The first time Max Harwood watched Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, he cried. The young actor was overwhelmed: not with his own performance but the performances and presence of his castmates, many of whom, like Harwood, were making their film debut. (Indeed, Harwood was making his anything debut.) Seeing them all on screen, seeing what they all had created, together, caused Harwood to quite literally weep with pride and happiness.
“Joy, joy, joy, joy, joy!” is how he describes the experience.
It was the prom scene. As a childhood lover of Disney Channel – The Lizzie McGuire Movie, High School Musical – Harwood recognises the narrative and spiritual importance of a prom. It’s where romances are sealed and dreams come true.
“The moment the protagonist wins,” in his words. “It has that essence of magic around it. And because it’s me, and it’s this queer character, I sort of felt super-connected to it.”
He won’t be the only one moved to tears when Jamie hits the cinemas. The film tells the true story of Jamie Campbell, a teenager who came out as a drag queen at his school prom. Campbell was the subject of a BBC documentary that inspired a successful West End musical that has now been made into a movie – with Harwood as its lead. His previous acting experience primarily consisted of shows with the Basingstoke Am-Dram society.
You wouldn’t know it. A star is about to be born.
Not that Harwood thinks of himself as a star. He still lives in Basingstoke with his family. Introducing myself as we walk down the Southbank for the photoshoot, I offer a fist bump and he goes in for the hug. When one of the team hands him a chocolate bar, Harwood asks how much he owes them. During our interview at the Bankside Hotel, he speaks confidently, eloquently, all the while fiddling with a cushion on his lap, occasionally hugging it close.
Jamie’s director Jonathan Butterelldescribes Harwood: “He’s as glorious off-camera as he is on. He’s such a people person.” Even when Harwood wasn’t shooting, says Butterell, he’d still be on set, asking questions, offering to help out. “It was a massive shoot. And of course he was scared, of course he had all the fear of a young actor on set for the first time, but he handled himself so brilliantly.”
“It’s a bit ridiculous,” says Harwood of his debut. “First role, first professional acting job, and I have obviously decided to choose the easiest, subtlest role I could think of.”
A college friend told him about the casting call circulating on Twitter: a musical needed a leading man who just couldn’t be found. “I think they had been looking for a whole year for this part,” says Harwood. “They’d seen a couple of thousand people already.”
He didn’t have an agent so he sent an email. Then an audition tape, telling the story of how he and his sister used to perform musical shows in the lounge for their nan. “We used to dress up in tea towels, packet wigs, my mum’s bed sheets and stuff. Piss about, basically!”
For one performance of Grease, Harwood insisted on playing Rizzo. He donned a beehive wig, wore a sheet for a skit, and belted out ‘Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee’.
“All I remember is giving it beans – singing alone to it, dancing around. Nothing specific: it wasn’t a fully choreographed production number. But my nan absolutely wet herself. She couldn’t breathe!”
Butterell was aware of the social media SOS put out by casting director Shaheen Baig. Hundreds of hopeful young actors sent in their tapes. Butterell watched all of them, searching for his protagonist. He found Harwood.
“In that little one-minute video that he sent in, you could just feel something rather magical about him,” Butterell tells me. “The actor somehow tells you that they are going to play the part. Max did that from the very beginning.” In the finished film, says Butterell, “that same magic that he had in that initial tape is there on screen.”
When a young actor takes on a potentially iconic role, there’s a risk that role may subsume them. (Jamie Bell took years to escape the tap-dancing shadow of Billy Elliot, while for many Matthew Broderick will be forever Ferris Bueller.) Harwood is quick to list his many differences from Jamie. “I’m not from Sheffield, I’ve not got bleached blonde hair, I don’t want to be a drag queen. There are so many elements of the role that don’t line up with me.”
And the elements of the role that do? He identifies with Jamie’s creativity, the schoolboy dreaming to escape the classroom and take flight. More depressingly, the inevitable abuse faced by a young queer person, even today. “Being called faggot or gay. All of those things I was called.”
He speaks briskly, the verbal equivalent of a shoulder brush-off. Zero fucks given. “Call it bullying if you want to call it bullying. I personally don’t ever feel like I was ever bullied because I gave it back as good as I got.
“But yeah, those experiences at school and feeling othered because I wasn’t doing everything that all the boys were doing. I had lots of girlfriends, I wasn’t really friends with the boys. All of those sorts of things that Jamie is, that was my experience at school, too.”
I’m very glad Harwood returned all taunts with interest. “Oh, I did!” he says brightly. “I’ve always had a group of really strong friends. I wasn’t as brave as Jamie at school, I wasn’t out, I wasn’t gay, but my friends would defend me to the high heavens when I said I fancied the girl in Geography class or whatever. They obviously – I mean, maybe they didn’t know. Who knows?”
Only a few years have passed since Harwood’s schooldays but he already sees a notable difference in the conversations being had and the role models now visible for kids like him. (Or kids unlike him; different in different ways.) I note that Jamie – and therefore Max himself – will likely become another such role model.
“That’s slight pressure, but I really hope so.” He asked the studio to ensure there was a sizeable LGBTQ, non-binary and drag presence at the film’s LA premiere. They asked him to send over some suggestions; Harwood responded with approximately 100 names.
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He stresses that Jamie is for everyone. “You’re looking to anyone who feels like the outcast – and those that don’t as well. It’s about how we take our place in the world at that crucial stage in school where we’re finding out who we are. And that’s what the movie is about. As much as it is a queer film, and it’s amazing for that, it’s so much more.”
The only time in our conversation I sense hesitance is when I mention how his life will change once the film is released. Jonathan Butterell has no doubts that big things await for his leading man. “In a few weeks’ time, the world is going to get to know Max and everything that’s about him. Because his personality and his heart is on that screen. People are going to get to know Max Harwood and that’s going to shift things.”
“Have I thought about it?” says Harwood, not sounding overly enamoured with the prospect of impending stardom. “Yeah, I’ve thought about it. I don’t really know what thoughts I have had about it. Just that it’s probably going to continue to overwhelm me and continue to change.
“I’m just a human and I’m going to keep evolving. I’m going to keep changing. Personally as me, creatively in the work that I do. There’s a little bit of me in this film that I’ve left but there’s a whole lot more of me that I don’t even know about.”
Harwood has only just embarked on his journey of self-discovery. He wants to be in a superhero movie. He wants to do a biopic that isn’t a musical. (A recent tweet read: “I just need the call from a casting director for the Tom Daley biopic then maybe I’ll have a reason to get fit.”) He wants to release music. He wants to be happy and challenge himself and make a difference. He will almost certainly be successful in all those ambitions and more.
I suspect we will be talking about Max Harwood for many years to come. The conversation starts now.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is out 17 September in cinemas and on Amazon Prime.