Joe Bell Star Reid Miller Reveals How He Was Cast As Mark Wahlberg's Son In Fact-Based Film - Exclusive Interview

He's been in showbiz since 2014, landing guest roles in such projects as the Netflix series "You" and a series regular turn on the ESPN-flavored sports comedy "Play by Play," but up-and-coming actor Reid Miller is finally making his major movie debut — and he couldn't be more thrilled, considering who his co-star is and the important theme the story addresses.

The film is "Joe Bell," a fact-based story about the title character (Mark Wahlberg), who in 2013 embarked on a long walk across the country from Oregon to New York to honor the memory of his son Jadin (Miller) and raise awareness about the potentially deadly effects of bullying. With his son's memory fresh in his mind, Joe tries to reconcile his behavior when his son came out to him as gay, and imagines the sort of father-son bond he had hoped for when the teen was still alive.

Also starring Connie Britton as Joe's wife and Jadin's mom, Lola Bell, and Gary Sinise as a police officer Joe Bell befriends on the road, "Joe Bell" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 23. In an exclusive interview with Looper, Miller discussed his work with Wahlberg and Britton, his thoughts about the real Joe and Jadin Bell, and the hopes he has for the film's impact on the general public.

Reid Miller says he was devastated after watching the completed film

What an amazing and heartbreaking performance in "Joe Bell." Is there any chance of maybe changing the name of the movie to "Joe and Jadin Bell"? 

Yeah. [Laughs] We've all talked about that a few times. I tried, but it definitely didn't swing my way.

There's an incredibly powerful scene at the beginning of the film when Jadin tells Joe that he's gay and is being bullied over it. Would you say that's the most powerful scene you filmed during the movie? It really helps ground the film, emotionally.

Yeah. I feel like there are two scenes in particular, that at least for me, were the most powerful — that, of course, being one of them. But I feel like the second scene ... Maybe "powerful" isn't the word. Maybe "devastating" is a better word, but the scene on the phone, when he's calling his friends. Those were the two scenes for me that were extremely powerful and very difficult to film. But I feel like the first scene, where Jadin is coming out to his father, was one of those scenes where it just happened so organically, like nothing was forced. When we were on set filming that scene, me and Mark were so in the moment together. And it was just so real that I feel like it really shines among some of the other scenes in the film. I think it's a great scene.

Reid Miller says he got caught up in certain scenes

And there's more, like the scenes when Jadin is bullied in the locker room, which is angering. And then in the scene in the principal's office, when Jadin says flat out to the principal who is dismissing him, "I guess you just can't be bothered with what's going on here." That was downright infuriating.

Yeah, that scene was really intense. Honestly, the whole shoot was really intense, but I do remember shooting that scene in particular. There was a lot of improv in this film. There was a lot of reading in between the lines. And there's a version of that scene that exists on the cutting room floor somewhere that they couldn't keep because I got a little too heated, and Jadin wouldn't have reacted that way. And it was in a few of the previous cuts. 

I liked that scene a lot. I like the version that I improvised, but that's more of a selfish actor thing and less of a ... It's not a good representation of who Jadin was. But it just goes to show that we were all so possessed by this film, and the emotions that came along with it, that there were some takes we would do that would just get out of hand. We were way too way too invested, and a little too much of us would come out through it, and then we'd have to take it back and remember, this is Joe and Jadin, this isn't Reid and Mark.

It's great that you can step back and realize, ultimately, that this is about honoring these lives. Sometimes you just have to let how you feel as an actor go.

It's hard, especially when you're improvising, and you have this woman who played the principal [Cassie Beck], who was great, and she was so ... I remember when we were filming, I felt infuriated, just looking at her. And it's like, she did a great job. That's exactly what we were supposed to feel. It's just one of those scenes where we definitely needed some guiding, because it was easy to slip into that more "fight" level of everything.

Well, certainly that's the ultimate example of how acting is just as much about reacting sometimes, isn't it?

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Sometimes reacting is more powerful.

Joe Bell led to a lasting bond with Mark Wahlberg

What's great about Jadin is, he isn't afraid to call his father out. And I think that's what makes the film so amazing. I mean, this is just as much about Joe learning tolerance and accepting the fact that Jadin is gay, because he doesn't completely get what he's doing at first. He really does need Jadin's brutal honesty and that perspective — which we come to learn is being played out in his mind — to truly help him understand the heart of the issue.

Oh, of course. I mean, that's why Jadin's there. I mean, literally one of the opening lines of the film is Jadin saying, "No, I don't. That's why I'm with you" ... It was a delicate balance of Jadin being brutally honest without being confrontational. That was always the difficult thing to balance, because Jadin wasn't necessarily confrontational, but he would tell you what he thinks. So the dialogue was slightly misleading, where it's very aggressive and confrontational, but he's not fighting his dad, he's proving a point. He's just being honest.

There were a lot of scenes like that in that movie, particularly outside the diner. That diner scene was really hard to get, because it was really hard to not slide into that confrontational side, because the dialogue is very confrontational. But we worked it. And we all worked together, and we were really able to find that common ground. 

I'm wondering with material as profound as this, do you feel that you and Mark Wahlberg formed a bond during this film?

Absolutely. I mean, the first time I met him, and we read the scenes together, it was for an audition. He walked me out of the audition room, and he looked at me. And he was like, "When we were reading together, I felt like I was reading and talking to my son." And I felt the same way, like I was talking to my dad. I mean, it's like we had this instant bond, and I think that's ... The producers, and the director saw that. And that's probably one of the big reasons I got the role, was we just had such great chemistry, and me and him bonded almost instantly — that's the crux of the whole thing, is that relationship.

Reid Miller says working with Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton gave him an opportunity to learn as an actor

What do you think you learned from Mark? You must have absorbed things during the production.

I definitely noticed what his process is, and it helped me. Mark on set is actually a very quiet guy, and he was very reserved, and he very much stays in his lane. He's always focused. And that was something that I was still learning. This is my first huge movie. So having the opportunity to just sort of watch him and also just be in scenes with him was so great. Because me and Mark, when we act together, it's kind of competitive. And he likes to improvise, and I do too. And I don't think he knew that. And then when we started filming, he would improvise, and then I'd improvise. And then he would go to top me, and then I'd go to top him. And then it would just be this constant back and forth. And then that's typically what would end up in the final cut, because me and Mark just have such good chemistry.

I must mention Connie Britton, too, who is such a gifted performer as well. What do you think you picked up from her?

Kindness, just like Jadin. Jadin is such a kind soul. Connie really radiates that. She really radiates kindness and this motherly aura that is really rare to find in someone. She is just so protective and kind. So, when we would act together, which ... Honestly, I wish I had more scenes with Connie. She was just so wonderful to be around and spend time with.

Did you and Mark attempt to contact the Bell family, to try to inform your portrayals?

Oh yeah. They were on set. We were talking to Jadin's mother, to his brothers, and they definitely helped influence that for sure. We had their full support all the way.

How devastating was it to watch that completed film? In particular, there are three scenes in a row that are especially tough — when Jadin desperately tries to call his friends, when Connie Britton's character finds Jadin's note and is desperately trying to get to the scene, and when Mark breaks down in the aftermath. Those scenes together are really a gut punch.

Yeah. The whole film is a gut punch. And I feel like watching it for the first time, it left me in a bit of a dark spot. And I was like, "Oh, man. I don't know if I can ever watch this movie again," just because it's so, so unapologetically honest about what happened. And it needs to be. And so, for me, I've definitely come to terms with that. And it's not a bad thing. It's just something that I don't think I quite realized, just how intense the film was going to turn out to be, but it needs to be. If it's going to get the message across and do exactly what it's supposed to do, it has to be like that.

Reid Miller hopes Lady Gaga sees the film

Your performance of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" was a wonderful scene. Is she aware of your performance in the film? I would think she would be proud of it.

Yeah. I mean, she has to know that it's there. I never talked to her myself, but I mean, but I hope that one day she watches the movie, and she's like, "Oh, he didn't completely butcher it." But yeah, I was really glad we were able to get her permission to use the song, because it's very important. It was very important to Jadin.

What would you say would be the most important thing for people to glean from "Joe Bell"? It's insane that we're even having this conversation about intolerance in 2021.

I think that exact thing that you just said, which is that it's insane how we're still having this conversation. That's the thing for me, is after everything that's happened, after all of these stories, after all of these people have either lost their lives or taken their own lives or suffered in silence for as long as they have, the fact that we're still even needing to have this conversation is kind of sad. So I hope this movie — I know it's not going to put an end to it, but I hope that this movie is a big step forward for a lot of people, for them to understand just how serious the situation is, and just how important it is to fight for our fellow man and people that we care about. And the fact that people should be able to love who they love, regardless of what that means.

I think it should be mandatory viewing in every high school. I certainly hope that the production pushes for that, or anybody involved with the production does, whether they're in front or behind the camera.

Yeah, I agree. I mean, it's such an important story, and I feel like a lot of young people could learn a lot from it.

Reid Miller wants action roles; is Mark Wahlberg listening?

You have to confirm for me if it's true, but IMDb says you have experience in the martial arts?


Okay. "Cobra Kai," if they have more seasons, you have to go for it.

I know!   

"Joe Bell" is going to put you on the radar. You need to go for "Cobra Kai" since you have that martial arts experience.

Action is what I want to do. I want to do action movies with a lot of heart and good characters. And I mean, I hope people see that. And I hope people see that I can do that. And yeah. I mean, whatever comes my way that's going to get me closer to that, let's do it.

Mark Wahlberg certainly does his share of action.

Oh, yeah!

So you have to say, "Mark ..."

I know. I'm like, "Hey, Mark, what's going on? You can help me out a little bit?" [Laughs]

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, and written by "Brokeback Mountain" scribes Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, "Joe Bell" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 23.