BELLE ON EARTH
The full interview with actress Camilla Belle that everybody's talking about.
The slate gray domes of the Griffith Park Observatory cling to the southern slope of Mount Hollywood like a cluster of barnacles. Sitting atop the low-lying white structure, the cupolas lend the building the appearance of an Eastern European palace, albeit a small one; the manicured, verdant lawns in front of it are an oasis in a mountain range of dusty, ocherous browns. It’s easy to picture Raymond Chandler or Nathanael West standing up here, looking down over the Los Angeles Basin—which is littered with the ungainly detritus of a metropolis that stretches to the horizon—imagining depravity rife in the streets below. Another pop-culture reference, though, is more explicit: James Dean’s character, Jim Stark, has a knife fight here in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Later that same year, James Dean would die in a car accident; the bronze bust of the actor since erected here has itself become a significant monument, serving as a landmark to the teenage superheroes of Runaways, the Marvel Comics series. Not far beyond the effigy is the Hollywood sign—it seems so close you could hit it with a rock.
This story was published on January 22, 2009.
Yesterday, I bumped into Camilla Belle in the lobby of my hotel and we decided to meet for this interview, our third in three years, here, high above the lobbies and restaurants usually designated for such things. But today is Veterans Day, and the tiny, winding mountain roads leading to the Observatory are congested with traffic—the parking lot reached capacity hours ago. Belle has managed to slip her green Mini Cooper into a space near the entrance—half in the dirt, half on the road—but embarrassingly, I have to drive past her twice (once going up the hill, once going down) looking for a space. Eventually, after communicating by yelling through open windows over the irate honking of horns, we agree to meet up at the Observatory after I have finally managed to park my car. Ten minutes later, I find Belle leaning over the railing looking at the view, her hair blowing in the breeze like the subject of a shampoo commercial.
“Isn’t this just indescribably beautiful?” she asks rhetorically, before I have a chance to apologize. “I mean, it doesn’t get any better than this—just look at it.”
It is an exceptionally irradiant day. The winter sun has burnt away the veil of smog that often lingers over the city, allowing unparalleled views: Downtown lies to the southeast, Hollywood to the south, and immediately below, the neighborhood of Los Feliz. “I haven’t been up here in ages,” Belle says, fishing around for her camera in her large, black Gucci handbag. “My friends come hiking here all the time, but I forgot how amazing it is.” We walk all the way around the building looking for a quiet place to talk, and decide on the balcony of a café built onto the cliff face, just below the Observatory.
Sitting across a table from Belle, the sunlight so bright we both have to wear sunglasses—it’s impossible to ignore just how damn pretty she is. The daughter of a Brazilian mother and American father, Belle’s olive skin and coal-dark eyes make her seem at once exotic and everyday—the girl next door who never lived anywhere even remotely nearby. She’s dressed in jeans; a white cap-sleeved T-shirt with a deep-V neckline; a thin, coral-colored blazer that she soon removes in the midday heat; and a panoply of jewelry. Around her neck is a rosary-style string of pearl-like beads, and her wrists each bear a clutter of bracelets. Belle was wearing one of these, a ribbon inscribed with the Portugese words LEMBRANCA DO SENHOR DO BONFIM DA BAHIA (it’s the name of the church in Salvador, Bahia, where the bracelets, worn for good luck, are from) when we met in 2006, the last time the actress was on the cover of this magazine.
“That seems like so long ago!” she says, laughing. “Has
it really been that long?” She pauses and plays with her dark, shoulder-length hair. “It has definitely been an interesting few years. It’s been difficult, I think, as far as making the right choices….” Back then, Belle was an indie princess flush with the critical success of Rebecca Miller’s brilliant The Ballad of Jack and Rose, who was just beginning to dabble in more mainstream studio fare, specifically the horror flick When a Stranger Calls. The film, a remake of Simon West’s 1979 original of the same name, was massively successful at the box office. “It was a big step for me,” she says, “doing a film for the purposes of doing a studio film and getting noticed.” Belle’s next project—Roland Emmerich’s $105 million epic, 10,000 BC, which followed the trials and tribulations of a young mammoth hunter—was more commercial still, and garnered her yet more attention. The abundance of Neolithic animals and cavemen, however, was something of a distraction.
“That was a huge choice for me,” Belle says. “I was really not keen on doing it in the beginning.” She smiles gently. “Luckily, my mom has an incredible business sense, and she saw the potential the film had. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous!’ And my mom was like, ‘Camilla, read it again with an open mind.’” After being convinced that the pros outweighed the cons, Belle spoke to Emmerich about the role. “The character in the script I read was an idiot. She did not do anything, and was just really stupid and weak and dumb. For me, no matter what film I’m in, it has to be a strong character. And he changed it for me. I’m grateful now that I did it. My life experience was incredible, and I learned so much. All of us grew up a lot during those six months away from home, traveling to places like New Zealand and Africa…. It presented incredible opportunities for me as a person… ” She trails off, as if hearing her own platitudes. “The work was frustrating,” she concedes. “I felt like a puppet at times. I just had to realize, ‘OK, I’m not going to be challenged as an actress.’ You have to approach it in the sense: ‘This isn’t an acting piece, it’s a business choice.’”
Such erudition is the result of a lifetime spent as a working actress; Belle’s future, too, seems laid out before her. This is largely thanks to her mother, Deborah, who has managed her daughter’s career since Camilla (who was born in L.A.) was a baby, winning her a spot in a commercial when she was nine months old, and carving out an unobtrusively successful path through Hollywood via TV movies (the first when Camilla was five), feature films (A Little Princess, in 1995), TV shows, and the other superfluities of fame (advertising campaigns for Miu Miu and Vera Wang’s fragrance, Princess). “People were telling my mom, ‘She’s such a cute baby,’” Belle says. “She’s from Brazil and had no idea what any of this was, so she kind of went, ‘OK, this will be fun,’ and ended up booking jobs right away. It’s always been a team effort since I was”—she holds her hand near the floor—“this big.” Belle recalls the first film she made, the TV movie Trouble Shooters: Trapped Beneath the Earth.
“I was the little girl trapped in the building. There was water everywhere, it was really dramatic, but I was laughing and smiling and my mom was like, ‘Camilla! Your character
is scared she’s going to die! I know you’re having a lot of fun, but just remember where your character is right now.’ I had to keep reminding myself that I couldn’t be having too much fun. I remember that so clearly, to this day.”
While making 10,000 BC, in Namibia, Belle learned that filming was behind schedule by a month, which would delay her return to the States and make it impossible for her to take her place at Columbia University, where she had planned to study languages. (She can speak fluent Portugese and Spanish, and is learning French and Italian; she’s also, incidentally, a concert-level pianist.) “It was a big blow,” she says somberly. “I really had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, so I had a lot of life talks with my mom….” Belle’s father had already moved her stuff into her dorm room in New York, and the actress had her classes picked out. “I was ready to go,” she says. “And I had to decide, ‘OK, what direction am I going to go in life right now?’ I made the decision to focus on work, and to take advantage of this time. But school is there, and I think the most important thing is to continue learning. I did go to high school. I know what normalcy is, I guess.”
There’s a definite sadness about Belle as she recounts the story. And despite her claiming otherwise, it really does seem as though she genuinely regrets not being able to take a break from Hollywood for a while to study. I ask her if the circumstances upset her. “Yeah, but, on the other side, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be here with you at the Observatory talking about being an actress,” she says matter-of-factly. “I think life throws surprises at you, and you just have to kind of go with it, and see the best in things. Everything happens for a reason, that’s the way I see it.”
AT 22, BELLE IS REASSURINGLY GROUNDED, regarding her profession from a distance that others who have come to fame—or success—suddenly, rarely do. It’s a refreshing perspective on the Hollywood machine—with which she seems to have more of a heuristic relationship than an infatuation.
“I couldn’t just be reading scripts all day,” she says. “That would bore me to tears. I’d get extremely frustrated. I just love simple things. Like being here. I could just sit here all day and take pictures and look at everything. You have to have interests or you can’t bring anything to your roles either, if you’re just acting all the time and not having a really fulfilling personal life. I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.” (A few days later, a story that Belle is dating Joe Jonas, of the singing fraternal trio, breaks on a gossip website; Belle starred in the brothers’ video for the single “Lovebug,” last fall.) Her take on her career is similarly modest. “I think you have to remind yourself why you’re in this business. I’m not here to do big blockbusters all the time, because it’s really unfulfilling on a creative level. Films like The Ballad of Jack and Rose and [indie coming-of-age tale] The Chumscrubber are what I really want to do. That’s why I’m in this business, that’s why I’m here talking to you.”
Belle’s next film, though, Paul McGuigan’s sci-fi thriller Push, doesn’t exactly scream “indie.” There is a lot of screaming in it, though, mostly performed by two young Chinese men encumbered with perhaps the worst facial hair ever committed to film, who use their remarkably loud voices to disable their enemies. In this case, that’s Belle’s character, Alyssa English, along with Chris Evans’s Nick Gant, and Dakota Fanning’s Cassie Holmes—all of whom (and bear with me here) possess different kinds of telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities inherited from their parents, who took part in secret government drug trials during World War II. The agency that performed these trials, known as the Division, is still active and determined to find the second generation “operatives” who have these paranormal talents. A chase through Hong Kong ensues, which is complicated by the presence of the Chinese Mafia. There is definitely a lot of recycled material here (hello, Heroes) but McGuigan, who also directed Gangster No. 1 and Wicker Park, makes good use of Kowloon (the film was shot on location there), and the performances are solid. And, in Fanning, Belle found a kindred spirit. “She’s never studied acting either,” Belle says, “and it was fascinating seeing someone so much younger than me—we both approach acting in the same natural way.” She laughs quietly to herself. “I guess that’s what happens when you work your entire life.”
A child runs over, screaming, and then accidentally clatters into our table. “I read the script and I was a little confused as to whether I wanted to do it or not, because it could’ve gone either way,” says Belle, as the boy steadies himself, then runs off. “It could’ve been really silly or really edgy. But the way Paul does his camera work is so artistic, as is the music. It’s a really cool film, like his other ones. And I got to live in Hong Kong for three months, which was such a huge opportunity for me.” That is all well and good, but not exactly a return to the kind of film that Belle actually seems to enjoy making the most. Fortunately, two other projects Belle is involved with seem to be more aligned with her aesthetic. Three Stories About Joan, Bruce Willis’s first directorial venture, tells the story of a woman at three separate points in her life, each of which is marked by tragedy. Belle plays the title character and Owen Wilson has also been cast, alongside Willis himself. I tell her it seems more of a Camilla Belle kind of movie. “Oh, it is!” she says, laughing. “That’s why I was so excited about it. It’s the most intelligently written script I’ve read in a long, long time.” (It was authored by Chris and Christopher
Alexander, who wrote it over three years while students at
Sarah Lawrence.) Belle recently returned from Louisiana, where they were rehearsing for the film. What’s Willis like as a director? “I was actually really surprised,” she says. “He’s very passionate about the actors. He just wants to spend all the time with us, and we just talked and talked, all about developing relationships and developing the backstory. Everything felt very true to the character, which was very refreshing for me.”
Although Joan is not yet in production, Belle is also appearing in Á Deriva, a Brazilian film entirely in Portuguese, in which she plays Vincent Cassel’s mistress. “It was just an unbelievable experience,” says Belle, clearly excited. “I’ve always wanted to work in Brazil, and I’ve always wanted to work in Portuguese. It’s a very universal film and anyone who doesn’t speak Portuguese can still identify with it and know what’s going on.”
Films like this are clearly treats for Belle—dessert, perhaps, after being made to eat every last brussels sprout on her plate. And while the actress obviously enjoys talking about the films she loves, it’s hard to imagine someone as smart as she is fielding the same banal questions all day at a press junket. “It’s really all a game,” she says. “It’s part of the job, and you have to be aware of that. You can’t start acting as if you’re above it and start being sarcastic and rude to people. It’s just not worth it.” As she has never had any formal acting training, so Belle has never been trained in how to deal with the media. “That happened to my friend Rob [Pattinson],” she says. “For that whole Twilight nonsense, the studio was having them take all these classes. It was the most frustrating thing in the world
because they want you to speak like someone else, not yourself. It’s so silly. And I would be frustrated, too. I couldn’t answer questions any other way than how I would answer them.”
Unlike Pattinson’s, Belle’s career has been a slow and steady one. Although she’s doing well, she’s not exactly famous yet. “Thankfully, it’s nice because things have been very gradual for me,” she says. “Using Rob as an example—it’s been so sudden because Twilight is such a huge phenomenon. I can’t even fathom what that must be like. I don’t think anybody can handle that gracefully unless you are the most secure person on the planet and you have the most incredible family supporting you. I’ve been able to live a really anonymous and somewhat normal life. I have a really strong base at home with my friends and family. I’m older now, I know who I am. I’m not still figuring myself out—I’m past that stage. It’s nice that things are starting to happen for me now that I’m more of an adult and that I’ve lived my life. I’ve grown up and I can handle things.”
As we slowly make our way back down the hill to the cars, Belle continues, “I think that’s why it’s really worked out with my mom,” she says. “She can see things in a kind of business sense that sometimes I can’t, until she shows me. And sometimes I see things on a more creative level that she doesn’t see, so we meet halfway. It’s always worked out, and we’ve always come to the same conclusion, even if we haven’t talked about it. She’s looking out for my best interests: She knows I want to try different things. I don’t want to just do independents. I don’t want to just do big movies. I want to do a musical one day; I’d love to do a comedy. I’m young and I’m still forming my career; I’m able to make choices and show people I can do lots of different things. Now is the prime opportunity to do that.”