- Interview by
- Yann Demange
- Photography by
- Suzie Howell
- Styling by
- Grace Joel
Hair by Sarah Jo Palmer. Makeup by Celia Burton at JAQ Management. Photographer’s assistant: Caitlin Chescoe.
Bel Powley Refuses to Rest
As anyone who has worked with Bel Powley can surely tell you, she is absolutely fearless. Just ask Alexander Skarsgård, who played the object of her lust (who also happened to be her mother’s boyfriend) in her 2015 breakout The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Or Chris Evans, a fellow police officer in last year’s Tony-nominated revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero on Broadway. The daughter of a working actor—she was traumatized at a young age after watching him get shot on the long-running soap opera Emmerdale—the 27-year-old Powley was first cast in the high school spy series M.I. High as a teenager and made her stage début at London’s Royal Court at just seventeen and hasn’t stopped working since. This year, she’ll appear opposite Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show, one of the centerpieces of Apple’s new streaming service, and as the female lead in Judd Apatow’s next film with Pete Davidson. This busy schedule leaves little time for rest, but Yann Demange, who directed her in last year’s White Boy Rick, with Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt as the titular real-life teenage drug kingpin in Eighties Detroit, knows that is exactly how she likes it.
Bel Powley Hi Yann!
Yann Demange Hi Bel, where are you now?
BP I’m in LA. I’m living here until April.
YD How come? Are you shooting?
BP I’m shooting a show for Apple, the show that they’re launching the whole thing with. It’s going to be cool.
YD Ok, wicked. Who’s directing that?
BP It’s weird because they have so many different directors. I’m so not used to the way they do this. Mimi Leder is doing the first two, and then David Frankel, and then Lynn Shelton, and then they just keep adding people.
YD I like David Frankel.
BP Yeah he’s really nice. I love him because he directed The Devil Wears Prada and I think that is a sick movie. He’s really nice. When are you coming back to LA?
YD I keep postponing it, but I think I may come at the end of the month. I’ll give you a shout when I’m there. I’m going to be there for a couple weeks.
BP You keep postponing it, do you not want to come back? [Laughs]
YD No, not at all. I really don’t. I’m loving London right now.
BP Really? No! You’ve gone back to London and you’re like, “Fuck it!”
YD Ironically, London is where I first met you. The first time I saw your work, I was on the jury for the Zurich Film Festival and I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It was a first feature award and I watched fifteen films in like five days. It was fucking torture. One of them was The Diary of a Teenage Girl and I loved it.
BP When you heard the name, you were probably like, “I don’t think this is going to be for me.”
YD I feel really bad because I like to think I’m progressive and all that but I don’t think I would ever have clicked on it on Netflix or gone to see it, probably because of the title, which is a bit wanky of me. But when I watched the film I loved it. That’s when I first saw your work and I was like, “This girl’s fucking brilliant.” I thought Alexander Skarsgård was the best he’d ever been, and I loved the way it was directed. I’m a fanboy. I pushed for it to get an award.
BP He’s brilliant. You put it forward to get an award?
YD Yeah it got an award. Me and [producer Rosa Attab], there were a couple of us on the jury who pushed for it and it won something in Zurich. It’s hardly Cannes, but nonetheless, it’s how I first came across your work.
BP Well I’d known who you were for a long time. [Laughs]
YD Oh! [Laughs]
BP That character in The Diary of a Teenage Girl is so different from the character in White Boy Rick so I’m surprised that you actually were like, “Oh yeah, that could work.” [Laughs]
YD I just thought you were a banging actress. Actually, it was [casting director Francine Maisler] who brought your name up and I was like, “Oh my god, the girl from Teenage Girl,” I was like, “Yeah she’s brilliant, I’d love to meet her.” That’s when I found out you were from London and I was like, “Fuck off, no way!”
BP I know, I get that a lot.
YD I had no idea.
BP Especially now after White Boy Rick as well, people even more think that I’m American. I feel like I’ve never done anything in my own accent.
YD That’s not a bad thing, you know what Americans are like.
BP No it’s fine. I should just talk back to them in an American accent. [Laughs]
YD Yeah they prefer to think you’re American and when it comes to the rest of the world, they just don’t care.
BP That’s true actually.
YD Anyway I was like, “I’d love to meet her,” and I happened to be coming to London the following week. I was looking at boys for Rick in London as well.
BP Oh my god, you looked everywhere.
YD Yeah and that’s when I met you. Do you remember the first time we met?
BP Yeah I remember, in the casting suite and we just started talking about West London. You’re from Fulham, aren’t you? And you live on Golbourne Road?
YD I live on Golbourne Road. I’m W10 and you’re up the road.
BP I went to Holland Park and I grew up in Shepherd’s Bush. We were talking about that for ages and you were like, “Should we read some scenes?” [Laughs] Then we read some scenes and it went well I guess. I was quite nervous. You were like, “Read that scene,” and it was one of the scenes in the film where she’s really high. We read the scene where I’m visiting Rick in the hospital and I’m like, “Oh you still are a kid, Ricky.” I love that scene.
YD That scene’s brilliant.
BP I think we had read the scene when I’m being rescued from the crack house but originally it was written differently. There was a lot more dialogue but then when we actually did it in the end, it was a lot more screaming and kicking and punching Matthew McConaughey’s face. [Laughs]
YD You know you put his back out that day, right?
BP I know!
YD He’s only just got better. I saw him in London.
YD A year and a half later and he’s only just sorted his back out. [Laughs]
BP Oh my god, fuck. That’s so bad!
YD You smashed his back up. He wasn’t ready for that. [Both laugh]
YD You mentioned where you went to school. Talk about how you got into acting because it’s so crazy, you’re such a West London girl. It’s like having a proper New Yorker—you’re a proper London girl, a proper Londoner. How did you get into it?
BP It’s quite funny, it was a complete fluke. I was really quite geeky and I loved studying at school. I really just wanted to go to university and I wanted to study history and maybe be a history teacher. There was one point where I wanted to be prime minister.
YD You were going to be a history teacher?
BP I wanted to, yeah! I was quite precocious, a bit like a Hermoine Granger type. I really was quite a lot at school because I was quite annoying and I just loved studying. One day someone came into the school to do open auditions for a kids TV show called M.I. High, which is about child spies, it’s really funny. It was a CBBC show and me and all my friends went and we did an open audition for the show and I got the part. I came home and I was like, “Oh Mom and Dad I got a part in a CBBC show.” I was like thirteen or something. My dad’s an actor, I guess what you’d call a working actor, he did a lot of adverts and soaps when I was a kid, and he was obviously like, “No way.” They really wanted me to be the first one to go to university and do a sensible job and he was like, “No, you’re not doing this TV show.” I was like, “Please!” I was quite savvy, because I was like, “I know I’m going to make money, I can save money, it’ll be great.” So I ended up doing this show for two years and I really had no interest in acting, I did not care at all. I just was really happy that I was getting a little paycheck at the end. I got an agent out of that and then when I was in sixth form and I was about to go to UCL and study history, I got a role in a play.
YD [Laughs] I find it difficult to take you seriously as a history teacher.
BP Can you imagine? I wanted to be a history teacher in a big comprehensive like Holland Park. I wouldn’t have been able to control a class of thirty-one kids from Ladbroke Grove. It would’ve been a nightmare.
YD Holland Park is an iconic West London mixed comprehensive, what we call comps, so free schools. The thing about Holland Park is it’s like the poster child for diversity, it always has been. I love that school, it’s got a West Indian and Moroccan community and Portuguese. It’s a real cross-section of working-class kids but they somehow have a good education too. Did you enjoy your time there?
BP Yeah, really amazing. I loved it, even though I did get bullied quite a bit. But I think it was so character building and it just made me so much more worldly going to that school because of how multicultural it is. Everyone from every single part of the globe goes there and I just thought that was a really brilliant thing. I have some friends who went to private schools in West London and they’re just not nearly as aware of the world as me and my sister were when we were teenagers so I’m really glad my parents sent me there.
YD Did you go to set a lot when your dad was acting?
BP No, not at all. I was not really aware of what he did. I knew that he was an actor but that was kind of where it ended. He would go off a lot. He did a long stint in The Bill, a long stint in Emmerdale, and a long stint in Coronation Street. He would always be filming up north and then would come home on the weekend, but I never really watched him or anything, nor was I really that aware of it.
YD Coronation Street? Wow.
BP Yeah he owned a bookie’s in Coronation Street and then in Emmerdale he got shot. I remember in Emmerdale he got shot. It was a really weird storyline line, he had an affair with his adopted sister or something really horrific and then she ended up shooting him. I don’t know why my mum let me and my sister watch it. We were like eight and we watched my dad get shot on TV. We obviously thought it was real, we freaked out. It was mad.
YD Oh my god, that’s traumatic.
BP [Laughs] It was really traumatic!
YD What was the turning point for you where you wanted to take acting seriously?
BP It was when I did this play [Tusk Tusk] at the Royal Court. At the time I still wasn’t really interested in the whole thing. I know now, but I wasn’t aware that the Royal Court is one of the best theaters in England for new writing and how prolific it is. It was this play by this writer called Polly Stenham who had just had a massive hit with a play called That Face. Her first play was Felicity Jones and Matt Smith when they were really young and this was the sequel. It was about two teenagers. I was seventeen and I got the part and I had no idea how big of a deal that was, so I just turned up to rehearsal. I was glad that I was out of school. I’d show up to rehearsals like, “Cool, I’m bunking off school, doing this little play,” that actually was a fucking massive deal. I didn’t even know that plays got reviewed. We did opening night of this play upstairs at the Court so it was only a ninety-seat studio theater but it has a lot of influence, that theater. It’s the only time I’ve ever read a review because at the time I didn’t know you’re not meant to read them, so I read them all. I’m reading all these five-star reviews that were saying such nice things about me. [Laughs] I was like, “This is fucking amazing!”
YD Well you’re lucky. [Laughs]
BP [Laughs] And ever since then I’ve been like, “I’m never ever reading another review ever.” I was like, “It’s never going to get better than that. It’s never going to be as good a feeling,” so I’ve never read one since.
YD I like your style. At what point did Teenage Girl come along then?
BP After this play I did four years of really great theater. I worked with Tom Stoppard on Broadway and then I came back and did a West End show.
YD Oh wow, I had no idea.
BP Yeah I did four years of plays which I’m really grateful for, because I didn’t train or anything, so I feel like it was in a way some sort of training working on stage with these brilliant directors. I had an American agent but I’d never booked anything. I’d done a couple pilot seasons but nothing had ever happened and then they sent me The Diary of a Teenage Girl and I was like, “Wait, what the fuck? This is me!” I had such a visceral reaction to reading that script, and I’m sure any woman would, but the whole film rings so true for anyone who has been a teenage girl in her life. I was like, “I have to play this part.” I did an audition tape and then at the end I tagged on this weird speech of just me personally speaking to the director being like, “Please call me. This is me. I have so many things to say to you.” She watched it and was like, “Oh she seems interesting,” and we actually got on the phone and then it all kind of went from there. It was a very mad situation. I flew over, read with Alex Skarsgård, and then I got the job. I have no idea how I did, but that was it.
YD You never actually went to drama school then? So your technical training was your theater?
BP Yeah, totally.
YD It’s surprising to hear that because I thought you were quite a technical actor, working with you.
BP Do you? Interesting.
YD I think you are. You’re quite precise, you’ve got technique. I was a little bit nervous if you could get the Detroit thing.
BP Oh my god, the accent. It was so bad! [Laughs]
YD But I thought you were really on point and technical. Do you remember the first rehearsals?
BP I’d never been so nervous in my entire life. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, for example, I could relate to that character so much, but Dawn was so different for me because it was coming at it from a completely different angle. I had nothing, I didn’t relate to Dawn really at all. I had to really dig deep to find something to latch onto with her. It wasn’t as simple as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which was like, “Oh I was a teenager, I’ve felt that, I’ve felt this.” With Dawn, I was like, “Fuck, it’s Detroit, it’s crack, it couldn’t be more different from me,” so I didn’t know how I was going to attack it. Then, plus we had the accent on top of it. I could do a standard American accent pretty easily, but this was just a completely different beast. It was so difficult. Then also there’s the element of when I was using the accent, there was a voice in my head being like, “You sound so fucking stupid, you can’t do this, you’re not capable of this.” When I got to the first rehearsal I was so nervous. Matthew McConaughey was there, I’d barely met the guy yet. We did this rehearsal and you just took me outside and were like, “Bel, why do you sound like you’re from London?” And I was like, “Oh god!” I literally went back and was crying all weekend. I was like, “I’m fired, this is so bad.” I think it was good because it gave me a bit of a kick up the bum, and then I spent all weekend working on it and then I just got to set on Monday and hopefully I think it was ok. Something clicked inside me.
YD I remember it slightly differently. I wasn’t nervous, because I just thought you’d got this. Though you say you were scared, it didn’t show at all. You held your own. Because in the film you have a bit of a fractured relationship, Matthew decided not to interact too much with you to leave that space, that distance. That could’ve been quite intimidating and I thought you handled it really well.
BP It was.
YD Did you find it a bit intimidating at first?
BP I did find it intimidating, I think just also because I wasn’t warned about it. He didn’t say anything to me so I didn’t know really where I stood with him. Then eventually after a few days I realized like, “Oh, ok I get it. This is what he’s doing.” Actually Alexander Skarsgård did a very similar thing with me on The Diary of a Teenage Girl, so I recognized it. I was like, “He’s trying to create some distance between us.”
YD It’s a bit touch-and-go when an actor decides to do that. I don’t think it works if an actor warns you. It just doesn’t, that’s the nature of it. You can’t warn someone. Even I was a little bit surprised. I thought he trod a fine line with it because he wasn’t nasty about it. I thought he didn’t throw you off your game, but I thought you reacted to it really well. I do remember that first rehearsal because you were on another job and you came over quite late. I think you arrived on the Wednesday before we were shooting that Monday and we did a rehearsal on the Thursday. You definitely hadn’t got the accent yet. And I was like, “Oh shit, she’s a London girl.” [Laughs]
BP But you were fine, you weren’t mean. You were like, “Yeah I think you should just go away and think about that for a bit.” It was good, I did need that.
YD I was actually considering changing the schedule to give you more time and you were like, “No I’ve got this, I’ll be alright.”
BP And then I did.
YD And then you did it the first Monday morning. I have to say I was a little bit nervous myself about it. [Laughs]
BP [Laughs] I’ve done a few weird ones and honestly it’s good to have someone sit there and teach you the phonetics and stuff, but one day, it just falls into place. Because it’s training your mouth to use different muscles. I know that sounds a bit wanky but that really is what it is. You practice and practice and practice and then usually there’s just a day where you’re like, “Oh I can do it now,” and I guess that’s what happened.
YD This is what I mean about you sounding quite technical. You were saying this at the time and there were lots of things you were saying. I don’t think you realize this, it’s good that you’re not that conscious about it, but you’re pretty technical. I would say for your generation you’re one of the most transformative actresses because of that. You’ve got technique. I can trust you can do more or less anything within reason. I think you’re incredible to watch. What do you think was the hardest scene for you in the film?
BP I think it probably was actually that first scene we shot.
YD It was full on, wasn’t it?
BP It was very full on because you originally wanted to do it in one shot.
YD I could not believe you didn’t want to wear pants.
BP I know, but it looked good in the end.
YD When you said to me, “I want to do it in socks and no trousers, in my knickers,” I was like, “Are you sure? Do you know how many times I’m going to ask you to fucking do this? Do you know how cold it is outside?” That was pretty insane.
BP You were like, “You do realize it’s going to be raining and snowing for the next few days.” You originally wanted to do it in one shot. It was mad.
YD [Richie Merritt, who played Rick,] couldn’t do it, it was unfair to Richie. He’d just get out of it if I did it in one take. In the end I think it was much better splitting it up. Basically you drive the scene, you and Matthew, but that energy over and over again was insane.
BP It was so much fun. It was great. Another scene that was actually really hard, I’m just remembering, is the scene in the diner with Richie, which is one of my favorites. It’s such a beautiful scene and it’s so funny at the end when they get their guns out. But we shot it all in one direction and then you came up to me and Richie and you were like, “So something in this scene isn’t working, I think we’re going to do it again, but just make it up, just try something different.” Listen, I hate improvisation. I feel like any relatively seasoned actor is terrified of improvisation. I was like, “What the fuck, I don’t know what to say,” and I’m doing this accent and with Richie, he’s not even an actor, like, “What are we going to do?” He was incredible, he pulled me aside and was like, “So listen, Bel, this is what’s going to happen. I’m going to say this, you’re going to say this,” and he wrote the whole scene for us. Then we sat down and it was banging and that was what ended up being in the final cut.
YD It was the best thing that happened. It wasn’t about you, that bit, that moment. I couldn’t believe Richie in the scene. It was flat and written and it was one of those moments where he just couldn’t do it and I was like, “I’m flogging a dead horse.” This is one of the challenges of the film. I’ve got someone that I would consider like I said a technical actress, a really proficient, technical actor who can hit all the beats and understands the shape of the scene, and I had a non-actor that just was flat and wasn’t bringing it and wasn’t listening to you, reacting to the scene. I was like, “Well, I’ve got to just change it up.” That spun you out a little bit, but you handled it well because ultimately we had to bring him alive, he had to react to you and I thought you were great in that moment. You saved it.
BP No, he saved it. He saved it because he made it up. He was brilliant.
YD Well we had to give him the freedom. I wish I’d done that more actually, looking back, given him the freedom to rewrite it and change it, because once he got confident, he found the truth in it.
BP Aw he was so great.
YD He’s so sweet. I think you were amazing with him actually. It’s worth saying. It was a great help to me the way you took him under your wing and the way you played the role and you basically stayed in character, didn’t you? You behaved like you were seventeen, eighteen the whole time and you were behaving like a teenager around him all the time, which really helped him I thought.
BP Yeah because he felt like we were allies, like we were brother and sister because we were having fun together. There was nothing to be afraid of, I was not intimidating in any way. I guess in a way it was kind of like what Matthew did with me. I just created the actual, real relationship that we were meant to have in the film in real life. Also I wanted him to be able to talk to me if he had any issues or anything. I wanted him to trust me basically and I think he did. He’s ten years younger than me. [Laughs]
YD I loved the way that sometimes he was trying to behave like your older brother and you were just rolling your eyes.
BP [Laughs] He was like, “No I got you, I got you,” and I was like, “Ok…”
YD “I got you, Bel, I got you,” that’s it. He’d say that to me sometimes. It was kind of reassuring when he’d say it. Do you find it hard switching between theater and film? Because after White Boy you did this play, Lobby Hero. I loved you in that play and again, it was such a different role.
BP I had so much fucking fun doing that play. It was great. It’s a brilliant play. It’s a Kenny Lonergan play, it’s a very dark comedy. I was playing an NYPD cop, which is pretty hilarious. I like doing both side by side. They almost feel like completely different jobs to me, it’s exercising a completely different muscle. I love the rehearsal process that you get in theater. I get really anxious if I get onto a film set or TV set and there’s no rehearsal. It really freaks me out. I feel like I need to have a real basis for who my character is before I can fucking get on set and do anything and you really get that in theater. It’s different and I feel like your character development in theater is different. You’re doing the same thing seventy times in a row or something every night and you’ll suddenly be three months in and you’ll look back at a moment and be like, “Wow, this moment feels so different from how it felt the first time I did it,” and it’s developed very, very, very slowly. You get to know your character more slowly, whereas in film, you can change what you’re doing ten times in a row in ten minutes. I find it really fascinating.
YD Have you found that it’s important for you to keep going back to theater? I don’t want to divulge, but I know you get a lot of offers and you get sent a lot of stuff and I realize you’ve been really picky after Teenage Girl. Let’s just say Teenage Girl is where you blew up and you got a lot of attention. Talk a little bit about how you pick the roles and what makes you very discerning.
BP Firstly yes I have to do theater and film. I’d like to do a play at least once every two years. Ideally once a year but that sometimes doesn’t fit in with my schedule—but I have to do one every two years. It feels weird. I get itchy feet if I haven’t done one. It doesn’t have to be West End or Broadway, it can be a fucking Off West End small theater in London. The thing is it just really grounds you.
YD Does it anchor you?
BP Yeah, totally. It’s so stripped back, it brings you back to the raw organics of what creating a character really is. But in terms of picking stuff, it has to be a director who’s going to inspire me. I don’t want to work with a shit director, but who does? [Laughs] It doesn’t necessarily have to be a role that I can relate to. It has to be something that’s going to be interesting enough. That’s such a boring answer, but isn’t that true? I think the main thing is the people that I’m working around. I would be scared to go into something where I didn’t know the director’s work or didn’t know any of the other actors. I think it has to be people that I feel like I’m going to learn from and can teach me something. I don’t want to be the person leading the ship right now. Maybe one day in life but not now.
YD I’m sure it’s going to come. Are you saying goodbye to London?
BP No way! You keep asking me that. I’m very happy being here for a couple of months but one hundred million percent I’m going straight back to London. I’ll never leave London.
YD Because you’re a London girl?
BP Yes. I’m surprised you’d want to leave London—well you don’t now.
YD It’s almost like an exile, you hit a ceiling here as a director and it’s tough to get anything with ambition made or get anything off the ground. This new diversity drive is exciting so there’s more opportunities opening up. There was a time, people like me and Riz Ahmed, we all had to jump to try and take things up a notch. It’s nice to be back right now. Alright Bel, good to hear you’re going to stay in London.
BP Come back soon!
White Boy Rick is out on digital now.
- Interview by
- Yann Demange
- Photography by
- Suzie Howell
- Styling by
- Grace Joel
Hair by Sarah Jo Palmer. Makeup by Celia Burton at JAQ Management. Photographer’s assistant: Caitlin Chescoe.