Actor Reid Miller was around 13 years old when he first heard about the death of Jadin Bell. The Oregon teenager who died by suicide in 2013 inspired a national conversation about bullying and its effects on LGBTQ youth.
It never occurred to Miller, now 21, that in less than a decade he would get the opportunity to portray Jadin in a feature film. Doing so, he said, was “an honor.”
“Joe Bell” is not an easy story, but it’s one that many, including Jadin’s surviving family, have been committed to telling for years. After Jadin died, his father, Joe Bell, decided to walk across the continental United States spreading awareness about the negative effects of bullying.
Producer Cary Joji Fukunaga stumbled on the story in an article in 2013 and saw in it the possibility for a feature, enlisting the Oscar-winning screenwriting duo behind “Brokeback Mountain,” Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who died this year, to bring it to life. Not long after, Mark Wahlberg signed on to produce and star as Joe Bell, who is coming to terms with the guilt around not doing enough to support and protect his son.
Naturally, the part of Jadin was pivotal and led to a nationwide casting search. Casting director Avy Kaufman brought Miller, a relatively unknown actor, to the attention of the filmmakers. Not only did the Texas native resemble Jadin, but, according to director Reinaldo Marcus Green, he also had an immediate chemistry with Wahlberg.
“He and Mark connected in a way that felt like real life, and this was with no camera, this is just me watching the two of them do a scene in Mark’s room,” Green said. “Jadin had a natural strength about him. He was quite joyous on the outside, but he also had experienced a lot of darkness, and Reid was able to embody all of that.”
As a big fan of the Transformers movies, Miller said he geeked out a bit during his first meeting with Wahlberg, but they quickly got to work and formed a deep bond. Wahlberg, Miller added, treated him as both an artistic equal and like a son. The unique relationship helped him find the emotional strength and vulnerability necessary for the difficult role. And it proved to be a moving experience for Wahlberg too.
“Every time we read a scene together, I got super emotional,” Wahlberg said. “He constantly made me think about my own sons.”
Miller never lost sight of the delicacy of the challenge of portraying Jadin either, which came into even clearer focus when he met Jadin’s mother, Lola Lathrop, one day on set.
“It’s such a sensitive thing. I did my best to portray him as authentically as I could while remembering that it’s not necessarily my job to bring him back but to give his family and friends a piece of him back,” Miller said. “I feel like we did that.”
And he hopes the movie helps to open people’s minds about the ongoing issues around bullying and LQBTQ rights.
“We live in a time where equality and acceptance and unity is unfortunately something we still have to fight for, especially with the LGBTQ community,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of laws passed that are very beneficial to the LGBTQ+ community, but there are still so many things and so many fights to be had for equality. And I hope that this movie softens the hearts of those people who maybe don’t view them as people.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr