"When this is brought to our doorstep, how do we respond?" Jamie Bell on terrorism and SAS training for his new thriller, 6 Days

We chatted to the great Jamie Bell about his new thriller 6 Days – a recounting of the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in South Kensington. Currently on Netflix, it's a viscerally exciting film which you should most definitely see – once you've read this interview [spoilers if you don't know how the siege was resolved] 

Since his debut as wannabe tap dancer Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell has forged a career as one of the most interesting, diverse actors in the business – comfortable in blockbusters (King Kong, Fantastic Four), arthouse (Nymphomaniac), and offbeat comedies (Filth). His latest thriller, 6 Days, recounts the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege – in which six armed men took 26 people hostage at the Iranian Embassy in South Kensington. Bell plays SAS officer Rusty Firmin, preparing to storm the building should the increasingly fraught negotiations prove fruitless. It's a genuinely thrilling film – now available on Netflix – and we sat down with Bell to discuss it.

What attracted you to the project?

The event itself. I don't know how I was aware of this because I wasn't even born at the time. I was very affected by those newsreel images – 'newsreel', sounds like it was made in the Twenties – but I was very affected by those guys in black, those kind of phantom figures, going down this pristine white building and blowing stuff up. I was like, what, this is England – how has this happened here? And we got to go inside of that building and see those stories, and really get to see the story that we've never seen before. I just thought it was a great opportunity for a movie. If movies are about bringing you into experiences, this is a perfect example of that.

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How much did you know about the crisis before you started filming?

The ins and outs of it – how many people were there, how many days it was, the attempt at peaceful negations – all the backroom stuff I was completely unaware of. But I think I was aware that it was successful. I think that was the overriding thing: these men, called the SAS, masked men who I think England was completely unaware of at the time, went into this building and saved everyone. I think I was aware of that.

How method did you go with the SAS preparation?

Not particularly. What the film set up for all of us was a rigorous but very brief bootcamp. For five days they would have us at this place called the Killing House. We'd get there at 5am, we'd get dressed in fatigues, they'd load us up, and we'd run drills through the mock-up of a building. And we'd do it in certain teams, we'd have to do it in a certain amount of time, we'd have to do exercise – they'd make us run drills with all of our gear on, we'd have to do pull-ups at the end of each day, we'd have to do push ups before we ate lunch. Nothing in comparison to what these guys actually had to endure to get into the SAS, not even close, but just as a team-building exercise, and a taste of the intensity that you have to have going into the situation, it was very valuable.

Enough to make you realise how tough it would be?

Honestly, being around these people you're constantly on edge. The intention is to overwhelm aggressively in any means possible. That means physically, audibly: they shout at you to do things. Because when someone bursts into a room and says whatever the command is, the opponent goes into a prayer state. You go into a submissive, obedient state. It's designed that way to overwhelm you, and get you to do whatever it is that they want you to do. Fascinating. It really is. They move quickly and basically they never stop. It's all about momentum: they never like stop and say, 'OK, let's take a breather. You go in there.' It's just one constant attack – and it clearly worked.

Did you pick up any tricks?

I mean, I could maybe storm Covent Garden Hotel – not by myself! Not really, no. [Laughs] No, I could tell you how they kinda did it, what kind of tactics you use before you went, and what that stuff is useful for, but no, I can't really.

Did you meet Rusty?

Oh yeah, he was there a lot of the time. He was there throughout the bootcamp, telling guys his experience, telling guys what they're doing wrong. Telling me how to hold his weapon because he held his weapon in a certain way and he wanted to make sure I did that. He would stand in front of me and be like, I want to see you draw a pistol and point it at me. We'd do that for hours, just me doing this. [Mimes drawing a gun.] He was like, 'It has to be quicker. If someone's in front of you it has to be just one movement.' It was kinda intense! And I'm glad he was there because everything that he had to offer was invaluable.

When you're playing a real person, but someone who isn't particularly well known, do still you feel you need to embody their mannerisms? Or is there more of a freedom to do your own take on the character?

If this film was the Rusty Firmin Movie then maybe, but this character was so sparsely written – every character in this film is sparsely written because the event is the character of the movie, the event itself is the focus. I appreciated that because realistically, in the script he was a very blank slate of a character. I don't think Rusty Firmin read that and was like, 'oh, that's me.' Usually, on the other hand, it is a massive responsibility, and you do pay attention to all the fine details, and you do want to represent the person as truthfully as possible. And to a certain extent that's what we did with him – but he as a character fits into the bigger picture into the themes of the movie.

There's two things happening in tandem: Mark Strong [playing Chief Inspector Max Vernon] is trying to bring this to a peaceful conclusion, and I'm trying to bring it to a violent conclusion. With that in mind, we used the characters sparingly. [Continued below trailer] 

The film has some interesting parallels and contrasts with modern terrorism...  

I was concerned about the way the terrorists would be portrayed. Regardless of whatever you're doing, there's a voice that has to be heard for it to be fair. I felt it was crucial that these men were not depicted as a certain thing – that they actually had a voice, and that their voice be as important as the government's voice, or the hostages voice. To get a full picture of everything it's important. But the truth is, they were men who went into the building with some guns. And we were some men who went into the building with some guns after them. So I don't know what's worse really.

They went in first...

(Laughs) That's such an English answer! 'Well they fucking did it first!' Sure. But my thing is, you know, is that the answer? Is that really the solution? Doesn't it just happen again? Isn't there just going to be some more people with guns, meet with more people with guns?

So you're very much on the Mark Strong [i.e. negotiation] viewpoint?

I mean, in a way. I guess I'm certainly a pacifist. I run away from conflict, I'm not someone who runs towards it at all. I'm guess I'm just kind of opening it up for discussion: at the end of the day, how do we combat this, and what's our involvement in it, and how do we look at ourselves as a people? When this is brought to our doorstep, how do we respond?

How would you have responded?

I'd have been terrified. If I had been in that building, I would have been terrified, and I'd have been very grateful to those men who risked their lives to come in and save mine. On the other hand, if I was the parent of one of those people who were killed, I wouldn't be so happy about it. So I don't know, there's two sides to this. It's unfortunate that people end up losing their lives. But I don't know how to look at this moving forward, because I don't think it's going away anytime soon.

What's it like filming the climatic assault? 

I was so ill when I did that scene. It's so annoying because I trained these guys so hard, we were all building up to this thing where we were gonna do it, this is the day we shoot storming the building –

Was it the last thing you shot?

– close to the last, yeah. And I was so ill. Thankfully I had mask on and you couldn't see my face, but I had a crazy temperature, we had to bring the doctor in. I was basically asleep half the time. It was so disappointing, because you want to use all that pent up energy that the characters have, there's all this energy I wanted to just unleash in that scene, and I was so ill that I just had no energy to do it. But everyone in the movie, and who was part of team, took it very seriously and followed the orders of these people who were there, people who served in the SAS, we took it really seriously. It was tiring.

In some ways this film is the anthesis of the modern superhero blockbuster – can the classic thriller survive in a market that is increasingly dominated by Marvel et all?

I think you have to offer something else, you have to have counter-programming. I hope they exist because I really love going to the movies, and sometimes I don't want to see a comic-book film. I love them, I'm one of those people who buys a ticket most of the time, but I also like another option. And I like the big screen experience, I like going and experiencing something together in the dark. I think there's something primitive about it and I don't think we should get rid of that. As much as it's easy to stream something on your television, I think that collective experience can't be beaten.

6 Days is currently available on Netflix