Life

Saying “Yes” leads M-S graduate onto unexpected paths

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

Nathan Bell and his family moved to Mahomet in the summer of 1997, shortly before the teenager was to start his sophomore year in high school.

They relocated from Minnesota, but the newcomer was hardly unique when he arrived in Champaign County.

Nathan Bell was a quarterback on the Mahomet-Seymour football team, starting his junior year.

“That was the other Nathan Bell,” he said. “I was the soccer player.”

The transfer fit right in. He played the trumpet in the band, joined the chorus, Madrigals and participated in other theatrical productions.

Though he acknowledged, “it was odd,” that another athlete at the same school had the same name, the new Nathan Bell added, “When I lived in St. Louis, there was another Nathan in my grade. I felt bad for him.”

Nathan Bell’s father, Larry, an ordained minister, is still in the area, serving a church in Thomasboro.

For the last five years, Nathan Bell has called Baltimore home.

***

Bell found his comfort zone quickly after his arrival at Mahomet-Seymour.

He felt at home while performing.

“I was in all the plays,” Bell said. “I thought I’d be an actor.”

He maintained that aspiration during the year he spent at the University of Illinois before embarking on a nomadic two years.

He did a study-abroad program, spending eight months in England, all along planning to return to the UI.

“My student loans were (covering) a third of what they were before,” Bell said. “My choice was to go into debt or to leave.”

He left college and worked with a landscaping company for about a year, before moving to Chicago with a friend.

“I maybe knew five people in Chicago,” Bell said.

***

He found himself in an area where he could pursue his dreams.

“Chicago is a great place to get experience, especially acting,” Bell said. “There are a ton of good theatre groups.”

Bell took classes at Act One and studied under the acclaimed playwright and director David Mamet, a 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner.

He hired an agent and — as most seeking their break — took a day job.

“I decided to wait tables and work (as an actor) in the evenings,” he said.

Six months later, he hadn’t been to any auditions.

However, it wasn’t all bad.

“I was averaging $1,300 a week waiting tables,” Bell said.

***

So much of getting established is knowing somebody who knows somebody.

Bell’s phone rang one day.

“It was a woman from the last play I’d been in,” Bell said. “She said her old roommate was the second assistant director (AD) and was in charge of hiring a production assistant (PA) and wondered if I’d be interested in putting my name in.”

Before he could respond, the caller gave Bell the job description.

“Long hours, bad money and no respect,” were the words he heard.

“I’m in,” were the words he spoke.

Bell’s big break almost didn’t materialize.

“I missed the interview,” he said. “At the last minute, I was called into work.”

The next day, an apologetic Bell called to reschedule and was told, “the position was filled.”

He didn’t give in.

“I said, ‘Let me come in any way. I just want to meet you.’ “

Bell was given a report time and recalled, “I was there early and I sat there 2 to 2 1/2 hours. They tried to give me a hint.”

His patience was rewarded.

“They interviewed me and then said, ‘We’re staffed up,’ “ Bell remembered.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom.

“PAs are the grease that make the movies run,” he said. “They told me they often need additional PAs.”

***

That was on a Friday.

The following Monday, Bell received a callback.

“It was a 5:30 a.m. call (to work),” Bell said. “It was for one day.”

The day was one where he already had a scheduled shift at the restaurant.

“I couldn’t get it covered,” he said. “They told me I didn’t need to come in the rest of the week. I basically quit for one day of work.”

What evolved, however, was the start of a career.

“I was hired for that day, then one day more, then one day more and then I worked 20 straight days,” he said.

‘Work’ was the operative word.

“It was 15- to 21-hour days,” he said. “They told you, ‘Show up on time and don’t complain.’ “

The 2006 movie being filmed was ‘The Breakup,’ starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston.

Bell’s role was to lock up the street (Michigan Ave., near the Wrigley Building) when the camera was rolling.

“You had to make sure no one passes your checkpoint,” he said. “Sometimes you get an officer (to help). Sometimes you have to use your own charm.

“I got to know the people I was stopping and got some of them to help me stop other people.”

***

Bell wasn’t relegated entirely to street duty.

He ending up in the props department where he interacted with both Vaughn and Aniston.

“My first interaction with Jennifer,” he said, “was I turned a corner and almost knocked her off the stairs.

“She was very gracious.”

Somewhere along the line, Bell was given a tip about what makes a successful PA.

“Anytime someone said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I said ‘Yes,’ “ Bell said. “When you’re a PA, you get to be part of a lot of things.”

With his willingness to work, Bell’s roles grew.

He became the local assistant for Vaughn, which simply meant, “I was his shadow so if he wandered off the set, production would know where he was at.”

Another notable job was in 2008 with ‘The Dark Knight,’ where Bell served as Gary Oldman’s personal assistant.

Bell subsequently worked with Ben Stiller in ‘Little Fockers’ in 2010.

“As you get more exposure,” Bell said, “you get further behind the scenes.”

***

To be clear, Bell was no longer an aspiring actor.

He reached that conclusion years earlier thanks to a critical self-evaluation.

“When I realized they wouldn’t hire me (to act), I looked for opportunities behind the scenes,” Bell said.

In 2009, Bell secured an assistant’s role for the production ‘Public Enemies,’ which was shot at locations in Chicago, Indiana and Wisconsin.

“We worked seven days a week, 16 to 18 hours a day for six months,” Bell said.

During this time, Bell purchased his first digital camera and, he said, “took a lot of pictures to learn the mechanics and the aesthetics.”

He found his niche and wound up with pictures taken during a photo shoot for the reboot of Charlie’s Angels published on the covers of both Variety and Billboard magazines.

***

Five years ago, Bell was asked to submit his portfolio to director David Fincher, whom he knew by reputation.

“He is incredibly discerning and very demanding,” Bell said. “To compile a portfolio for him is very daunting.”

Fincher liked what he saw and hired Bell for a promotional first push for the Netflix television series, ‘House of Cards.’

Bell’s work, he said, “ended up being the poster for Season 2.”

The chosen photograph was one of Kevin Spacey sitting in a chair with co-star Robin Wright angled behind him, looking to her right.

“I was hired for a week,” Bell said, “and now it’s going on five years.”

He has stayed relevant by expanding his reach.

“I’m never content to do one thing,” said Bell, who is self-taught in the area of video graphics.

‘House of Cards’ started filming its sixth season last month in Baltimore and Bell’s title is video supervising engineer.

“I’m dumb enough to not know my own limits,” he said. “I say, ‘Yes,’ and then figure out the way. There’s a lot of adapting and overcoming to stay ahead of what is being asked.”

***

Veteran M-S teacher Shauna Gough is not surprised by Bell’s achievements.

“He ran with a really smart, ‘switched-on’ group of kids while in high school, and I always had great expectations of all of them,” Gough said. “They were also a loving, compassionate group of individuals.

“Just before Christmas break (a stressful time at the high school, with final exams pending), a group of them came into my room, gathered around my desk, and sang me the most beautiful a cappella song (many were Madrigals) as an incredibly heartfelt gift.”

“Looking around that half-circle, seeing the love on their faces and hearing it in their music, all I could do was cry … To this day, they stand out as some of the best and brightest students I’ve had in the 25 years I’ve been teaching here.”

Bell’s photography skills were not on display during his years at M-S.

“I have harassed Nathan about not being on my yearbook staff while in school, as his incredible talent with photography would have been greatly appreciated for the publication, but he said he just hadn’t considered it at the time,” Gough said.

“Honestly, his professional success surprises me not one bit. He is truly one of the most dynamic, engaging and motivated people I know. His open-minded attitude has taken him places in his career, in his travels, and in life that others might only dream of.”

***

Though he has met and worked with some of the biggest box office stars in the film industry, Bell has goals yet unmet.

“I want to be a large creative force in a project,” he said. “My goal is to expand my influence and tell stories well.

“Nobody does this alone. These crews are hundreds of people. It’s not like being a novelist where it’s you and the pen. It’s a collaborative project.”

Bell said typically a 13-episode season of ‘House of Cards’ requires between six and seven months to film “and that doesn’t count prepping and post-production,” he said.

Another aspect of Bell’s future is more settled, but still indefinite.

He has a fiancée whom he met on the show.

“She’s in payroll accounts,” he said.

They have not settled on when the wedding will occur.

“The commitment has been there for a while,” said Bell earlier this week, while taking a break during his eighth consecutive work day, “and it will happen, but we don’t have a date.”

He has no regrets about his chosen profession.

“The days don’t get any shorter,” said Bell, who turned 36 in January, “but it’s a good job, not the same thing day in and day out.

“Is it worth it? Absolutely.”

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