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‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ portrays moving coming out story – as drag queen

More than two and a half years ago, British actor Max Harwood was a second-year student at a London drama school when, at the insistence of one of his good friends, he decided to audition for the title role in “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” the film adaptation of the Olivier-nominated, coming-of-age musical, which arrives Friday on Prime Video.

Despite not having an agent or any professional acting experience, Harwood’s initial self-taped audition — in which he introduced himself and told a story about how he and his sister used to dress up as Rizzo and Danny from “Grease,” respectively, and perform mini-musicals for their grandmother in their living room — stood out in a sea of over 3,500 young hopefuls. And after an arduous,  monthslong audition process, which included singing, dancing and acting in drag, Harwood was cast in the lead role as a teenager who dreams of escaping the confines of his blue-collar English town to become a drag queen.

Adapted from Jenny Popplewell’s 2011 television documentary, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,” which centers on a boy named Jamie Campbell in a small former mining town in England, the film adaptation is directed by Jonathan Butterell and written by Tom MacRae, with music composed by Dan Gillespie Sells — three of the creators of the stage musical. (Anne Dudley is also credited alongside Sells for the score.)

As his classmates plan their livelihoods after graduation, Jamie New (played by Harwood) mulls over telling his classmates that he wants to be a drag queen — and that he wants to wear a dress to prom. While his best friend, Pritti (Lauren Patel), and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire), shower him with unwavering support and local drag legend Hugo Battersby/Miss Loco Chanelle (Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant) mentors him ahead of his debut stage performance, Jamie must put up with an unsupportive father (Ralph Ineson), an uninspired and traditional teacher (Sharon Horgan) and some ignorant school kids, who all attempt to overlook and disparage his astronomical aspirations.

Having seen the musical when it was first staged in London’s West End, Harwood was immediately drawn to the creative team’s ability to tell “a universal story about someone who wants to step in to be their most authentic self,” he told NBC News in a recent interview.

But while he feels that the film, at its core, tells “an incredibly simple story,” Harwood is quick to reiterate that Jamie isn’t struggling to come out as gay — he’s struggling to come out as a drag queen — which, he recognizes, subverts a common trope of coming-of-age, LGBTQ stories. “Art imitates life, so the more that we can tell stories that go beyond tropes and stereotypes, the more we aren’t [seen as] tropes and stereotypes in the media,” he said.

“Jamie knows who he is, and knows that from the off, and is waiting for a community around him to shift and catch up and make a safe space for him to do so,” he continued. “Jamie’s journey is going to continue to evolve and is ever changing, but he doesn’t take humongous steps. His journey’s more physical and less evolutionary than the people around him.”

Throughout the process of shooting the film adaptation, Harwood was also able to speak with Jamie Campbell, the musical’s inspiration, an experience that the 23-year-old actor described as “incredibly influential” when developing his approach to playing his onscreen counterpart.

“I got to delve really deep beyond the documentary that he made when he was 16 that started this whole thing, and I got to know him and study him, his ‘isms’ and his characters,” Harwood explained. “I got to put all of that first-hand knowledge and experience into my performance, and I was so grateful that he was willing to be involved in the project.”

While Harwood was a little more introverted and bookish and not as confident in his own skin at the age of 16, he admitted that, like Jamie New, he “was still the person who was dreaming out the window.”

“I definitely put up with some interesting people at school, but I dealt with them in the same way as Jamie,” he said “I wasn’t the victim. I gave it back as good as I got, because I had really supportive friends.”

“As an actor, you find things that are easy for you to tap into and other things you work to understand the character more,” he added. “I enjoyed the challenges of understanding and [having] empathy throughout this project of playing the part.”

As the debate surrounding which actors should be allowed to play which roles continues to evolve in the entertainment industry, Harwood feels that “we need more queer actors playing queer roles, but the problem really truly sits with who’s telling the story in terms of the people that have written it and are directing it,” and it’s the responsibility of those people in positions of power to cast a wider net for talent.

“Acting is transformative, and sexuality is fluid, and I won’t be defined by my sexuality, but I wasn’t vetted for this role,” he said. “No one asked me if I was gay or if I was queer, and I don’t think we should have to disclose that when we’re going up for roles … I feel like, in this film, there’s no problem with that, because it’s a story specifically about a queer, young person that’s being told by the creators of this project — all three of them are queer.”

One of the biggest challenges of the role, Harwood said, was transforming into Jamie’s drag alter ego, Mimi Me. Given that he had never done drag before, Harwood, who was already a “huge fan” of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the  art form in general, said that “it was all hands on deck” to get him ready for Jamie’s big stage performance. He worked tirelessly with a heels coach named Shawn Niles to learn how to move in Jamie’s sequined, high-heeled shoes and the choreographer Kate Prince to expand his knowledge of various styles of dance. He also worked closely with the production’s heads of department — Butterell, the director; Nadia Stacey, the hair and make-up designer; and Guy Speranza, the costume designer — “to talk about what I was comfortable moving in” and what Jamie would be able to find and use in his environment, Harwood said.

And while this film is an unabashed celebration of drag, freedom and acceptance, it also pays tribute to the individuals who fought for LGBTQ rights — and those whose lives were tragically cut short during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Having studied general world history in college, including the Stonewall Riots and Section 28 in the  United Kingdom (which prohibited local authorities and schools from “promoting” homosexuality), Harwood said that he was able to build on his existing knowledge of LGBTQ history by meeting people “who were there on those marches” — which included the three creators of this musical.

“I was learning their personal experiences, and they threw so many of their experiences into that section in the film where Richard’s character takes my character back in time and shows him how it used to be in the ‘olden days,’” Harwood said. “But it’s such an important moment in the piece, and to be telling that now is super important, because it’s important to remember the shoulders of the people that we’re standing on.”

With “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” set to launch on Prime Video in over 200 countries, Harwood hopes that Jamie’s story will be a beacon of light for people from all walks of life around the world. When asked if he felt a sense of pressure to bring representation to younger LGBTQ audiences who have otherwise felt underrepresented in mainstream entertainment, Harwood said that he feels “incredibly lucky for the position I’m in and to be a person to look to in the community,” but he also doesn’t think that “society would ask the same of our straight counterparts for roles that they do.”

“My story is very unique, and every story within this community is so diverse,” Harwood explained. “I love that this film speaks to that community — it will do amazing things for queer young kids, and I hope it really does — but in no way can I possibly put that pressure on myself to feel responsible for an entire community of people whose stories are not mine. I don’t think it’s fair of the media to put pressure on queer people to be the spokesperson for entire communities of people.”

Harwood hopes that his visibility as a queer actor will “give courage to other queer artists to not put that pressure on themselves” to represent an incredibly diverse community, “because we’re not asking that of people that aren’t queer.”

“I know we’re not at that stage yet, but we should get to a stage where, I suppose, people like Jamie can be the every person — everyone can relate to them, when people truly see our stories are universal and not just a queer story. Then, maybe we can be responsible for everyone,” he added. “I’m saying that with a full heart, and I love my community fully, but there are so many more stories to tell.”

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Prime Video.

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