Anyone who still associates British actor Jamie Bell with his breakout role as a young boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer will quickly forget all about “Billy Elliot” after seeing “Skin,” which screened at ArcLight Hollywood on Thursday night. “I was shocked,” the film’s writer-director, Guy Nattiv, told Variety of his leading man’s transformation into a real-life American neo-Nazi. “He was unrecognizable.”
Bell stars as in the film as Bryon “Babs” Widner, a real-life neo-Nazi who left the white supremacy movement after getting married (Danielle Macdonald plays his wife) and becoming a stepfather to three girls.
Widner chronicled the excruciating two-year long laser removal of his facial tattoos in the 2011 MSNBC documentary, “Erasing Hate.”
Spending three hours a day in the makeup chair for the application of the tattoos was just one part of Bell’s makeover. He also shaved his head and wore a fake set of teeth and opaque contact lenses. “I didn’t want any light to be reflected in my eyes,” Bell explained.
Still, Bell insisted on taking it a step further by going “full Raging Bull” and packing on the pounds — 20, to be exact. “I just ate a bunch of s—,” he said of his meal plan. “Peanut butter and ice cream and whatever I wanted. But it was hard because we made this movie for literally no money. And it was exhausting because we shot so much material in a day that I was shedding the weight as we were filming. At times I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
“He was chugging Ben & Jerry’s every day,” said Macdonald, who could barely stand to watch Bell gorge himself. “It was at a point where I felt sick and he was still losing weight,” she told Variety. “I was like, ‘Your metabolism is insane.’ He put in a lot of effort and worked his butt off every day but it was really funny: He’d pop down to the gym just to try and gain some arm strength and chug more Ben & Jerry’s.”
The role took an emotional toll on Bell as well: “This character is so far away from who I am, his detachment from compassion, from empathy, from kindness — from humanity,” he said. And yet it helped him to recognize his own socially conditioned ideas about intolerance. “Essentially at certain points as we grow up, we’re all guilty … until we learn otherwise,” he said. “And then we adjust ourselves and have a course correction and go: That’s wrong. I need to change that behavior.”
Bell hopes “Skin” will have a similar effect on audiences. “If it makes a few less people racist, we can do with a few less racist people in the world,” he added.
His Academy Award-winning director couldn’t agree more. “Both of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors,” Nattiv, who was born in Israel, told Variety. “When you see something like this happening in the states — the rise of white supremacy — and the fascism you’re dealing with right now and what my grandparent dealt with, this is important to talk about. I can always do entertainment and escapism and movies about stuff that is not relevant to the future. But I feel that it’s our goal as a new generation of filmmakers to bring social and political stories to the world.”
Although “Skin” could be described as a true American horror story, the locals Bell encountered while filming in upstate New York hardly batted an eye, which perhaps suggests how desensitized people have become to hate groups. “We were living in a Best Western,” recalled Bell. “I just want to say to anyone who visited last year, I am so sorry if your family came to that hotel hoping for a nice weekend and saw 20 white supremacists in the lobby waiting for their car to take them to set. Because that is a horrific sight. I would have run away, but so many people just like checked in and were fine.”