“I don’t really have a go-to style,” says 18-year-old British actress Ellie Bamber. “I can change from an Audrey Hepburn type of thing to ’70s stuff.” Yet, it’s Bamber’s ability to be a chameleon onstage and onscreen that attracted the likes of Tom Ford. The fashion designer turned director recently cast Bamber in his sophomore film, Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s thriller Tony and Susan. In it, a man sends his ex-wife a manuscript for a novel, and she becomes infatuated with the protagonist, Tony Hastings. Bamber plays the character’s daughter, India, in scenes taken from a book within a book. “I’m from just outside London, near Reading,” she says, “so I loved the opportunity to take on a Southern accent for the role. I watched Sissy Spacek in Badlands to prepare. To have [co-stars] Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher as parents was amazing.” Bamber might have been looking to Spacek for inspiration, but on set she acquired the nickname Barbarella, the sexy sci-fi superhero immortalized by Jane Fonda. “Tom started that,” she says.
Back in her native England, the buzz around Bamber is deafening. She was nominated for a Best Newcomer in a Musical Evening Standard award for her turn in the musical High Society at the Old Vic in London, and she soon will be seen playing Lydia Bennet in the big-screen adaptation of the undead Jane Austen tribute Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “I get to be flirtatious and kidnapped by Jack Huston—which doesn’t happen every day.” Not bad for a young actress who got into acting as a preteen for humble reasons. “Acting for me was therapeutic,” she says. “It was a way of expressing yourself.”
Bamber is also a compulsive list-maker: her favorite movies, song lyrics, food. Lately, she’s been obsessing over the Japanese rice cake mochi after Gyllenhaal introduced her to it on set. Perhaps the biggest impression of her Nocturnal Animals experience, however, was her first meeting with Ford. “People were rushing around in his London office with clothes and scented candles,” she recalls. “He arrived and took me through to his office. He’s such a cool guy and extremely handsome.” She says of his directing manner, “He wants to see every detail. Aesthetically he knows what he wants, which meant I could concentrate on acting.”