From director Paul McGuigan and based on the book by Peter Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool delves into the playful but passionate relationship between Turner (Jamie Bell) and Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (played magnificently by Annette Bening) in Liverpool in 1978. The affair between the eccentric femme fatale and her young lover quickly became a deep bond, leading Gloria to turn to Peter and his family for comfort at a time that will test the strength of that bond.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jamie Bell talked about the appeal of this project, what most struck him about the relationship between Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner, and reuniting with Billy Elliot co-star Julie Walters. He also talked about producing a movie with his best friend, how he’s considering directing, whether he’d do another TV series, now that Turn has ended, and if there could ever be another Tintin movie.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of this project, and did you know, when you read it, that it was a true story and a real relationship?
JAMIE BELL: I was sent the script and in my usual fashion, I didn’t really read any of the notes associated with it. I just started reading Page 1, as a cold read. I had no idea who Gloria Grahame was, but I had heard that Annette Bening was doing it, which piqued my interest because I’ve always wanted to work with her. I just love her work. But I didn’t know anything about the story and I didn’t know it was a true story. I went in to do a bit of a reading with Annette, and Barbara Broccoli, our producer, was there. Paul McGuigan, our director, was also there. Barbara told me that she had known Peter and Gloria when they were together, and she’s been friends with Peter for many, many years. She’s been trying to make this film for over 20 years. And then, she handed me the memoir and that’s when I really felt the power of the story. Because this all really happened, and because this man was still with us and could share his insight, and having Annette play this wonderful Hollywood star, it all just came together in my head. I felt it was such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of it, and I was lucky enough to get the role of Peter.
Was it ever intimidating or nerve-wracking to be in a film where the producer has been trying to get made for more than 20 years?
BELL: Fortunately, I never felt any of that pressure. Barbara is such a wonderful producer and such a wonderful woman that she manages to only feed the actors and all of the creative types on the film in such a way that she gives you the space to do your best work in. I never felt pressure. I only felt comforted and that I was given the platform for me and Annette to really go toe-to-toe with each other, and really push and test each other and bring these characters to life. I was very fortunate to have that experience. Not every movie is like that. To be honest with you, more often than not, Barbara Broccoli would be a mess behind the monitors, crying constantly. It always gave us a lot of satisfaction to know that she was living every breath, every scene and ever line with us. That’s rare. When you have that in a filmmaker, and especially a producer, you know they’re going to go that extra mile.
What most struck you about the relationship that Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner had, and what did you find most interesting, from both an actor perspective and a human perspective?
BELL: So many things. Barbara gave me a great piece of insight from when they were together when she said that there was nothing extraordinary about them. They were very normal people. They would blend in, on the street. You wouldn’t take a second look at them, on the street. They just seemed right together, which I thought was very interesting. It would be very interesting for us to play up the differences between them, and there certainly were a lot of differences. Gloria had a career in Hollywood, and Peter hadn’t. Peter came from a working class town in England, and Gloria was very much a part of the Hollywood studio system. Gloria had been married four times, and Peter was just getting a grasp on who he was and what his romantic identity was. They couldn’t have been more different, but I loved that they were able to see through all those differences and still give each other something so important, that they both needed. Gloria was desperate to just be loved and accepted, with all of her flaws, and Peter was desperate to be understood and identified, and to have someone who had similar passions and a creative mind and someone who would be a willing participant in life. I think they were both very open people and they had a lot of fun together. If there was an open door, they’d both walk through it. They shared something very intimate with one another. All of that was very influential. The book was also very influential. All of that was very useful to have in mind, when we were doing those scenes together.
Much gets made about the fact that this is an older woman and a younger man because that’s not what we usually see in a relationship, but I love that we get to see an older woman who is confident and sexual and makes no apologies for that. What was that like to get to play and express, through this relationship?
BELL: For me, it was something that I never really considered. Only ‘cause Peter Turner didn’t consider any kind of difference in age and what that might do or how it might affect the relationship, I didn’t consider it or think about it. It never changed the playing of the character or the playing of the scenes, for me, really. They loved each other for who they were. It’s an interesting thing, what this movie does. When people talk about the movie and ask questions about the film, they’re always like, “Why is there still this stigma about the older woman and the younger man?,” and I think it’s just because it hasn’t been normalized, unfortunately. The other way around has been so normalized that, for some reason, screenwriters, movie producers and the studio system can’t get their minds around the idea of telling romantic, human, flawed, complex stories, romantically, about women over a certain age ‘cause to tell their stories, they have to be under 25, apparently. In the consciousness, that’s become normalized. We can’t think of women, in that way, outside of that age. So, I really appreciate that this film turns that notion completely on its head and says, “No, women of a certain age still have these feelings, still have these urges, and still have these relationships.” That shouldn’t be the story of this movie and, in my opinion, it certainly isn’t.
There’s such a great family dynamic between Peter and his family. How was it to play those moments and also get to reunite with Julie Walters?