In 2018, Max Harwood skipped school to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on stage in London’s West End.
He loved it. He felt connected to the title character. Yet despite his background in musical theater, when a friend encouraged him to audition for the big-screen version, Harwood was hesitant.
He wasn’t sure if he was ready to play the lead in the British coming-of-age musical about an aspiring teenage drag queen. However, director Jonathan Butterell disagreed.
“He acted, he sang, we put him in drag, we danced him — we did lots of due diligence to make sure he could do the job,” Butterell said during a recent stop in Dallas. “But I saw the magic from that very first video he sent in.”
The crowd-pleaser with lavish pop production numbers opens in theaters this week before debuting later this month on Amazon Prime Video.
Harwood plays Jamie, an effeminate Sheffield teenager targeted by bullies at school for being different. Still, he’s determined to follow his dreams of becoming a performer, with the full support of his divorced mother (Sarah Lancashire) and his best friend (Lauren Patel).
His goals are the stuff of daydreams until his 16th birthday, when Jamie is empowered by a pair of sequined ruby-red heels. His mentor becomes Hugo (Richard E. Grant), a former drag queen with a tragic past who owns a secondhand couture shop.
Harwood, 23, said his reluctance about the role disappeared once he reached the set, where he felt widespread behind-the-scenes support.
“I had never worked with cameras or a crew before, but I was able to transfer a lot of my discipline and stamina and skill set to this film,” said Harwood, who studied at the prestigious Guildford School of Acting for a year aside from his musical experience.
The musical, inspired by a documentary about the real-life Jamie Campbell, opened at a regional theater in Sheffield in 2017. After just 14 performances, Butterell — along with writers Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells — were approached about a film adaptation.
“The music feels like it comes from people’s radios. Some of it feels like music Jamie would listen to, and other times feels ingrained in the characters,” Butterell said. “Music cuts through to the heart like nothing else can, in a way.”
Making his feature film debut, Butterell said the movie version enabled him to visually contrast the gritty intimacy of Jamie’s reality with the grand scale of his fantasies.
“It allowed my imagination to completely and utterly fly,” he said. “Nobody ever suggested that I wasn’t going to direct it. I felt like I knew this world inside-out. I felt supported from the very beginning.”
After being paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the musical recently resumed its touring run in the United Kingdom. It will open for the first time in the United States in early 2022.
Harwood said the film’s universal message of inclusion and acceptance should resonate across cultural backgrounds and geographic boundaries.
“People can find something within each character that they can draw from or relate to. It’s a story about a gay character who wants to be a drag queen, but essentially it’s about a young person who wants to take their place in the world,” Harwood said. “Whoever you are or wherever you’re from, old or young, you have gone through that process.”