Ella Purnell Takes Chloë Grace Moretz Into the Wasteland

Ella Purnell

Ella Purnell, photographed by Thomas Whiteside.

When Ella Purnell signed up to star in the post-apocalyptic drama and video game adaption Fallout, she was ready for a complete transformation. Coming in armed with a chipper American accent and glossy wig, she ventured into an apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles in the year 2996 as Lucy MacLean, on a mission to save her father from a post-nuclear wasteland. After a grueling eight-month shoot that took the cast and crew from Utah to New York to the remote skeleton coast of Namibia (where she briefly dodged hyenas), Ella had completed her transformation, one she was initially worried she might not do justice. “Coming into something so famous and well-loved can be really intimidating,” she told her old friend and avid gamer Chloë Grace Moretz last week. “I had eight weeks to prep for the show, and there are 25 years of lore behind it.” In conversation, the two talked Pip-Boys, mutated salamanders, ego death and, of course, world peace.


CHLOË GRACE MORETZ: Well, hello. Welcome to the interview.

ELLA PURNELL: Well, this is weird. I thought it would be weird, and it is.

MORETZ: I’m going to absolutely grill you. I’m going to ask you all the questions that you don’t want anyone to ask.

PURNELL: [Laughs] All right.

MORETZ: I’ve watched four episodes so far, and I’m going to binge the rest of it tonight, because it just came out today. I loved it. Outside of knowing you, you’re my favorite character in the show, and you captured Lucy in such a brilliant way. I have to say, your accent is insanely good. 

PURNELL: I’m so happy you said that. I watched the trailer and I was like, “Oh, my God, no.” I can hear all the words that I struggle with. I was like, “My dialect coach, she’s going to drop me as a client.” Which, by the way, I’m not sure has ever been done before.

MORETZ: Have you worked with your dialect coach for a long time? 

PURNELL: Yeah. She’s fantastic. Her name’s Kohli Calhoun, and I worked with her on Sweetbitter. I have quite a low, gravelly voice, and I wanted it to be clean and pristine and very chipper. What I was doing was sounding really nasal. I had to figure out the muscles that I was using, and how to make the sound from my solar plexus, and not my nasal passage, or my throat. 

MORETZ: It was a long shoot, right? You guys were filming this for a while, so being able to have that sustainably throughout production in high intensity situations is hard.

PURNELL: Yeah. I didn’t realize how much endurance it takes. You’re hardly getting any sleep, and the physical aspect of it really takes its toll after a while.

MORETZ: Of course. So speaking of the show, obviously, you got to work with Jonah [Jonathan Nolan] and Lisa [Joy], who I worked with on The Peripheral, and they’re incredible. Jonah actually directed you in the first three episodes, right? How was that experience? 

PURNELL: He felt like our leader, the most formidable powerhouse. You know him, he knows exactly what he wants, and he’s got insane technical knowledge. Usually with directors it’s a little more imbalanced, but Jonah absolutely can do both, and he trusts his actors.

MORETZ: When you were prepping for it did you jump into the lore of the game? Or did you just focus on the scripts? 

PURNELL: I would not consider myself a gamer but I played the game in research for this. Coming into something so famous and well-loved—and video game fans are so passionate—that can be really intimidating. It’s a fine line of wanting to respect that and do a good job, but also, I had eight weeks to prep for the show, and there are 25 years of lore behind it.


PURNELL: Me, being the A1 Virgo, is like the child actor perfectionist, frantically trying to get all of the information in my brain. I had a little bit of creative freedom, because my character didn’t exist in the game. For me personally, it was more about getting the most I could out of the experience. Putting on the vault suit and the Pip-Boy for the first time, just feeling how lucky I was to be in that position. 

MORETZ: Yeah. When you put on the suit is that when you’re like, “Oh, shit. I’m doing Fallout. That’s pretty cool.”

PURNELL: It was exactly that moment. I remember, I already had the part, and they did a chemistry test for Aaron Moten who plays Maximus, and they flew us to New York, and I guess this is how they used to do it back in the day, but–

MORETZ: Like the old school screen tests?

PURNELL: Yeah, you’re in costume, you are in hair and makeup, the set’s been built. It feels like your first day at work. And Chloe, I bombed so hard.

MORETZ: No. Really? What did you do?

PURNELL: I didn’t know my lines. I was jet-lagged. I flew in from Hawaii and I was so tired and unwell. This guy was so good and was really bringing it. He had tears in his eyes and I was like, “I’m ruining this man’s audition. They’re going to give him the part and they’re going to take it away from me.” Part of it was nerves, it just all hit me at once.

MORETZ: Oh, for sure. I feel like watching it, you embodied the show in such an interesting way. Your character was so brilliant. There’s so much latent comedy built into the horror and the gore and it was so fun to watch her slowly devolve and turn into one of the creatures of the wasteland. It was done in such a great way, because you’re sneakily giggling, and then you’re like, “Oh my God, no. Things are really dangerous, and they’re about to do something really bad.”

PURNELL: You’re a gamer, right? Did you play the games?

MORETZ: Yeah. I love gaming, probably a little too much, but–

PURNELL: I know this to be true.

MORETZ: This is totally true. So, how was it? How long did you say you had to prep, two months?

PURNELL: Actually three months or so.

MORETZ: Did you do anything to build chemistry with the people? I mean, your character is out of her element in general, so it wasn’t like you needed immediate chemistry with everybody. 

PURNELL: We did. Jonah, Geneva and Graham, who are the writers and show runners, did about a week of rehearsals.

MORETZ: Uh-huh.

PURNELL: It was sitting down and reading with your scene partners, and it was actually the way I love to work. I don’t like to over-rehearse something before you start filming it. In my experience, if I try to build chemistry with someone, it doesn’t translate. Sometimes the best ones are just like, “I don’t, let’s play, and see what happens.” It’s also really hard to have chemistry with a bad actor, and all of these actors were so good. I remember being opposite Walton, who plays the ghoul for the first time, and I had no idea how this character was going to be. Just reading it on the script, that’s when you have to play the games to understand.

MORETZ: Right.

PURNELL: You can read about the ghoul, but you can’t really conceptualize this mutant irradiated cowboy. They described him in the script as his face looks like a melted candle, and my version of that is going to look completely different.

MORETZ: Totally, yeah.

PURNELL: But reading opposite him and hearing the accent, and he does this thing with his teeth, it’s like a lisp, and it’s totally transformative. It took me immediately out of that room and into the scene. It’s inspiring, and that’s where the chemistry comes from. It pushes you to be better. You have to do all the prep about your character and your role, but you also have to understand your part in other people’s storylines. Sometimes you have to move ego or self-interest out of the way in order to serve the greater story.

MORETZ: Mm-hmm. I feel like that’s so important with television. It is such a different medium than film, in the sense that with long form storytelling, you have to really understand the scope of your character. You said you did block shooting?

PURNELL: Mm-hmm. It’s hard. You think the hard part about acting is reading these crazy scenes, where you’re fighting a mutated salamander? No, that is the part that we love.

MORETZ: [Laughs] Yeah, totally. But you shot those exterior desert scenes, which are the first scenes of her coming out of the vault, in the summer?

PURNELL: Exactly. We did the classic Jonah thing like, “All right, we’re going to get the reverse in June, right at the beginning, and then we’re going to pick up your coverage in Namibia in month eight.” That’s something you don’t consider when you’re reading the script.

MORETZ: Right.

Ella Purnell

Ella Purnell, photographed by Thomas Whiteside.

PURNELL: It could be 105 degrees during this fight scene, when you’re wearing 300 layers. Walton had it really bad. He’s in head-to-toe prosthetics. The waistcoat was made of leather.

MORETZ: That’s hot. 

PURNELL: Hot, and there’s no shade, of course. We’re doing this fight, with this 15-foot mutated salamander that I was talking about–

MORETZ: I love the salamander, with the fingers.

PURNELL: Well, originally the fingers were teeth, when we were filming it, because they made that puppet.

MORETZ: Fingers are scarier, if I’m being honest.

PURNELL: The fingers are crazy. I do remember someone being like, “Teeth are fingers now? Who came up with that?” It was great.


PURNELL: Graham’s twisted little mind. But yeah, Walton was such a trooper. He really got through it. The hardest one for me was there was a sandstorm in Namibia, when we were shooting where Lucy meets her first person, on the surface, the farmer–

MORETZ: Right, with the diaper.

PURNELL: The diaper farmer. 

MORETZ: Yeah. So where all did you guys shoot? You were in Utah, Namibia, New York, is that it?

PURNELL: Utah, Namibia, New York. And then, I don’t know if you remember when Lucy comes out of the vault and she’s traipsing across the wasteland and she goes past this giant abandoned shipwreck? That location was a four-hour helicopter ride away, so only eight of us went. 

MORETZ: Long time on a helicopter.

PURNELL: Yeah. When it’s this [gestures] small and you have no Wi-Fi. Luckily the view wasn’t terrible so we were able to lose ourselves a little bit. We were watching hundreds of sea lions and pups being born on the beach, and then watching jackals and hyenas come and eat them. It was pretty–


PURNELL: Yeah. We saw a couple sad savage sights on the way. And Jonah and I were playing with these bones on the ground and I’m like, “Wait a minute, jackals and hyenas make dens, right?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Okay.” He says, “Action.” I start walking towards this shipwreck and he goes, “Watch out for the hyena.”

MORETZ: Were you scared?

PURNELL: Yep. By myself, no security. I’m in this high and wide drone shot of this abandoned shipwreck, walking into a ship that could potentially be full of jackals. I’m like, “Yeah, this is Fallout.”

MORETZ: This is peak Fallout. Did you have a kind of clear idea of what you wanted Lucy to look like?

PURNELL: Not at all. I remember I actually showed up to my first fitting with blue hair. I was going through something. I emailed our head of hair like, “So nice to meet you. Just a heads-up, my hair is blue.” And he replied, “I like you already.” It was great.


PURNELL: I actually envisioned her blonde when I read it, and I’m glad that didn’t happen because it means I didn’t have to bleach my hair. Also, three-fourths of my hair is a wig and no one would ever know.

MORETZ: Really?

PURNELL: This is an exclusive.

MORETZ: Scoop, baby. This is the scoop.

PURNELL: It’s a wig. So the front of it was my real hair.


PURNELL: The back was a wig because mine was too short. 

MORETZ: It looked perfect. It was exactly what I would’ve imagined for her. It made sense that it was a wig though, because it was so perfectly healthy. I should have known. I got fooled by the movie magic.

PURNELL: Yeah. I don’t know if you’re like me and you lose your mind two weeks before you start filming and you start buying whitening strips and over-plucking your eyebrows because you’re like, “I have to be beautiful and perfect.” But I definitely felt that with Lucy, knowing that she’s super–

MORETZ: So perfect. 

PURNELL: Yeah, she’s good at everything. She’s a Barbie doll, born and raised. She doesn’t have bad tattoos that she regrets getting when she was 19 years old. I was so hyper-fixated on how she looks, and then of course we start and Jonah’s like, “We’re shooting on film.” I’m like, none of this matters, you won’t see any of this.

MORETZ: No. It’ll be perfectly blurry.

PURNELL: That’s the beauty of shooting on film. You don’t have those cameras just picking up every pore on your body.

MORETZ: Yeah, I hate shooting on really high-definition digital because you feel like your every pore is going to be way too big.

PURNELL: I agree with that. I know both genders have a lot of fear and self-consciousness around what they look like on screen, and it’s one of the things about being an actor that people don’t talk about as much because we’re all very lucky and grateful. Seeing your face on this giant screen, you’re never going to be like, “I look perfect in every way.” You are always seeing things that other people don’t see, and it takes a lot of growth to surrender. Especially being a child actor, it fast-tracks you to this path of self-love because you have to, otherwise I really don’t see how you could survive in this industry.

MORETZ: Yeah, you have to have this naive sense of, “Everything is going to be great.” Especially as a child actor, you can devolve into self-consciousness so quickly and be too self-aware on camera. But the whole point of acting is to not be self-aware and to be able to live in the moment, but it’s such a massive contradiction when you have 200 people around you and a camera right in your face. 

PURNELL: Exactly. You’re right. Having these incredibly intimate moments where you’re really trying to lose yourself and not be aware, but there is a small part in the back of your mind that’s like, “Oh God, remember to push out your chin and don’t do that thing with your eyebrows that everybody hates.” You can’t win, right? The famous speech from Barbie has never rung more true to me. 

MORETZ: I know whenever I watch something for the first time I’m like, “Worst acting of my life. I was horrible. My career’s over.” Then I watch it a third time and I’m like, “It’s kind of good…”

PURNELL: I’m the same way. The first time I watch anything, I’m like, “Oh, I hate it. I look awful. My acting is terrible. My accent is bad.”

MORETZ: Who’s ever going to hire me again?

PURNELL: “I’ve got to quit. I’m going to move to Bali. I’m going to open up a tiki bar on the beach.”

MORETZ: I can see that happening as a side quest in between projects, anyway. Is there going to be a season two? 

PURNELL: I don’t know, truthfully. I would love to do another one.

MORETZ: Right. What do you hope that people take away from the show? 

PURNELL: I just hope they like it, or at least just don’t hate it. 

MORETZ: They’re not going to hate it.

PURNELL: My second more thoughtful instinct is that there’s a message of hope that can be drawn from this show. I really like the way that it explores morality and choices. With Lucy in particular, her courage comes from choosing to believe that people are good, even though she’s being tortured and punished. Even though she might, spoiler, have to adapt to survive, she ends the season with strength and hope. I suppose it’s relatable, the potential for the end of the world, but humans will always find a way to use humor as a coping mechanism, and I hope we don’t lose our humanity.

MORETZ: That’s incredible.

PURNELL: I feel like I’m Miss America. 


PURNELL: World peace!

MORETZ: World peace. All right.

PURNELL: It’s so good to see you. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.

MORETZ: Of course, babe. Thank you for asking me. We should hang out in person at some point soon.