When Jamie Bell received the script for his awards-season entry Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, he thought it was too good to be true. “I didn’t think it was a real story,” he told me at Deadline’s The Contenders event earlier in the month in front of a packed house of Academy and guild voters. “I thought it was a bizarre piece of fiction, and such a bizarre idea for a film.”

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In fact, the script was based on the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, in which the jobbing actor recalled his brief love affair with faded Hollywood star Gloria Grahame after she moved to the UK briefly in the late 1970s. “Once I knew that it was based on this real guy’s story, his real experience, suddenly everything came much more clearly into focus for me,” Bell told the crowd at the DGA Theater, “It’s a very pure story, set in a time when Google didn’t exist, IMDb didn’t exist. [My character] has no idea that she’s a movie star, he has no idea that she won an Oscar. And there’s something pure about that.”

Bell admitted that the prospect of acting alongside modern-day Hollywood royalty – co-star Annette Bening, who plays Grahame – initially filled him with dread. “I was terrified,” he said. “My people sent me the script and they said, ‘This is a great challenge for you, [a chance to] go work with a fantastic actress. It’s just you and her, and it’s a real test of your ability.’ And I was like, ‘This is a terrible idea – it’s the worst idea ever!’ But Annette’s so gracious. There’s so many scenes in the film that obviously are intimate – it’s a very intimate love story at times – and for that you really need a good sense of trust, and sense of support, with the actor that you’re working with. And I think we established that very quickly and very easily.”

Sony Pictures Classics opens the film here December 29.

Check out our conversation above.