I’d love to get taken to a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. That’s my happy place
Why play at being the next new Scottish star, when you can make hay? Sorcha Groundsell may be one of Netflix’s new faces, tipped for stardom for her role in Stranger Things-style show, The Innocents, but Vicky Allan discovers she’s just as happy crofting
MAKING hay in the Outer Hebrides is not the standard occupation for a breaking star in the months leading up to the launch of the Netflix series that could make her name. But, as we talk, Sorcha Groundsell has just returned from three weeks of doing literally that – helping her parents out, in the sun, on their Hebridean croft. “I got some of the amazing weather up there,” she says. “It was almost too hot. I think they had had quite a hot dry spell for almost six weeks, so all the animals were suffering and the grass was getting a bit questionable.”
That said in recent months, Groundsell has done some things which are exactly what you might expect of an emerging talent. Amongst them was donning heels to pose on the red carpet of the MTV Movie & TV awards with equally unknown co-star, Percelle Ascott. This, she says, was all about getting their faces “out there” in advance of the streaming of the much-hyped show, The Innocents, in which they star. She recalls that no-one really knew who these two young Britons were, or what they were doing there. “We were standing next to these very famous people and we were like this funny little British couple.”
She tried, she says, not to take the whole affair too seriously. “I think, if you do, you go mental and you become one of these crazy, Hollywood types. Because it’s amazing and it’s wonderful, but it is a bit ridiculous that we all get dressed and prance on a red carpet and get yelled at by photographers. That’s quite a mad thing. It’s fun but it’s still mad. If you’re female, you go out and just try not to fall over your own shoes.”
The 20-year-old is back now, in London, the city she has made her home for the past two years, and catching up on laundry. She appreciates, she says, having her Hebridean bolthole in her life. “I think it’s really nice to be able to do something that is so removed from acting, or the film industry, or any of the kind of requirements that are on you as an actor – to be articulate and be poised and wear posh clothes. It’s good to be somewhere I can just mooch about in my wellies.”
Already there has been a great deal of buzz about The Innocents, which stars film industry heavyweight Guy Pearce, and begins streaming on August 24. Articles have touted it as Netflix’s next big show for the supernatural drama audience that cult series Stranger Things cultivated. Even back in February, Mashable was saying that it was already looking “addictive”. The release of an early trailer prompted Bustle to declare that it “may quickly become Stranger Things fans’ new obsession”.
The Innocents – in which she plays June McDaniel, a girl who, on hitting her teens, discovers that she has the power to shape-shift – does seem to fit the mould set by Stranger Things. “Netflix,” Indiewire observed, “knows what its subscribers want out of its slightly younger-skewing original programming: more stories about powerful teen girls with big secrets, and the boys who love them.” And, if the show is the new Stranger Things, then that makes Sorcha Groundsell the next Millie Bobby Brown – the British child actress who played the iconic Eleven in Stranger Things.
Groundsell laughs – a nervous splutter – when I suggest this. “Oh my God,” she says.
I ask why that horrifies her. “Millie Bobby Brown is a lot more poised and a lot more in control of it. I’m always a bit sceptical of comparisons like that. I’ve been trying not to think about what’s going to happen when it comes out. It makes me confused and slightly stressed. I think it’s best to focus on the job that we’ve done and just feel happy with it regardless.”
Of course, Groundsell is not exactly the next Millie Bobby Brown. She’s older than the 14-year-old. She has a very different kind of screen presence – more wide-eyed, goofy, and perhaps more real. Her character, June McDaniel, isn’t quite so mysterious as Eleven was.
As the series starts, in fact, June seems like a fairly ordinary, though overprotected, rural Yorkshire teen. It’s only when she goes on the run with her lover from her strict father that the shapeshifting weirdness starts. “What you see is not what you see,” is the trailer’s tease-line.
“I definitely tapped into the slightly darker side of it, which is really what sets it apart,” says Groundsell. “It
I’ve heard so many stories of 25-year-olds becoming sheep farmers … I really crave that more simplistic, natural lifestyle
was described to me initially as a mix between True Romance and the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In, and I think that is weirdly accurate. It’s not one thing. It’s romance and characters who happen to be quite young, but it’s also very dark and very psychological, and scary at parts.”
There’s even a Scandi-noir feel to the show, some of which is set in the idyllic landscape of the Norwegian fjord of Mostraumen, where Guy Pearce’s controlling therapist has set up a cultlike retreat for women who suffer from the curse of shapeshifting. “It was really amazing,” Groundsell says of the Norwegian shoot. “That much incredible, dramatic scenery does something to your brain. It was just nice to be away from reality. When you’re filming in London, you leave at the end of the day and you go home to your bills and your washing and dishes and stuff like that. Whereas being away en masse like that, with a cast, is a really lovely experience.”
Pearce, she says, is a “legend”. “I’d never worked with someone at that level before. There’s something in having spent to many years in front of the camera. He was very generous with his guidance and advice.”
The Innocents belongs to a long tradition of drama in which supernatural powers are metaphors for the changes that happen in puberty. Groundsell sees it as about the search for identity. “At its core,” she says, “it’s a show about people growing up and how difficult it can be to find out who you are, when you’re that age, a teenager and trying to find a place in the world.” Someone, she muses, recently asked her if she thought the show was a comment on the more fluid nature of people’s identity now. “It hadn’t occurred to me at all, but I think there is definitely a rise in storytelling about that kind of thing. About the nature of identity – the outside versus the inside and all that type of stuff.”
Social media is where a lot of people play with their identity. Does she indulge in a bit of that? “Not really, no. I do have social media partly because I’m of the generation that grew up with it, that got it. But partly for work really, and I’m not into it really at all. I find it slightly confusing. I think everyone has to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ enough without having to answer it on your social media profile.”
“Once every three months,” she says. “I’ll throw my phone across the room and say, ‘Right that’s it, I’m going to get an old Nokia and not pay any attention to any of it any more.’ But it’s hard. For people who are young now, it’s such a huge part of our daily existence and it’s quite hard to fight against that.”
Early in the first episode of The Innocents, Groundsell’s character, speaking of her father’s desire to move to a Scottish island, says, “Mum would have loved Scotland. Somewhere cold and traumatic.” This idea, she says, became a running joke on set. “June is really against Scotland. She doesn’t want to get taken to a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. But, in reality, I would love to get taken to a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. That’s my happy place.”
Groundsell lived on Lewis for eight years, at Ness in the north of the island, and still has family in the Outer Hebrides. Though her parents didn’t grow up there themselves, it was where her mother’s family came from, and where they settled during her early years. “I go back there quite a lot,” she says. “Yeah, I do miss it. There’s an atmosphere there that you just don’t get in a big city.”
It provides, she says, a great “antidote” to the industry she is in. “To go home to somewhere where people haven’t heard of Netflix, where no-one’s got good enough internet to stream things, is a really nice balancing. Because the industry can get too closed in on itself, and you end up in this weird world that isn’t anything like reality. So it’s quite nice to step away from that occasionally.”
Her father, who used to be a graphic designer, and her mother, a former marketing professional, retired early to follow a crofting life. Groundsell observes that crofting is increasingly popular, and has almost become quite cool. “A lot more people recently are doing it. Young people too. I’ve heard so many stories of 25-year-olds becoming sheep farmers.”
Is she tempted? “Absolutely,” she says, then amends her answer. “Well, probably not in actuality. But I find that I really crave that more simplistic, natural lifestyle ... Definitely not yet. I think my agent would have something to say about that.”
Groundsell is a Gaelic speaker. The language wasn’t spoken in her family home when she grew up, but her grandmother spoke it and she learnt it at school on Lewis, then later went to the Gaelic school in Glasgow. She would love, she says, to write or perform in Gaelic films. “This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. The Gaelic film industry is really underutilised. There’s a lot of scope for creativity and there are a lot of great stories to be told. I think we’re due a great uprising of Gaelic culture. There’s space to do that. I would love to write in Gaelic. I see Gaelic culture as a huge part of myself and my personality. It’s really important to me to have that part of Scottish culture represented.”
She began experimenting with acting when she moved to Glasgow at nine years old, starting with casual classes at The Citizens Theatre, then later taking weekend classes at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “I think,” she says, “it’s the kind of thing that if you’re shy your parents think it’s a good idea. A lot of parents put their kids into it, thinking– oh, maybe they’ll find themselves in drama.”
Her immersion in a Gaelic school meant that even once she had moved to Glasgow and become a city dweller, she was still part of almost an island-like culture. “The school was very small,” she recalls. “All the people at school were relatives of everyone I’d grown up with. It was part of that same Gaelic community. It was a nice midpoint between an island life and a full-on mainstream Glasgow school.”
She’s lucky enough to be breaking into the industry in the post #MeToo movement era, at a time of change and possibility for women. It’s an atmosphere she enthuses about. “I think it’s such an inspiring time. There’s an empowering energy throughout the entire industry, not just at the top Hollywood level. Suddenly people are having conversations that they would never have been having 15 years ago.
“And I think now, for people like me, coming into it, there’s a format for how to handle anything difficult that might happen. There are examples that show you don’t need to take bad behaviour. You don’t need to quieten your voice just because you are young and female. You have a right to speak.”
One of Groundsell’s biggest past roles was in BBC Three’s glitzy feminist psychological thriller, Clique. It says a lot about her geekish charm that she played one of the very few characters in the show that wasn’t unbearably cool and sophisticated.
“That was a funny one,” she says. “I did enjoy doing it. The character was so wonderfully normal in that glamorous world. And, any time you just get to sit around in your pyjamas for three months is always great.”
It strikes me that many of her characters have had a gaucheness, a not very worldly aura. It’s as if, I suggest, there’s something of the island in them. She seems to agree. “I think wherever you grow up and whatever your experience has been you can’t ever let that go and as much as obviously acting is transformation, at the end of the day you are still yourself, and your experiences, your life and your history are still in you, even when playing another person.”
Sorcha Groundsell stars in the lastest Netflix show The Innocents.
The Innocents also stars film industry heavyweight Guy Pearce.