Everybody's Talking About Jamie is a fabulous debut for Max Harwood

The first time the coming-of-age musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie bursts into song, it’s staged as a neon-hued daydream. In the middle of class, 16-year-old Jamie New fantasizes about life in the spotlight, glammed up and walking the runway as he belts “And You Don’t Even Know It,” a classic “I Want” song with a boastful twist. Jamie believes he’s destined for a greatness beyond the so-and-sos of his sleepy hometown, with the art of drag as his pathway to fame, singing, “You’re in my lane, you’re in my light / Get out my way, I’m taking flight.” It all makes for a bombastic introduction—until his teacher brings him back down to earth. In the sobering light of classroom fluorescents, Jamie’s dream of drag superstardom prompts snickers among his schoolmates. He’s humiliated, but not defeated.

Through his overconfidence and his meekness, his optimism and self-doubt, Jamie makes for a relatably conflicted teen protagonist: The kind that’s so ready to take the next big leap in their life that they often trip over themselves to get there. As Jamie, newcomer Max Harwood creates an electrifying first impression, navigating the complexities of young ambition with winning naturalism. He’s just as convincing nervously showing off a pair of high heels to his best friend as he is when he’s strutting across the stage in full drag. Warm and understated, Harwood gives a breakthrough performance that should set the stage for a long career—in other words, everybody’s going to be talking about Max.

With just a few years of musical theater training under his belt, 24-year-old Max Harwood never expected his debut role would earn him quite so much attention. “My trajectory was going more towards theatrical [work],” he told The A.V. Club. “But then this job came along, I auditioned for it, and now suddenly life’s crazy. Like, what am I doing in LA?”

Jamie’s starry-eyed charm is evident in Harwood, especially when he reflects on his lifelong love of musicals. He was raised on classics like On The Town, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Annie, and, his personal favorite, Grease: “Me and my sister, we used to watch Grease all the time. We’d always dress up—I’d put on a wig and a skirt and would tell my sister, ‘Sorry, you can’t be Rizzo today, that’s going to be me.’” (He jokes his Rizzo made for a “rubbish” drag debut.) His fascination with musical theater eventually had him skipping class to see a show on London’s West End called Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, itself based on television documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen At 16, following the life of drag-queen-in-the-making Jamie Campbell. Harwood was enchanted, seeing himself in Jamie and the way he dreamed beyond life’s limitations.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie marks the feature debut of director Jonathan Butterell (who also directed the original stage production), and he says he set out to find an actor with a similar freshness and sense of excitement for the title role. “I had to forget what I knew, about what I’d seen of the role,” admits Harwood. A handful of actors have played Jamie over the years—including John McRae, who makes a cameo in a moving flashback number, “This Was Me”—but the star made an intentional choice to build the character from the ground up, starting with its original inspiration, Jamie Campbell. Harwood recalls his “deep” and “personal” conversations with Campbell prior to filming, which were instrumental in finding confidence in his own ability to step into a role he’d admired from afar. “I wasn’t when I was 16, but I’m now an openly gay man, and I have my own experiences that relate to the character,” Harwood shares. “I wanted to carry [Campbell’s] essence through, and then pour some of myself into it.”

With Butterell behind the camera, as well as Jamie’s composer Dan Gillespie Sells and lyricist Tom MacRae on set for support, Harwood felt emboldened to trust his own instincts. “They allowed me to pull things around and to really explore the material in a new way. They weren’t rigid, they weren’t asking me to do things that anyone else had done before.” That freedom and trust carried through to the musical numbers, too. Harwood says his theatrical training prepared him, “stamina-wise,” to sing, dance, and act all at the same time, but that, “it’s a whole different thing doing 12-hour days, trying to film at the top of my level for however many takes, angle after angle.” He considers himself lucky to have such a support net in the film’s cast and crew who looked after him through every step of the process.

But while Harwood’s musical background may have readied the actor for all of the song-and-dance razzle-dazzle of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, nothing could’ve prepared him for his drag debut—not even years of Drag Race fandom. Harwood’s initial excitement over seeing himself in drag for the first time quickly gave way to an anxiousness. As the character Jamie comes to realize, drag is more than a costume; it’s an art form steeped in queer history, in activism. That history weighed heavily on Harwood, too: “Drag is a sort of armor, and an extension of yourself.” This was not a moment he wanted to take lightly. Butterell remembers the actor’s nerves when filming Jamie’s transformation into “baby queen” Mimi Me, and was excited to capture the authenticity of the moment. “Drag is a process,” the director shares, “and even with an amazing makeup artist, in those early moments it can look strange! But then the lashes go on, the lips go on, and finally the wig goes on, and this creature arrives in the most glorious way. I could see a little fierceness arrive as [Harwood] looked at himself in the mirror, and it was amazing to watch.”

To see Harwood step out on stage for the first time as Mimi Me is to witness the depth of the young actor’s performance: The bravado, the uncertainty, the hope, and the fear—it’s all there on his perfectly beat face. At that moment, Jamie might not know what his classmates or the rest of his hometown will think of his performance, but he’s certain this is only the beginning of his story. When Jamie sings about his dream of making it big, you can’t help but believe in him—and you’ll believe the same of Harwood, too.

You can watch our full interview with Max Harwood above. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.