Editor's Note: This article contains movie spoilers.
In 2013, Joe Bell left his home in Oregon to walk across the country in memory of his son, Jadin. The high school boy, Jadin, who dreamed of one day living in New York had killed himself after schoolmates bullied him for being gay.
Tragically, Joe Bell never finished his cross-country walk in honor of his son. It ended in Eastern Colorado in October 2013 when Bell was struck and killed by a driver.
Now, a new Hollywood movie is sharing the story of the Bells and their message of tolerance. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Reid Miller, the film, titled “Joe Bell,” recounts the last months of Jadin’s life and his father’s mission to travel and talk about his son’s experience.
Miller joined Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters to talk about the movie, Jadin Bell’s story, his own experience with bullying, and how bullying has become even more pervasive in the socially distanced age.
“I had heard little things here and there on TV and from people that I knew, but I was so young that I didn't really think to do any real research until I got the role,” said Miller, who was only 13 when Joe Bell’s journey came to an end. “When the script came my way, and I saw it was based on a true story I was like, ‘Oh, I feel like I've heard of this, but I don't quite remember what happened.’”
It was Jadin’s story that resonated most with Miller and drove him to seek the part.
“It was what he went through, that connection that I felt with him because as I was growing up, I dealt with a lot of bullying, a lot of misunderstandings as to who I am and who I wanted to be,” Miller said.
“Growing up in a small town in Texas where it's literally ‘Friday Night Lights,’ I was not a football guy. I never have been, never will be,” he said. “For me as an artist, it was really hard finding my place.”
Much like Jadin, Miller faced his own set of bullies in school.
“People thought they could push me around because I was so small. It was just people making assumptions about me that weren't true,” he said. “I started homeschooling in the fifth grade just because I couldn't do it. I'm very lucky that my parents honestly pulled me out of school when they did, and I was able to continue learning at home which helped my transition to L.A. for acting.”
For the movie version of Jadin, Miller said he plays three different roles in “Joe Bell”: Jadin in real life, Jadin in his father’s mind and the Jadin that motivates his father to do better.
“That was definitely something to balance internally and really understanding in those scenes where we're walking together,” Miller said of his scenes with Wahlberg. “Who is really speaking there? Is it Jadin speaking? Or is it Joe kind of ripping himself a new one?”
For Miller, acting opposite Wahlberg made him feel at ease: “Mark is very good at making you feel like an equal, which allowed me to not only meet him at his level, but to try and go further because he was right there with me helping me every step of the way,” he said.
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Miller also recounted his own experiences with bullying.
“I've definitely had situations and issues where it just wasn't taken seriously or the victim was blamed,” he said. “That is probably the most dangerously arrogant thing I've ever heard is for someone to say, ‘Boys will be boys.’ That's not how that works. We need to be setting a precedent of respect. And when you say ‘boys will be boys’ that is doing the opposite of setting a precedent of respect.”
Miller said that attitude excuses the behavior of bullying. He said he hopes the movie helps people understand the issue.
“I hope that it shows people like this was a problem then, and is absolutely still a problem now.”
Miller said the anonymity of the internet has emboldened people to bully. Online school during the pandemic hasn’t helped, Miller said.
“If anything, more prominent,” Miller said. “Because a lot of schooling is now online, and online bullying has already been such an issue. Some people are like, ‘Oh, I feel safer now that I'm at home, I don't have to deal with it in person,’” Miller said. “It's almost worse now because people can bully you online with complete anonymity and get away with it in an environment where there won't be any repercussions.”
But through making “Joe Bell” and in his own experience, Miller said he sees a solution to bullying.
“It starts at home, and it's about how you raise your kids and how you have got to teach your kids [that] words have so much weight. Even if you don't understand someone or understand their views, that is not an excuse to torment them,” Miller said. “There's so much work that has to be done in terms of acceptance. We have come a long way, but there's still so much that has to be done.”
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