Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Reverend's Interview: Hitting the Road with Joe Bell

Growing up as an LGBTQ teenager is not without its traumatic moments. Most of us weather them but, sadly, some have endured so much bullying that suicide is the only option they can see to have some peace.

Such was the case for Jadin Bell, a 15-year old Oregon boy who took his own life in 2013 after months of abuse from his schoolmates. He was bullied for being gay both in person and online. Though tragic, his death subsequently raised the national profile of youth bullying and gay victimization. This has led to greater precautions against these in schools and society.

Jadin's death also motivated his grieving father, Joe, to take a dramatic step to honor his son's memory. Joe Bell embarked on a walk across America in April, 2013. He intended it to last two years as he would speak about his late son's experience to whomever would listen to him. Joe's life would also end prematurely in October, 2013, when he was struck and killed in Colorado by a semi driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Jadin and his father are being commemorated this month with the release of a major motion picture. Titled Joe Bell, it tells each of their stories in deeply moving yet ultimately inspiring fashion. Notably, the screenplay was written by Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. The film will be released in theaters this Friday, July 23rd, having had its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Joe Bell garnered rave reviews, both for the film as a whole and for the lead performances by Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg as Joe and young Reid Miller as Jadin.

As Wahlberg states in the movie's press notes: "With movie theaters reopening, we are excited to partner with exhibitors to bring the extraordinary story of Joe Bell and his son Jadin to audiences around the country." Additionally, the film's producers note: "Joe Bell has always been a labor of love and a story that we feel is necessary and resonant, not only first and foremost for the LGBTQ+ community but universally for parents and caretakers at large."

Co-star Reid Miller, who is now 21 years old, has previously appeared in such TV series as Play by Play, You, The Fosters and Training Day. He played the lead role in the campy holiday-horror film, Santa Jaws, and has also written and directed several short films. Miller recently spoke with Reverend about this powerful new entry in the LGBTQ film genre.

REV: I've been researching you and you are a very talented young man. Congratulations on your success thus far!
RM: Thank you so much!

REV: Had you heard about Jadin and Joe Bell prior to this project? What was your reaction to the script when you first read it?
RM: I actually hadn't (heard about them). I remember hearing little things from my friends about Jadin taking his own life but no real details. When I read the script it was a visceral reaction, which feels like an understatement. I grew up in a small Texas town and endured isolation and bullying at that age. No one should have to go through that. It was hard reading about what Jadin went through to lead him to do what he did. It makes me mad at the people who made him feel that way. He was such a light in his family and in the community.

REV: What was the casting process like for you? Did you have to audition and do callbacks?
RM: Oh yeah. Auditions and callbacks. There was so much pressure to get the casting right. They initially wanted a name actor in the role, but Jadin was young and had a very specific look. Plus, I felt I understood what Jadin went through, at least parts of it. The process was pretty rigorous. I did an audition tape in early 2019 and got a callback right away. But then there was a change of directors (from Cary Fukunaga, who moved on to the new James Bond adventure No Time to Die, to Reinaldo Marcus Green) and I didn't hear anything for months. When I finally did, there was a series of meetings with the director and Mark Wahlberg at Mark's house. I felt like things were going well but didn't know for sure. Finally, Reinaldo said "You're the guy!"

REV: Speaking of Mark Wahlberg, you have great father-son chemistry on screen. How was your experience working with him?
RM: It was great. He's a very talented guy, a very nice guy. He also created a very safe environment where I felt safe to be put on the spot since I really had to express my own woundedness while playing Jadin.

REV: How have viewers responded to the film and your performance thus far?
RM: It's always been very powerful reactions, sometimes very visceral and emotional. Some have said how they feel I brought Jadin back to life, which is great to hear but especially from members of his family.

REV: What do you hope viewers take away from the movie or the Bells' story?
RM: I say this a lot but I hope people gain a greater sense of empathy and acceptance. There is so much hate right now, especially online where there is a lot of bullying. I wish people would just take a step back and say "It's not all about me." Empathy is so important.

REV: There is a lot of debate going on in LGBTQ circles about whether only LGBTQ actors should play LGBTQ roles. As an actor, what do you think?
RM: I've heard this a lot, especially in my circles because of my age. I think it all comes down to who is the best person for the role and the story. We're living in an intense time right now and everyone is so sensitive!

REV: I agree completely. So, what are you working on now? What are some of your goals as an actor and filmmaker?
RM: I have some stuff coming up, now that we're finally at a point where people are getting vaccinated and auditions and things are opening up again. I just finished a short film that I directed and wrote that I want to develop as a feature. I'm all about action! I want to be Tom Cruise! Or his son. Can't he have a kid in one of his movies? Can't he be a father for once? (laughs.)

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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