At a time when social distancing measures are being implemented to battle the Delta variant, Jonathan Butterell’s jubilant musical, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” is the cinematic equivalent of a sorely needed hug. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Jenny Popplewell’s documentary, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” which followed British teen Jamie Campbell as he prepared to attend his senior prom as his flamboyant alter ego dubbed Fifi La True. The story of his courage, as well as the support he received from his mother Margaret and a veteran drag artist inspired Butterell’s award-winning musical, which had its first incarnation onstage and was a smash hit on London’s West End, thanks in part to its irresistibly catchy songs by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells.
Now Butterell is making his directorial film debut with the movie version of his show featuring marvelous newcomers Max Harwood and Lauren Patel in their first screen roles as Jamie New and his best friend, Pritti Pasha, respectively. Tour de force performances are also delivered by Richard E. Grant as drag icon Hugo (a.k.a Miss Loco Chanelle) and Sarah Lancashire as Margaret, whose soaring number, “He’s My Boy,” serves as the heart of the picture. After conducting interviews for sixteen months via either phone or Zoom for RogerEbert.com, it was both a shock and a joy to meet Harwood, Patel and Butterell in person last month in Chicago. The trio were clearly excited to be on their first U.S. press tour together, and they were eager to speak with me about their efforts to defy stereotypes and spark meaningful conversations across generations with their film, which premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, September 17th.
This film reminded me of a talent show at my high school where a boy surprised everyone by appearing onstage in drag and singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” When he got to the line, “Come and get me boys!”, the place went nuts. Some people started jeering him, while others—myself included—cheered in support. Could “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” be considered a sign of the progress that has been made by young people in their acceptance of others?
Max Harwood (MH): Well, yes and no. Though this show is inspired completely by the true story of Jamie Campbell and how he took his place in the world, the version you see in the film has been taken and nurtured and crafted by members of the generation above his own: Jonathan as well as Dan, our amazing music writer, and Tom, our screenwriter and lyricist.
Jonathan Butterall (JB): The conversation has changed a little bit generationally. I could see myself in Jamie and I’m not of his generation, and I think that ultimately is what inspired me to want to tell this story. I saw something of my own story and the story of my own parents being told in the film between Hugo and Jamie, who represent two different generations. I was in those marches from Hugo’s time where we had to literally go out there and fight for our place in the world.
Many young people are still having to do that in the world today, so in some ways, it’s moved on, and in other ways, it hasn’t. What is inspiring for me is to watch Margaret Campbell hold her son and carry him through that odd place in one’s life where you’re 16 and looking to take your place in the world. She’s supporting him and loving him through that, and I think that love is passed on into the community, who then transition into holding him and supporting him. I do think the conversation has changed, but ultimately, it’s about the power of that love.
MH: Yeah, and I hope this story is a sign of more things to come. Our film is about a kid who is already out. For many people, coming out stories are so important, but it’s important to me that this isn’t one of them. We’re aiming to start a different conversation that has a universal message about how you safely take your place in the world—whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever small city or big city you’re from. That’s what I think is really important.
JB: As a young person, I had never seen a young effeminate hero onscreen who clearly had no problem with his own effeminacy and sexuality and was still discovering himself. Normally that character would either be the sidekick or somehow have to be comedic. Or maybe he would have to be a victim and overcome something. The intent from the very beginning was not to make Jamie a victim and to actually celebrate the effeminate hero that he was.
It is just about being who you are and taking your place in the world. For me, Pritti has a similar story in the community that she comes from. Sometimes ambition and the drive to become a doctor can, in itself, be an odd and frightening thing to be open about. Just getting up in front of your class and saying, “I want to be a doctor,” and having all your classmates laugh at you is a difficult thing to to face. So even to that extent, the film is about young people finding a place to be themselves.
I found it refreshing that Pritti is a character who just happens to be a Muslim. She upends stereotypes through her sheer humanity, much like Nadiya Hussain did on “The Great British Baking Show.”
Lauren Patel (LP): Exactly.
JB: We love Nadiya!
LP: These people just exist. This isn’t a story about Pritti being a Muslim or being a South Asian girl. She just exists in Jamie’s life and happens to be those things in the same way that I exist in Max’s life and happen to be South Asian. It’s important to tell stories about that, but also to include them in stories about other things as well.
MB: And this is what classrooms look like across the U.K.
JB: I get asked questions about how diverse and wonderful this cast is and I go, “Well, that’s what it looks like!” It doesn’t feel particularly avant-garde to be this diverse because it just reflects the world that we live in.
How was the spirit of Jamie Campbell infused into the spirit of this show as well as Max’s performance?
MB: I met Jamie and realized that we have the same sort of awkwardness. At the heart of my character of Jamie is the real Jamie Campbell. I was very observant while watching the documentary and I got to spend a lot of time with him. That was important to me because the character needed to be real at all times and not be a stereotype. Obviously, there are a lot of things in Jamie Campbell’s life that don’t happen in Jamie New’s life, so I had to use a bit of me to tap into some of those things. I don’t think I can give you a specific thing about Jamie that I tried to portray. It’s more about me observing his energy and channeling it.
JB: I would say what Max and Jamie have in common is courage. Max had that courage right at the very beginning. When I first saw the documentary, I thought, ‘Oh, some great researcher has found this story and tracked it down.’ That’s not the way it happened. Jamie Campbell wrote to documentary companies and said, “Please follow me, because I’m scared.” For Max and Lauren to both do their first film on this scale, on this level, is a massive act of courage—and for me as well. You were frightened every day until you stepped past that fear and into yourself. It’s important to tell yourself, “This is where I need to be today—scared, yes, but courageous always.”
What initially inspired you both to become actors?
LP: I was 17 when I got this job, so I was quite young. I was just deciding whether I was going to go to university or pursue a career as an actor. Since I enjoyed acting, I chose the latter, and I figured that maybe in about ten or fifteen years, I’d get a little part in a TV show or something. I was just going to do it because I liked it. And then everything happened all at once. I got this job in twenty days and a month later I was on set with Max and Richard E. Grant. And now I’m here in Chicago promoting the film, so I’m just kind of going with the flow, to be honest.
MH: I’ve always wanted to do it. I’ve watched movie musicals with my mom since I was little—“On the Town,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Oliver!”, “Annie”—and I never imagined that I would be halfway across the world, so far away from my family, doing this. It was not an easy process. I left school at the age of 16, went to college, did my A Levels, which included theatre, and then started auditioning for drama schools. In my first year out of college, I didn’t get into any drama schools that I really wanted to go to, so I took a foundation course, which is typically very, very expensive. I was very lucky that my local theatre council gave me the opportunity to go out and sing for them, and I have incredibly supportive parents who helped put me through that year.
That’s where I really found my love for acting, and where I found the people who told me that I could be who I wanted to be. I went on from there to another school for two years, and then this project came along, and here we are. This moment is just so weird because, for me, it was the end goal, and yet, it is coming first. Now in the next couple of years, I am going to go back and do films that I typically probably would’ve done before this and are beyond this. I am so grateful to Jonny for making this story and giving me an opportunity to step into this world. I literally gave all of myself to this role, and Lauren did too. We both decided to move to Sheffield, where we shot the film.
LP: We lived there for three months. I had never lived on my own before.
MH: We didn’t go home either. Typically on projects, actors travel between their home and the shooting location, but we were there the whole time. It was wild.
LP: It was like “uni” for me, where you’re living on your own and living off really crap food. [laughs]
What was it like to play the uninhibited Jamie in the fantasy sequences and the more vulnerable Jamie in the real world, which starts to incorporate the music organically as the film progresses?
JB: I’m glad you noticed that transition because that was a very deliberate intent. We wanted to take the viewer from the kind of fancy that would happen in Jamie’s imagination to a young man and his mom sitting at a kitchen table, where they are able to sing in a way that feels organic to that moment.
MH: In those moments of fantasy, I got to be a pop star and I was encouraged to have fun. When I performed “And You Don’t Even Know It,” I had to own it. I had to step into it and go, “We’re making a pop video.” Everything from the shots and color palettes to the sets and costumes referenced music videos, so I got the opportunity to embrace that style. I trained in musical theatre and acting when I did my foundation course, which helped a great deal.
The songs are so delicate and the lyrics are so beautiful. When the lyrics are really easy to speak and the thoughts come, hopefully the music can take you to that next place of really connecting with the characters. That’s what I think Dan and Tom do so beautifully with the music in this film. We’re not trying to convince people that the pop fantasy world is real, but by the time we’ve won them on that, you get to a moment toward the end where my mom and I sing “My Man, Your Boy” in the kitchen, and it’s as if we’re just speaking to each other.
So it was more like musical dialogue…
LP: Yeah, exactly. We recorded a lot of live vocals. Before we shot anything, we sung everything and put down a track, and then we sang everything on the day as well. It was really nice to be able to act in these scenes with Max, and like he said, singing was just like speaking to him, but with a backing track.
During the new song written for the film, “This Was Me,” which Hugo performs, we see footage of Princess Diana meeting with AIDS-stricken men. How impactful was that on the British populace in the midst of the Reagan Administration’s disastrous silence?
JB: Diana was a pioneer back at home. I was there during that time, and she did things that other people would not do. She held their hands, she was there, and she led the way. She taught us how to do it, though Elizabeth Taylor did something similar here around that time as well. There was a law passed in Britain called Section 28 in which you were banned from promoting homosexuality in any way. That put people in awful positions because it placed them outside communities, and therefore, violence went towards them. When you put people outside the community, the community can shift onto them. The whole HIV/AIDS epidemic was in our lives and we lost people. I want to make sure that this story is fully told across generations because it does teach something. At the very center of our film is joy, but it’s joy combined with passion, and I wanted to make sure that there is a strength behind that joy.
MH: The cross-generational mutual understanding and process of retelling and informing is so crucial. In that sequence, Jamie isn’t aware of half the things that Hugo shows him. With shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” I feel like drag is in the forefront of the media and fashion, which is so brilliant and is making it a lot easier for people to step into themselves. Hopefully movies like this will continue to help people step into themselves in an easy way, but I think it’s really important to understand that it wasn’t even close to that way back in the day. This cross-generational communication helps us understand that drag isn’t just a TV show. It’s a revolution to go forth and be who you are. Hugo also learns things from Jamie. We wanted to show how important it is to bridge that gap through openness and a willingness to continue conversation.
While growing up, I found that British coming-of-age dramas had more realistic portrays of sexuality and identity in shows such as “Skins” and most recently, “Sex Education.”
JB: The Brits’ relationship to sexuality is as complex as the Americans’. You get over to Europe and they open up a bit more in many ways. I think what British television tries to do is push a little bit, so shows like “Skins” are actually pushing the boundaries. We’re quite willing to have that in Britain.
MH: Channel 4 aired “Skins,” and Film4, which Channel 4 owns, produced our film.
JB: But sexuality is a complex thing. It pushes everybody’s buttons in many different ways. With Jamie, sexuality is not front and center. His story is about identity. Jamie doesn’t have a boyfriend that he’s pining for.
MH: Maybe in the sequel, who knows… [laughs]
I wish this film existed twenty years ago for that boy at my high school talent show.
JB: But it’s never too late. I’d like to feel that somebody in their fifties and sixties can watch this film and, like Hugo, be woken up again and realize that the time is now to be who you are. Maybe you didn’t get to do that when you were sixteen, but you can still do it now.
What are you excited to portray on film moving forward?
LP: I think that it’s important to have queer films and marginalized films made by people from those groups. I definitely think that telling stories about women and women of color and queer women of color is an important avenue that needs to be more mainstream as well.
MH: I want more projects on mental health that aren’t completely sensationalized and traumatic, so we can start opening up conversations about normalizing that subject.
JB: It’s about who gets to tell the stories and what stories you tell. That’s the most important thing—who gets to tell the stories and who the gatekeepers are to telling those stories. People find their own ways, but I think what is needed is for people to feel represented on a platform as big as Amazon.