The interview: John Bell
The interview: John Bell
Hatty Willmoth talks to the Scottish actor John Bell about queer storytelling and the new play he stars in…
Scottish actor John Bell has had an impressive career. At the age of 24, he’s about to make his theatrical debut in Wimbledon as the star of a one-man show, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, but he has already been gracing our screens for years in projects such as Outlander, The Hobbit, Wrath of the Titans, Midsomer Murders and, my personal favourite, Tracy Beaker Returns.
According to John, the latter is what people our age ask him about, time and time again. “It has such a hold on our generation,” he says. “It means so much to us. It treated kids like they were smart, like they could handle real stories and be entertained by them. I’m always proud to be part of that legacy.”
John got his first break in acting when he was eight years old through a Blue Peter competition to be in Doctor Who. He was a huge Doctor Who fan at the time and was doing drama classes, so when his parents heard about the competition, they entered him and he ended up winning.
“That whole thing feels like a whirlwind,” he says. “I just remember being so determined to be as professional as possible. I did everything they told me to do with such earnest.”
Without that part in Doctor Who, John says he may not have pursued acting as a career. In fact, he nearly gave up on it altogether as a teenager.
He tells me: “I was quite busy throughout my childhood. I worked pretty consecutively. But there was a period when I was about 16 when I didn’t get any jobs. I was like, what is going on? Am I bad? What’s happened?”
He applied to study French, History and English – “or something like that” – at Glasgow University and, three weeks before he was meant to start his first term, he got an audition for Outlander.
Getting that part, John says, allowed him to transition from ‘child actor’ to ‘adult actor’. “Being able to grow up on screen has been the biggest gift that Outlander has given me. It’s allowed people to see what I look like now, and who I am now, and what I can bring to a character now.”
New, crazy adventure
All this will soon be showcased in John’s newest project, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which he describes as a ‘crazy adventure’.
Written by David Drake and originally performed on Broadway in 1992, the play follows a gay man’s journey of self-discovery in 1980s America. It’s abstract, non-naturalistic and non-chronological. The main character doesn’t even have a name.
I tell John, it sounds a bit intense. “It’s definitely intense, for the audience and for me as the performer,” he admits. “It’s a one-man show so it’s up to me and my skills to take this character on a full journey.” Coupled with the fact this character’s coming-of-age coincides with the Aids crisis, John says: “It’s a hurricane. It’s a whirlwind. He’s thrown in so many different directions.”
But John explains there’s a balance to this intensity, moments when the character has time to think and moments of comedic relief. And it’s a really good play. “I read the script and immediately loved it,” John tells me. “It’s part of history.”
It was fate
John describes getting the part like it was fate. Just two or three weeks before he was sent the script, he saw The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. That play, by Larry Kramer, acts as a pivotal plot point in this play and the character’s journey.
“It was such a good play,” he says of The Normal Heart. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. It’s so important for the queer community. Then, when the script came through [for The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me], it made so much sense and I could relate to it so deeply.”
John says he relates to this character more than any other he’s played in his career. “It is a sexuality thing, I can’t deny that, but it’s also his lust for life and his desire to get out of a small town and constantly go for it. I just really like him. I feel like I connect with him and he’s a part of me too.”
Somewhat startlingly, John signed up to The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me before he even realised it was a one-man play. Then when he found out it didn’t take him long to agree to do it anyway.
“I was throwing myself in the deep end, but in for a penny, in for a pound,” he shrugs. “You’ve just got to do it. If you don’t do something that scares you once every day, you’re not living. I’m with Steven Dexter, the director. He’s super experienced, and I’m not so experienced in stage, so he’s my guardian angel.”
all images credit: Mark Senior
The best of theatre
We discuss how The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is very ‘theatrey-theatre’. “There are parts where the script’s there, the words are there, the emotions are there; deliver them as they are on the page and it will work beautifully,” John says. “But there are other parts which are open to interpretation and lend themselves to being more abstract. I think that’s fun.”
John seems somewhat in love with this play. This becomes clear when describing the final act: “You’re going on this journey with this character. He’s becoming vain, he’s becoming selfish, he’s losing control, he’s losing his sense of self. And then in the final act, he’s finally found what he’s been looking for, his calling. Suddenly his ego disappears and it becomes this vigil, this remembrance for all the lives lost [in the Aids crisis]. Some of the writing in that is so beautiful. There’s so much feeling behind each word.”
The Aids crisis and remembrance
This play is grounded in the 1980s. “It’s very period,” John says. “It is about remembrance.
“In the original script, there’s this extra act at the end, a proposed future, that we’ve cut. Back in the 90s, people were looking for a happy ending, whereas we thought it didn’t make sense. This proposed future isn’t our reality. Gay people are still getting killed all over the world. This is more of a vigil, it really is. And that’s important too.”
Larry Kramer was a key figure fighting for the lives of people engulfed by the Aids crisis. This play’s character also finds purpose in gay activism. I ask John whether putting on this play continues that fight.
“It’s political,” he says. “It’s using the power of stage to inspire people to make a difference. Any queer story, even now, is activism. It’s bringing these stories to the forefront of entertainment.”
At the time of the Aids crisis, narratives like these were few and far between. “Back then, it was us and them, so people didn’t want to hear these stories,” John says. “I’d argue it was probably homophobia that killed people more than Aids. It was the lack of information and lack of action. I mean, they called it the gay plague. They literally said it was a reckoning for people.”
John describes today as a renaissance of queer storytelling, and he says stories about the Aids crisis are an important part of that. “Our generation didn’t experience it in the same way,” he says. “We have forgotten the seriousness of it. We can be so much more outwardly queer, so it’s a good time to remember the people that fought in the 90s, and 80s, and 70s, and 60s, and even before that. Look how far we’ve come.”
While this play is serious, it’s not all doom and gloom. John says: “I’m looking forward to getting a full spectrum of fun, comedy, a bit of artiness because it’s theatre and we love it, and then remembrance. It’s a rainbow.”
The time in Mortlake
Finally, I ask John how excited he is to come to Wimbledon to perform. He tells me it’s good to do some theatre that’s not in the West End. “Let’s spread it out, you know? Not everything has to be in that little corner of the world. All over London we’ve got some great theatres, so I’m excited.”
I find out John used to live in south west London, in Mortlake, about three years ago. “I love it!” he says. “It’s very chill – leafy, green, quiet, calm. It felt like I was living in a village outside London. Being here in Whitechapel, it’s like the wild west on my main road, but it’s more my vibe. I’ll come back to Mortlake maybe when I’m a bit older.”
John Bell stars in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 3 to 26 February.