It’s a true story that seems almost too tidy: a Neo-Nazi attempts to escape the white supremacist movement after finding a good woman who loves him and believes he can change, but his attempts are thwarted by both his ruthless skinhead family and the scores of “white power” tattoos that cover his face and body. The real-life experience of Byron Widner bred the 2011 documentary “Erasing Hate,” which focused on Widner’s months-long process to erase his tattoos and prove his worth to society, but Guy Nattiv’s narrative feature “Skin” is consumed by the years leading up to Widner’s apparent redemption.
Finding a leading man willing to undergo the necessary physical and mental work was daunting. Producer Oren Moverman had the bright eye to cast Jamie Bell, but the actor was initially resistant. He’d just come off making “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and admitted he “couldn’t really see myself as that kind of a character.” Still, he met with Nattiv and was struck by how much time the filmmaker spent “immersing himself with this world.” And then, of course, the world right outside his door proved to be an uncomfortable inspiration.
“Just the reflection of what was happening around me, on the front page of almost paper, the lead story of most cable news channels, I felt, ‘Well, hang on a sec,'” Bell said in a recent interview. “There is an urgency and an immediacy to this movie that I don’t think I can sit around and think about it. It’s happening now, and we should make it immediately.”
While it took a few more months to get the project together, it was completed in time to world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it’s looking for a buyer eager to snap up an eerily timely story. Meanwhile, Bell is still dealing with it.
Bell found that boning up on wide range of hate groups was easier than he expected. “When I first thought about it, I was like, ‘It’s gonna be so difficult. It’s a subculture who exists in the shadows. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be in amongst these people?’ That’s just not the case,” he said. “We live next to it.”
The actor spoke with Widner at length — oddly enough, the first time they talked, it was on the day of the Charlottesville rally — and when they met in person, Bell was eager to hear everything and he wasn’t at all interested in playing nice.
“I was very honest with him, saying, ‘I’m gonna ask you things which will probably make you feel uncomfortable and make you try and remember things you probably would rather forget. And if you’ll ask yourself things that I’m sure you don’t want to ask yourself. I’m gonna hold you, obviously, in intense judgment. As long as you’re okay with that, we can proceed,'” Bell said. “And he was incredibly transparent and very generous with his time.”
Despite spending so much time with Widner and embodying him in the film, Bell still struggles with the bigger questions that “Skin” asks about redemption, forgiveness, and holding accountable people who do terrible things.
“Truthfully, I think I find forgiveness very difficult,” he said. “I think that’s just a flaw in my human nature, I really do. I think if you fuck up, I think you have to be held accountable. … Going into this movie, I was always afraid of, are we letting him off the hook? Are we letting these people off the hook? Are we kind of letting this whole thing fall by the wayside and saying, ‘It’s a film, and he has to have his third-act moments, where he realizes that he’s done wrong’? So I was hesitant as hell to do a lot of the scenes.”
Changing his look physically helped Bell get into character. He gained 20 pounds for the role, a hefty ask of his typically lithe frame. “I’ve never weighed more than 145 pounds my entire life,” Bell said. “I’m an incredibly lean, spritely kind of person. … But even just trying to do that was very difficult. I didn’t do very well. I wanted to do more, but it was just proving so hard. But I couldn’t quite do it.”
Makeup artist Stephen Bettles created a set of prosthetic teeth, based on Widner’s own mouth, to fit over Bell’s teeth. A tiny piece of a prosthetic was placed on top of the actor’s nose, to hint at the kind of nose-breaking brawls the character has been in long before we meet him. He shaved his head, and dark-brown contacts transformed Bell’s green eyes.
And then there were the tattoos. Some days, the application of the temporary tattoos, designed to mirror Widner’s own, would only take two hours to complete; on days when Bell needed to film scenes that required his entire body to be inked, it could take up to four hours. While Bell sounds relatively zen about the whole thing, there were a few days that proved difficult.
“If we didn’t have enough of a turnaround, I would have to wear the tattoos overnight,” Bell said. “So sometimes, over the weekend, I’d be wandering around Kingston, New York, with full makeup on, full tattoos, everything. It’s weird, because people actually don’t look at you. I think they kind of clock it out of the corner of their eye, and they go, ‘Oh, shit. I’m not looking at that.’ Or, ‘That’s like a monster. That really looks like a monster.’ And so then they just kind of really ignore you.”
Bell was often able to diffuse awkward situations by trotting out his own “quite nice and very British” accent, but those days were formative for him. He melted into the role, even when he didn’t want to. That may have been Nattiv’s intention. “I think Guy just wanted, when he looked at me, he didn’t want to see me, almost to the point where I was like, ‘why didn’t you just cast somebody else?,'” Bell said with a laugh.
The answer is probably because Bell isn’t at all content with trotting out easy answers about empathizing with his character or giving him a heartwarming redemption arc. Asked what he hopes audiences will get out of the film, Bell didn’t have a snappy soundbite.
“I’m gonna give you a very ambiguous answer, in that, I don’t know, because I don’t know how to feel about him myself, or what he’s done,” Bell said. “Listen, I think anyone who’s willing to put themselves through that much pain and torture for two years, to remove something, probably realizes that they didn’t make the best choices in life. And through all of that rehabilitation and through all of that pain and healing, hopefully, realizes that he’s hurt people and that he marginalized people and threatened people and everything else, and that he has to deal with that alone.”
He stopped himself. “Weirdly, I can’t tell if I’m talking about Bryon the character or Bryon the person,” Bell said. “But I don’t know. I really struggle with this one. … Knowing Bryon, and having spent time with him, I don’t think that violence and hate define who he is as a person, at all. That’s my own opinion of him.”
“Skin” makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 8. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.