Former child star and face of cult hit Sweetbitter Ella Purnell is all grown up – and she’s got something to say
In the past few years, Ella Purnell has gone from doe-eyed child star to quick-witted leading lady. She appeared in Never Let Me Go as a junior Keira Knightley, Maleficent as little Angelina and The Legend of Tarzan as a young Margot Robbie. These were followed by roles in Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the acclaimed Churchill, but it’s her part in Amazon’s new series Sweetbitter that’s cementing her status as a trailblazing talent. In a coming-of-age story that coincided with her own initiation into adulthood, Ella stars as Tess, a girl who moves to New York and lands a job waitressing at a top restaurant, exposing her to a world of high-end food, fast living and inappropriate relationships. The actor schools us on wines, waitressing and new beginnings… ‘I had to transition from child to adult actress.
I asked myself, “Is this still what I want to do?” There’s a lot of pressure as a young actor to be working all the time. I’d reached a point where I wasn’t getting the things I wanted. ‘I feel strongly about not taking girlfriend roles or characters that need saving. If you’re not inspired by work, you lose your passion. I’d been asking myself whether I was taking the jobs I wanted to be taking. What’s my responsibility to young women? Then I got Sweetbitter and it turned everything around. This character, Tess, didn’t have any idea or any real prospects, and she was quite chilled in the sense of “I don’t really know who I am, but I’m OK with that”. I was drawn to her self-confidence and self-belief. It felt like a really truthful portrayal.
‘I adore Sofia Coppola and Greta Gerwig. I’m dying to work with them both. I want to do projects with badass women. We’re seeing more female-led films now; and I want to see female-led production teams, too. I first worked with a female director when I was a teenager [Kinga Burza directed Ella in Candy], and I’ve only ever worked with three. Thankfully, the male-to-female ratio on set is slowly changing. ‘The biggest difference I’ve noticed is the way young actresses treat each
other now. There used to be a culture in the industry of tearing women down. It was a horrible, competitive atmosphere. But now,
it feels like we’re a team – we’re united and building each other up.
‘Sweetbitter gave me a new appreciation of wine…
I find myself at restaurants going, “Have you got anything from New Zealand?” and my friends are like, “Els, stop.” I know a few geeky things I can show off with at parties. ‘There’s so much more I want
to do. I recently became an ambassador for [mental health charity] Young Minds. It took me a long time to speak about my own experiences, specifically with self-harm. There was no real decision; I was mid-interview and it fell out of my mouth. That’s when I knew I was ready to talk. It felt good; like such a relief.‘ Sweetbitter is now available to download on Starz Play, on Amazon Prime Channels
“THERE USED to BE A REAL CULTURE in THE FILM INDUSTRY of TEARING WOMEN DOWN. NOW it FEELS LIKE WE’RE a TEAM ”
ELLA AS TESS INSWEETBITTER