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Jamie Bell on Donald Trump, Charlottesville and Playing a Neo-Nazi in Toronto Drama ‘Skin’

Jamie Bell packed on 20 pounds, wore a prosthetic nose and shaved his head to portray a neo-Nazi in the drama “Skin,” which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday night. The movie is based on the life of Bryon Widner, the subject of the 2011 documentary “Erasing Hate,” a skinhead who risked his life when he decided to leave a white supremacy group in Indiana.

Ahead of the film’s premiere, Bell talked to Variety about making the independent movie directed by Guy Nattiv.

When you started preparing for the movie, had Trump been elected president?
He’d already been elected. You know, all fucking hell was breaking loose and all this shit was going on. Actually, I think I talked to Bryon for the first time over Skype the day of Charlottesville. It’s kind of like the easiest time to play a fascist Neo-Nazi because you literally don’t have to look much further than the front page, alarmingly. I say that in a very kind of worrying way. Unfortunately, they’re at the forefront, they’re emboldened. It’s not that difficult to kind of see it in action, and see what they look like, and see who they are, and see how they talk to each other, and how they interact and lead with a sense of ownership and a sense of superiority. It’s a tragedy, really; it’s all so easily accessible.

Was it difficult for you dealing with such a dark subject matter?
It was. I was very angry going into this movie. I’m not even too sure why. I feel it’s because everything that’s going on in the world, but all that anger about where we are politically. I was just walking around with that, and kind of channeled that into this sense of hatred and self-hatred. I thought, “How am I going to do this?” I mean, fucking hell, they couldn’t be more in broad daylight now. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen them so out in the open. I only hope that we’ve done it as hard and as real as it needs to be.

How much time did you spend with Bryon?
It was under a week, but it was an intense time because we would just get together, and I would sit down and pull no punches with him. He was a willing participant in that. He introduced me to his family. We spoke a lot in his garage where we smoked probably three packs of cigarettes in two hours. I just asked him every single possible question I could think of. And then, we didn’t have any further discussion after that.

Where does he live?
I’m not allowed to say. He’s in the Witness Protection Program.

How did you physically transform for the part?
I had fake teeth. We had a mold of Bryon’s real teeth, which we made into fake teeth. I had a prosthetic for my nose. And then, every day for the tattoos, that was about an hour and 45 minutes in the makeup chair every day, sometimes longer. All the costumes and all the smoking and drinking and all that really played into how he moved. I felt like he should always feel labored. I shaved my head, because it’s a massive difference in the way you carry yourself. I wanted to put on as much weight as I could. I’ve been lean my entire life. As an adult, I’ve never weighed more than 145 pounds. Guy said, “It’s important for you to blow up. I want you to have a beer gut.” I only put on 20 pounds, and I couldn’t even really sustain that weight. [I ate] ice cream and every single possible kind of heavy fat. I would eat tons and tons of straight peanut butter, like just eating it out of the tub, putting it in the microwave, melting it down and drinking it over and over again. I found it difficult, and it was really frustrating when I felt like I wasn’t gaining to where I wanted to be.

Are all the tattoos on your character authentic from what Bryon had?
Everything is real. Everything on his face, for example, that’s all his. Between application in the morning, at like 4:30 a.m., and wrapping at 7 o’ clock at night, they would stay on all day. If we knew that tomorrow I’m going to be in a short sleeve or something, they’d be like, “Can you keep those on?” So a lot of time I’d be going to bed with them on, going out to dinner with them on, going out with the crew with them on. We couldn’t afford to wipe them off and put them on again.

You’re currently filming the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” starring Taron Egerton. How is that going?
Pretty great, man. I think Taron is an exceptionally talented actor. He’s embodying the spirit of Elton very well. I am constantly so impressed by the stuff that he’s doing and all the things that are required of him, physically and obviously the singing. It’s just a really fun movie to be on, because as you can imagine, Elton’s life is so colorful. It kind of rockets out of this world.

VARIETY PORTRAIT STUDIO AT TIFF

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