The film tells the story of the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980
New to Netflix this week is the biographical action film 6 Days, starring Jamie Bell, Mark Strong and Abbie Cornish as three point-of-view characters in the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege. Bell plays an SAS trooper called Rusty Firmin who’s sent in to save the siege’s 26 hostages. NME caught up with him to discuss the film, its contemporary political resonance, and the projects he has coming up.
Can you explain the real-life story behind the film?
“In 1980, in London, there was a siege on the Iranian Embassy. It’s always been a moment in British history that I’ve been fascinated with because since then, I don’t think we’ve ever had something like that in this country. Especially at the time, it was extraordinary to have a counter-terrorism group going to work on the streets of London. It was just unheard of.”
How does the film tell that story?
“It’s told predominantly from the perspective of three people. Firstly, the chief negotiator. Then there’s the leader of the SAS team that assaults the building. And finally Kate Adie, who was the news reporter on the ground.
“The story’s seen through the eyes of the gunmen who stormed the building, and through the eyes of the hostages. You’ve seen the images of the men dressed in black abseiling down this pristine white building, but you’ve never been inside the building and this movie gives you that opportunity. It takes you, it opens the doors and you get to go inside.”
How does it reference contemporary political issues?
“Well it does so quite directly: we’re still faced with acts of terrorism, and how we deal with it. Clearly, the way we experience it is much different now. It’s a different time. I feel like the Iranian Embassy siege had a cause behind it – there was an importance of being heard, which I don’t think is the first objective [in contemporary terrorism]. The first objective is to inflict damage, message later.
“I don’t know what we do. I have a kid now, he’s four years old and I think everything that happens in the world has more impact for me being a parent. You think about people losing their kids, which is unthinkable. I’m not entirely sure if this movie answers that question. For me at least, the movie is operating on two fronts. There’s two options. You either end things peacefully, diplomatically, empathetically with understanding that these people have a grievance, a cause and there’s a message and someone needs to be heard. Or, with brutal violence, which certainly brings an end to it but at the end of the day, there is a consequence to that action. It’s going to come back to get you in some way.
“I don’t know who the good guys are or the bad guys really in this. I don’t consider the SAS to be on either side of that, they are just players in this play. I don’t know what we’re going to do now. I don’t know how to combat it. I don’t know how to walk down the street and not have that in the back of my head. I don’t want to have it in the back of my head. People say: ‘You can’t live like that! Then they have won!’, with the royal ‘they’. But how can you not live with it in your brain? I’m deeply affected by it. It makes me very anxious. I feel very powerless to a degree. I think we all have to be a little more understanding and have an empathetic aura about us.”
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How did you prepare for the part?
“We did a week’s worth of training – actual training, like weapons training and running scenarios. They’d build a mock-up of a building and we’d have to run through it and clear it. There’d be people in there shooting back at us with blank rounds. We’d be throwing smoke and they’d smoke it up so we couldn’t see anything, and they’d light fires in there.”
Had you ever done that before?
“No, it was mental! It was like being inside a video game. You can’t see anything, your visor fogs up. You have very specific things, it’s almost like choreography.”
Is that how an actual SAS team would train?
“Yeah. Like sometimes, I would overtake the person in front of me and then get ahead of them at the door, and they’d be like: ‘No, no, no. That’s wrong. You need to hold back, let them go forward and then when they break through the door, you’re the first one in.’ When that door opens, the guys behind you are relying on you being the first one there. If that door opens and you’re not there, you’ve fucked it up. There’s a very certain specific way of doing things.
“It was fascinating to learn. It was exhausting. We were there every day at 5am in full fatigues: full weapons, hand gun, semi automatic, respirator, everything. Smoke, fire, people firing at you. It was real as you could get and also, we had to do it in a certain amount of time. I can’t remember the exact number of seconds it took them to clear the building, but they would give us the same amount of time. We’d come out and pull the respirators off and we’d be heaving, just exhausted.”
Did you get in touch with the real people behind the characters?
“I spoke to Rusty, the character I played, about his experience and what he took away from it.”
And that was the same for Mark Strong and Abbie Cornish?
“Presumably, I think so. But it doesn’t feel like I was in the same movie as them.”
Did you never see each other?
“We never saw each other, but also what we represent are different things. [Mark] is in a peaceful headquarters, the diplomatic world. I’m in the ‘brute force, violence, get them, go’ environment. When we were finished with ours, they were like: ‘Right and now we’re going to go to Abbie with all of her Kate Adie stuff.’ I was like ‘Woah, that’s a totally different place’. It was really bizarre.”
What was Rusty like?
“He’s a nice guy. He’s very unassuming. He doesn’t talk about it in a way that feels victorious either. He’s just like: “I did my job”. My favourite parts of the stories were when he talked about watching the snooker, and putting his feet up and having a cup of tea. Because it took so long, I don’t think they anticipated waiting quite as long as they did.
“He said he was upset because he was supposed to play in a Sunday league game of football, but couldn’t play anymore as it had taken so long. Stuff like that I was just obsessed with. Like: ‘What?! How can we write that scene into this? We have to do that! That’s crazy.’ Any of the sense of humanity that’s in there, that’s just him as a regular guy in an extraordinary circumstance.”
What was your favourite part of the shoot?
“The training. I always say I could genuinely never be part of the SAS, they would never accept me. They’d be like: ‘You’re not capable’. But that stuff, I like the de-individualisation that happens in the military scenario. Where you forge a group and no one is higher than the other person. That environment I really like. The discipline I really like. They would let us go home with our stuff, like our bag and we’d put our respirator with the vest, boots and overalls. They wouldn’t give us the weapons, obviously, but they would say that’s yours, take it home. You better not forget it when you get back tomorrow. There was a pride that you get with that stuff, which I really liked. It was useful to get into the camaraderie of it.”
Would you want to do more military movies?
“No. I’ve done quite a lot of them.”
“But also Flags Of Our Fathers and stuff like that. It gets a bit dull.”
You’ve had such a long career already – what’s your highlight? Have you had one film that’s been the best experience you’ve ever had?
“Not really. There’s never been one that’s just really stood out. Every film is different. I remember making the first few films after Billy Elliott and going: ‘They’re all going to be this amazing experience, where you become family with the crew and you stay in touch with them’. Then I remember the next four or five movies, and thinking: ‘That never happens. I’m never going to see any of these people again’. Not because I don’t want to, but that’s the way it goes. You just move onto the next and you’re in another adventure, and you’re with other people. So, it’s weird. They became less and less meaningful. They’re jobs to people, you do them and then go onto the next. They’re all special in their own little ways.”
Do you have any regrets?
You’re doing a Neo-Nazi redemption drama called Skin next, right? Why have you chosen that?
“It feels like a challenge. It feels timely, unfortunately. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true. It allows me to stretch in a different way, inhabit something in a different way than I have before. It’ll be very taxing, just emotionally. There’s a lot of things that I have to do in the film that are very sensitive and scary, and things very distant to me as a person. Those are ultimately roles that people are looking for in a way. You’re looking for that distance from who you are as a human being in looking in the mirror and seeing someone completely different. I’m both excited and slightly daunted about it.”
6 Days is available on Netflix now.