Joe Bell breakout Reid Miller on how the film's heartbreaking true story 'shocked' him
"But when I say in shock, it doesn't mean in a bad way," the actor tells EW. "There was so much happening in each scene emotionally."
The heartbreaking film, in theaters now, is based on the tragic true story of Joe Bell (played by Mark Wahlberg), a father who went on a cross-country walk to raise awareness for suicide prevention, anti-bullying, and the struggles facing LGBTQ youth after the death of his 15-year-old son, Jadin (Miller). When it came to portraying Jadin, Miller admits it was tough "to process" the young teen's journey, knowing the relentless bullying he suffered before his death. "I have to take this page by page," he says. "Especially the relationship between Joe and Jadin, that was the thing that really struck a chord with me because I'm really close with my dad, so that of course resonated with me very deeply."
Throughout the emotional film from director Reinaldo Marcus Green, audiences are brought along on Joe's quest to walk across the U.S. as he means well but doesn't quite know how to best honor his son's memory. "It's like a road trip movie, but it's also a father and son desperately trying to understand each other," Miller says. "That's what I loved. I was really blown away by it and blown away by how it handled this extremely important and sensitive story, and the sensitive topics that come with that. I thought it was very well done, and I knew the moment I read it that I had to do it."
But knowing that the film was based on a true story, not a work of fiction, changed everything for Miller.
"This kid, a beautiful soul, a genuinely kind person, a good person who was unapologetically himself in the face of absolute adversity — in a weird way, playing this person, telling his story, portraying him, I learned a lot about myself," Miller says. "He's just so powerful and kind. It took a lot of mental energy and strength to portray that. As an actor, when a role like this comes your way, you're like chomping at the bit to do it. It's rare that you would get that opportunity. So for me, I had to step back and really focus and think about how serious and important this was going to be. I couldn't approach this like any other film or TV show or script or whatever; this is honoring someone's legacy, someone who lived, someone who wasn't understood, at least by the people that mattered."
What helped Miller fully transform into playing Jadin was a physical change. Since Jadin always colored his hair, Miller had to dye his as well. "It was cool to go blond and really feel that I had the opportunity to become this person and to tell his story, because it's so important and so relevant to today," Miller says. "So that honestly was the big part of that transformation for me." But he's relieved to "finally get my hair back to its normal color. That took so many haircuts, it wasn't even funny. It's nice to feel like myself again, to feel like I'm back in my skin after that experience."
While Miller has been steadily working in TV and indie films for years, Joe Bell is his most high-profile role yet, and he knows how fortunate he is to have that be alongside the likes of Wahlberg and Connie Britton (who plays Jadin's mother, Lola). "I learned so much from it, it was such an incredible journey," he says. "It was just an incredible team of people. That was just an honor. Nothing has topped it so far, and I don't know if anything will because it was such a great experience."
And it's one that's been a long time coming, as the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the release of Joe Bell. "The highlight of my year career-wise is Joe Bell finally being released," Miller says. The shutdown happened right as the film was finished, and he felt "lost" not knowing when it would see the light of day. "So the fact that it premiered in Toronto, it did as well as it did, and people are reacting to it how they're reacting to it is such a blessing. And it just proves that we all put in the work."
As for what's next for Miller, while "there's some really cool stuff in the mix" that he can't talk about yet, he does reveal that he's dying to star in an action film at some point — which is something his Joe Bell costar Wahlberg knows a thing or two about.