had a completely different appreciation for the art work.
In most animated films, the actors primarily lend their voices. Performance-capture technology requires the talent to act out the virtual stunts, using their movements and facial expressions in footage that is incorporated in “real time” into a 3-D digital character. Was it disconcerting at first to get the hang of this technique?
This is one of the most physical movies I’ve ever done. People generally think when you do a movie like this that you’re just the voice. But here we were physically inhabiting the character, which means you’re performing in exactly the same way you would in a live-action film. Tintin is an adventure film, which means there’s lots of bashing around, flying planes, running and jumping. It was exhausting because you don’t have those moments in a shooting day where you can rely on lights being moved around, or set changes, to give you the 40-minute breaks to sit down, get off your feet and collect your thoughts. I call it the Acting Olympics because you just don’t stop.
This is the first time Spielberg and Jackson have collaborated. How did they divvy things up?
Peter had the leg-up on the technology so it was useful for Steven to have a wizard next to him. Peter was on set for the first week and then he’d Skype daily from New Zealand before his writing sessions would start with Guillermo del Toro for The Hobbit. So halfway through the morning, you’d hear Peter’s voice booming from the speakers somewhere, and then you’d see him all bleary-eyed, with his coffee, waking up. One minute he’d be avidly offering suggestions and notes, and then you’d see him turn around and write a key scene for the other movie. It was absolutely a collaboration. Every decision Steven made was bounced off Peter.
Serkis, as Gollum in Jackson’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings and now as Haddock, has the most performance-capture experience. Did he offer tips?
There’s no doubt, Andy is the go-to guy for this. Not because he’s weird, or likes to run around in speed-skating outfits. It’s because he’s genuinely a really good actor and that’s what you respond to when he morphs into such life-like, digital characters. Andy’s not the kind of guy to instruct without asking. I never asked him anything about how to do it. But I would watch him in the morning and see him studying the monitors to see his character in real time. He would be trying to work out his posturing, and as soon as he got it, became completely immersed. He loses Andy in Haddock.
Spielberg was very careful to stay honest to Hergé’s original books. What kind of direction would he give you?
Steven loves actors. But he actually provided little actual direction. I think he knew – that independently of each other – Andy and I had the characters down pretty much. So he was just more focused on making the story kick, and making an exciting movie. Steven also used a virtual camera in the small physical space in which we were shooting. We were literally kind of dancing around him, and he was dancing around you. So it’s a very physical relationship you end up having with a director.
Is The Adventures of Tintin suitable for really young kids?
Tintin is not Bambi. He’s more like the Lion King. Speaking of The Lion King, the first time I saw that movie was really traumatic for me. It scarred me deeply. Recently I went and watched the 3-D version and it was cathartic. I finally purged from my system a kid’s film that affected me deeply.
This interview has been condensed and edited.