Max Harwood launches into “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”
Two years ago, Max Harwood made a video in his bedroom.
A second year student at a musical theater school in London, he introduced himself and said where he was from. He recounted how as a child he wore a puffy wig and performed Rizzo’s songs from “Grease”, making his grandmother laugh so hard that she almost wet herself.
The minute-long video was Harwood’s first audition for the movie “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”, an adaptation of the bubbly West End musical about a teenage boy from the north of England dreaming of becoming a drag queen. In search of new talent, the producers organized an open call, which produced thousands of tapes. Jonathan Butterell, the film’s director, watched almost all of them, and Harwood’s immediately stood out.
“He had that kind of magic in him,” Butterell recalls. “He’s fabulous without being arrogant. He called Harwood six more times, for dance calls, for recording sessions, for chemistry readings, for drag challenges. The magic has not faded.
So now Harwood – who had no professional credit, couldn’t get into a first-class drama school and was told he would have to aim for ensemble roles – is filling very high-heeled shoes. . Her icy blonde crop and prince looks take up almost every footage on “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” which premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday.
“I had a process with this movie where I stepped into my strangeness and comfort,” Harwood, 23, said on a recent evening as he lounged on a couch at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York. York. “This is who I am.”
Harwood had arrived in town the day before from the Hamptons on a press tour for the film. The tour had taken him across America – which, in the midst of the pandemic, mainly meant airports and hotels.
He has fishy, generous features, the oversized eyes of a frightened deer, and a natural warmth. He was wearing a polka dot t-shirt. And if his Converse sneakers didn’t have the spice of the glittery heels Jamie covets, they did have wedge soles. He behaves like the dancer he trained for, making him appear taller than 5ft 10in.
He grew up in Basingstoke, a town in south-central England without a professional theater company. He knew he wanted to act, even though the drama schools he applied to didn’t see him that way. But his local theater company gave him a scholarship for a one-year course at the Guildford School of Acting. The teachers there weren’t all that encouraging.
“I was told that if I wanted to do musical theater, because of my appearance, I would usually be chosen from the set and I had to get on with dancing,” Harwood said. What exactly was wrong with his appearance? “I’m not, like, the solid leading man.”
He was directed to the Urdang Academy, a musical theater training program in London. Even though he liked the lessons, there was some difficulty. He wanted to stand out, and the work of an ensemble member, who has to look and dance like everyone else, has never pleased him. He wasn’t supposed to audition on the show, but he had seen “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” on stage and loved seeing a story centered on a young gay man that didn’t depend on trauma.
“He didn’t die in the end,” Harwood said. “He wasn’t a comedic relief. He didn’t come for two scenes to be gay best friend. And it was really cool. “
So when a friend told him about the open call for the film, he got on tape. During the months of auditions that followed, he continued with his homework and part-time job as a supervisor in a sneaker store. He never really thought Butterell and the producers would launch it, but when he was called back for a day that involved a full makeup test, he let himself be dreamed of.
Butterell had conceived the musical after watching the BBC documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16”, which followed Jamie Campbell, an English teenager who wanted to wear a dress to the ball. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” opened in Sheffield, in the north of England, and quickly moved to London’s West End. In the New York Times, critic Ben Brantley called the production a “decidedly inspiring spectacle.”
In adapting the musical for the screen, Butterell and the other creators, writer Tom MacRae and composer Dan Gillespie Sells, didn’t want a beefy leading man to play Jamie. “Because what’s drastic about Jamie is the fact that you have a genuinely effeminate male hero,” Gillespie Sells said in a phone interview. “It’s something you don’t see very often.”
The creators saw it at Harwood. When Butterell told him he had the part, Harwood screamed, swore and asked if he could call his mother.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is not a coming out story; Jamie is already out. Instead, it’s a story of confidently stepping into your identity, with appropriately glamorous footwear. Jamie’s story isn’t really Harwood’s. Although Harwood loved to play dress up, he never felt pressured to drag. But then again, maybe this is everyone’s story: doesn’t everyone want to be seen for who they really are?
Dancing came easily to Harwood, as did the songs, which are mostly pop and R&B. Gillespie Sells praised his voice: “It was exactly that thing, that very pure, young, perfect male pop voice that was so good to Jamie because Jamie is pop personified. Everything about him is bright and full of hope.
Harwood was not always hopeful. Butterell, however, never doubted him. Neither do her colleagues, including Richard E. Grant, who gives a moving performance as Jamie’s drag mother. “He looks very young, sings and dances the born way, is emotionally open and generous, instantly sympathetic and, of course, has bucket load talent,” Grant wrote of Harwood in one e -mail.
But there were times – like a scene between Jamie and his best friend, Pritti (Lauren Patel) – where Harwood wondered if he could deliver the right performance. He was scared. He felt vulnerable. Butterell took him aside and told him to breathe. Maybe at those times Jamie felt just as vulnerable, suggested Butterell.
The day they shot Jamie’s drag performance was even more anxiety-provoking, but the musical inspiration Jamie Campbell was on set that day. “And I said to Jamie, ‘I’m so scared, I’m so scared,'” recalls Harwood. “And he was like, ‘You’ve come to exactly the right place. And if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t be human.
So Harwood’s anxiety became Jamie’s anxiety, who layers the glitter and muslin of the musical with feverish authenticity. If the movie is about Jamie blossoming, it’s also about Harwood doing the same. “Max took a trip similar to what Jamie is going through,” Butterell said. “Max went to find out who he was in all of this. Where Max and Jamie meet is in this duality of pure joy and fear that you have to go through to maintain that joy.
To play in a musical as your first professional concert is an added joy. But even a decade ago, young queer actors might have worried about being born into the industry in a role like Jamie, because it could lead to a distinctive future. Harwood doesn’t mind. He believes in Jamie’s story, which he describes as “a little beacon of light, hope and joy”.
Lying on that couch in New York City, he said that this story, as universal as it is, is just a story – and that young gay men deserve more. “I’m really happy to be a voice for my community,” he said. “But there are so many more stories to tell.”