JAMIE BELL knew he was meeting an actress who was a big deal when his mum made him buy a button-up shirt for the occasion. If it had been up to him, he'd have worn his Arsenal football shirt. That meeting was 17 years ago.

Now, at the age of 31, he's appearing on screen with the same big-name star - Dame Julie Walters - plus a Hollywood A-lister.

Bell - who starred with Dame Julie in Billy Elliot in 2000 - is seen alongside 59-year-old Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool. The pair play out the intense romance between Hollywood icon Gloria Grahame and her much younger lover, aspiring British actor Peter Turner, with sizzling chemistry.

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Based on Turner's real-life memoirs of the same name, the film depicts the events following Grahame's collapse in a hotel in Lancaster in 1981. With her health rapidly deteriorating, she reaches out to former partner Peter, who she met when lodging in a Primrose Hill guest house three years previously (she was 55 at the time and he was 26). When Peter learns the full extent of Gloria's health problems, he decides to take her back to his chaotic and warm family home in Liverpool (where we see Dame Julie play his mum Bella), and memories of the time they previously spent together come flooding back.

It's an unconventional love story - something Bell was very much aware of. "The nature of their relationship at that time was almost taboo, with her being an older woman," affirms the Billingham-born actor.

The role of Peter couldn't be further removed from the character of the young tap dancing star who put him on the acting map all those years ago. "There are so many layers to this guy, not least his loyalty and affection for this woman," he says, adding: "I find the character exhilarating and I haven't seen anything like that in movies for a long time."

Speaking of time frames, what was it like for Bell to be reunited with Dame Julie? "Well, I was grateful to be a bit taller than her; in the intervening 17 years, I've grown a bit," he quips.

And, all these years later, Dame Julie still manages to dazzle even the most seasoned professionals, as Bell discovered.

"Stephen Graham is in the film [he plays Peter's brother Joe Turner Jr], who's known for playing dangerous, tough characters, and he was reduced to a schoolboy on meeting Dame Julie, he was so nervous and excited," Bell says. "And that's what she has; she's a national treasure."

It's a term that's also been used to refer to American star Bening, who first spoke to the film's executive producer, legendary Bond boss Barbara Broccoli, about playing Gloria 20 years ago. But the Kansas-born actress, famous for pushing boundaries in films such as American Beauty, was too young to take on the role at the time.

"The fact that Barbara and I talked about it many, many years ago enriches the part," she discloses, "because even if you are not sitting around thinking about it every day, it goes into your unconscious and it percolates. It certainly did with me."

Off-screen, Bening has been married to US actor and film-maker Warren Beatty since 1992, and is no stranger to an age gap in a relationship. "There are quite a lot of people who are attracted to younger people, a lot of men; my husband's 20 years older than I am," she says animatedly.

Of her character's connection with Peter, she adds: "I think they had a lot of fun, but basically, he's a very good guy, and she'd been with a lot of people who weren't such good guys, and maybe she was even attracted to that when she was younger. She really had a rough life, and married four times. So when she got to this point in her life, she wasn't really famous anymore, and then she meets this guy from Liverpool who has this wonderful family, and the family is very much part of our film. And I think she loved all of that about him."

"They share a kindred sense of spirit, and that was something I wanted to explore with a great actress like Annette," says Bell, who - according to a surprise picture shared on Instagram - married his former Fantastic Four co-star, 34-year-old Kate Mara, in July (the pair are believed to have engaged in January, after dating since 2014).

When it comes to the on-screen relationship portrayed by Bell and Bening, it would be easy to assume there was added pressure from the characters being real people. But Bening insists she didn't want to do any "imitation" of Gloria; instead, she watched the star's work a lot, and "tried to absorb a sense of her".

"She was a fine actress and she had this absolute unique quality about her; there was no one quite like her," Bening elaborates. "And it's hard to quantify what that was, but she certainly had it. She was very sexy, but she also had a wit about her."

Grahame, who notably starred in 1950 thriller In A Lonely Place, opposite Humphrey Bogart, fell on hard times later in her career, and ended up working in smaller-scale theatre productions in the UK. After meeting Turner and moving to New York together, there were further dark times for Grahame - their relationship collapsed under the weight of the couple's insecurities, and she was also diagnosed with cancer for the second time, something she hid from her other half.

But the film depicts many touching moments between the couple; most memorably, perhaps, when Gloria invites Peter to practise disco moves with her in her room.

For Bell, who won a Bafta Film Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Billy Elliot, the scene was an opportunity to show off his dance skills again.

"I choreographed it myself," he reveals. "I just looked up a bunch of Saturday Night Fever clips on YouTube. On a film that has its heavier moments and its more dramatic beats, I was really looking forward to shooting that scene, because it was just a chance for us to let loose and have some fun. And we did."

  • Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is in cinemas now