Discovery: Bel Powley


In a perfect world, Bel Powley would do one play a year in London or New York. “It doesn’t have to be in the West End; it doesn’t have to be on Broadway. It could be a small studio theater,” she says over the phone from London.

Although the British actress began her professional acting career in children’s television, theater is Powley’s passion. Since making her stage debut at the Royal Court’s studio theater in London at the age of 17, she’s starred in Arcadia on Broadway opposite Tom Riley and in the West End hit Jumpy by April de Angelis. Earlier this month, she wrapped Elephants, a new, raw play about a family’s first Christmas following the murder of their son at the Hampstead Theatre’s downstairs space in London. Powley played Daisy, who is coping poorly with her older brother’s death—she was sent to a mental hospital for offering to give her university professor a blow job and stabbed herself in the chest with scissors to mimic her brother’s fatal wounds. Daisy is the play’s catalyst: her brutal, at times extremely inappropriate honesty forces her family to confront the lies they want to believe. “I don’t feel like I properly started acting until I did my first play, Tusk, Tusk,” Powley explains.

It’s about to get a lot more difficult, however, for Powley to find the time for theater. She has three films set for release this year: Diary of a Teenage Girl, one of the most buzzed-about Sundance films, with Kristen Wiig; Drake DoremusEquals with Kristen Stewart; and Girls’ Night Out, in which she plays Princess Margaret opposite Sarah Gadon‘s future Queen Elizabeth. Earlier this week, Powley was cast in Detour alongside indie it-boy Tye Sheridan.

AGE: 22

HOMETOWN: Shepherd’s Bush, West London

CURRENT LOCATION: Peckham, South-East London. I was born and bred in London. I love London; I could never really move away. I always want to come back.

THE BEGINNING: My first professional audition as an actor was when I was about 12 years old, and it was for a children’s television show called M.I. High, which I ended up doing for two years. I don’t think I really had any idea what was going on. I think it’s different when you start when you’re young and you’re still at school—there’s not the pressure on you. It didn’t feel like a job because I wasn’t paying rent or supporting a family. It just felt like fun. I probably would have done it all for free.

THE TRANSITION: I had a place to go to university; I was going to study history. I was in New York doing Arcadia and I suddenly thought, “It feels a bit weird to go from a New York stage to Manchester University.” It didn’t quite feel right. [laughs] So I deferred it for a couple of years, and kind of toyed with the idea of going and then I just ended up never going. There’s so much pressure on young people to go to university when they’re 18 or 19, but actually in the grand scheme of it, I don’t think it matters to do it at that time.

FAMILY BACKGROUND: My dad’s an actor and my mum’s a casting director and a writer. It’s funny when people bring that up, or when I tell people that, because people always just assume, “Oh, you come from a really show business family, that must be why you got into this.” Or, “Your parents must have wanted you to go along with what they were doing all their lives!” But actually it’s really not the case. They wanted anything but me and my sister to be actresses. They were like, “Please be a doctor, be a lawyer, do something sensible!” They really wanted me to go to university, but I guess you follow your heart. Now they have no choice but to support me. [laughs]

THE NEW PLAY: I’m still doing this play Elephants. I have one week left. I’m still really enjoying it. I have to say, I started to resent it a little bit when I was doing it on Boxing Day. [laughs] But I’m having the best time. It’s kind of stressful—it’s not a happy-clappy Christmas piece. But it’s really interesting to play the role that I’m playing—I’ve never played someone who is mentally unstable before. It takes a lot of energy. There’s the challenge of not being an actor who’s playing an unstable person, it’s about becoming a mentally unstable person on stage. I like the challenge. I like a challenge, basically.

The Hampstead Theatre Downstairs is just for new writing; there’s no press allowed so that new writers can come and work on their pieces with really good actors and without judgment. I worked with [Elephants‘ playwright] Rose [Heiney] on a pilot she wrote a couple of years ago and we got on really well. She’s hilarious. It’s her first play and I think working with new writers is just more interesting. It’s much more of a collaborative experience. I think there’s a lot more pressure when you’re doing a role that a 100 other people have done before [than when you’re doing a new play]. Arcadia was an immense amount of pressure. If you’ve got a new play and a new role, then you can mold it how you want it to be, and you can talk with the writer—they’re sitting right there. You can decide together and when the play gets published, it’s your name in the front. You created that role yourself. If you’re doing something like Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, which has been done millions and millions of times, and it’s been played some unbelievably well-respected actors, there’s a lot more pressure there. But I try not to think about all the other people who have done it before me. You’ve got to try and be original

THE AMERICAN DEBUT: Diary of a Teenage Girl was my first American movie. It was my first movie in an American accent. It’s based on a graphic novel, which was written in 2002 by someone called Phoebe Gloeckner. It was turned into a play by Marielle Heller, who then wrote it as a screenplay for Sundance Labs. It’s set in 1976 and it follows a young teenage girl living in San Francisco who strikes up an affair with her mum’s boyfriend, who Alexander Skarsgård plays. Kristen Wiig plays the mum, and I play the girl. I guess you could call it a coming of age story. It’s a story about learning about your sexuality and learning about who you are, but set against the backdrop of navigating her way through this affair, and how that affects her. It’s pretty intense but it’s really beautiful and it looks amazing. It was weird watching it because I’m in every single scene of the movie, so it was a bit relentless and I don’t think any actor loves watching themselves. But I’m really proud of it and really proud of Marielle.

DRAKE DOREMUS’ EQUALS: Later in 2014 I did my second American movie, which is a film called Equals directed by Drake Doremus, another Sundance dude. But that’s a very different film—it’s set far away from 1976, sometime in the future.  [Doremus] kind of invented people in the future who were born with no emotion, so we all spoke in a very strange, kind of robotic-esque way. [Unlike Doremus’ other films] Equals was scripted, but only because it would have been hard to improvise. He’s still incredibly free with the way that he shoots stuff—there’s no rehearsal on set so he kind of plunks a camera somewhere, puts you somewhere, and then says, “Go.” You play the scene and then instead of cutting, you just do it again and again and again until Drake cuts. So although it’s not improvised, it still brings an element of spontaneity to the shooting, which is really cool.

GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT: Is an English movie, which is also super different! It’s based on a load of rumors that on VE night, the night that the war ended, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth denounced their titles and went to join the crowds of London to celebrate the end of the war. Everyone has all these stories, like, “I saw Margaret in this club” or “I saw Elizabeth dancing with this man” and stuff like that. It’s a dramatization of all those rumors. Julian Jarrold directed it; he’s brilliant. I played Margaret, which was really fun because, as everyone said to me while I was shooting, “Oh Margaret is the fun one! Margaret is the naughty one!”[laughsI got to do a lot of falling over and drinking lots of prosecco and champagne, and running off with different interesting characters. And I got to wear some amazing clothes. Sarah Gadon, who played Elizabeth, is absolutely brilliant. Rupert Everett plays king George. I love him so much. [laughs] He’s the coolest guy ever. Parts of it are very funny and tongue-in-cheek, and parts of it stay true to what happened to Elizabeth, so it’s got that element to it. Then there are parts that are quite dark as well. But generally it will be a more light-hearted film, especially my bits. They’re quite comedic.

THE FIRST FILM FESTIVAL: I have no idea what to expect [at Sundance] because it’s my first time at any film festival. I can’t actually believe it’s happening. I don’t really feel like I will believe it until I get there and I’m trudging around in the snow with everyone. The movie is something I’m really proud of so I can’t wait for other people to see it.

SEEING STARS: I’ve been star-struck once. I’m a strong believer that everyone’s just a person. Whether you’ve seen someone on screen do something amazing or they’re super famous or whatever, everyone’s just a person and they do exactly what all people do. But I was doing this play Jumpy in the West End with Tamsin Greig, and you know she’s in Episodes, that TV show with Matt LeBlanc. He came to see the show and we all had a drink afterwards and obviously I grew up watching Friends. I couldn’t quite get it out of my head that it was Joey Tribbiani. I’m sure that he wouldn’t be happy to hear someone saying that. But that was the only time that I was vaguely star struck.


For more from the Sundance Film Festival 2015, click here.