A Chat With Bel Powley
Bel Powley had just started filming on the second season of The Morning Show, with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon – the phenomenal television series about the #MeToo scandal – when she had to repatriate to the UK, to the house she bought with her boyfriend, Douglas Booth, in October last year. Luckily, as one of the most in-demand actors of her generation, most recently seen alongside Pete Davidson in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, she is used to a period of busyness followed by a few months of relaxation. So, what lessons does Bel, 28, have to share about enforced leisure-time? Penny Martin finds out.
Penny: So, this must be your new place?
Bel: Yes, we moved to De Beauvoir in October. It’s such a beautiful pocket of London. Leafy streets; the houses look Georgian – flat-fronted, terraced – but they’re actually Victorian; and it’s perfectly situated between Angel and Dalston. You can be a bit of an Islington girl, but if you want to feel cool, you can still be a bit Hackney. Do you know about the Mole Man of Hackney?
B: This guy lived about two roads over; he was obsessed with digging. He dug all these channels from his house under the streets of De Beauvoir. Eventually, when he was arrested, they found a car down there, and a boat! Rumour is that he was rehoused in a high-rise and died of a broken heart, because all he wanted was to be underground. Sue Webster, the artist, lives in his old house now.
P: Sounds like a great film. Your boyfriend, Douglas Booth, is also an actor – I would have thought you two would be good at surviving a lockdown. You’re used to travelling alone, living out of a suitcase.
B: That is true. We’re good at being very busy for a long period and then being able to relax for a few months without feeling guilty.
P: Did the pair of you meet on the set of Mary Shelley?
B: Yeah, in 2016. He was playing Percy Shelley and Elle Fanning was playing Mary; I played Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. That’s when we fell in love – ahhh!
“There’s something inherently awkward about having a male director tell you how you should be acting out having sex.”
P: No love scenes together, though: Claire was more interested in seducing Lord Byron.
B: I think she was following in the footsteps of Mary, who was incredibly daring and sexual.
P: You’ve had your fair number of sexual awakenings on screen: Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015; then White Boy Rick opens with you being caught in flagrante by your dad, played by Matthew McConaughey; and your latest film, Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, pretty much starts with you and Pete Davidson in bed.
B: Oh God, I dread seeing that scene! I mean, Pete’s a really good friend – he was in a film about Mötley Crüe with Doug a couple of years ago – but he’s quite awkward generally and he’d never done a sex scene. A lot of the movie’s improvised, so I was like, I don’t want to get on set and Judd be like, OK, let’s just improvise the scene. So I came up with the idea. I thought it’d be funny if Pete was behind me so that the camera could pan between our faces and see how we were enjoying the experience differently. I have found generally with the physicality in, you know, bed scenes, I’ve had to kind of direct it a bit myself. There’s something inherently awkward about having a male director tell you how you should be acting out having sex.
P: Your character on The Morning Show, the PA Claire Conway, is equally in control. I thought her take on #MeToo is the most nuanced of all its female characters.
B: Yes, Claire kind of represents the millennials, even Gen Z. That’s what’s so wonderful about the show – it explores the grey areas of this gargantuan shift we’ve been experiencing. I love the scene when she and her boyfriend, Yanko, the weatherman on the show, get called into HR. They’re trying to see if he’s been #MeToo-ing her, but she in turn feels accused of being weak, of not having agency in her own sexual choices.
P: I saw you at a Christopher Kane show when The Morning Show was about to air and you were bursting to talk about Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, only couldn’t. So go on – spill!
B: I was actually really nervous prior to working with them. It sounds like a cliché but Friends – I grew up on it, I know every line. Those two women are incredible: they produce The Morning Show and they’re both in it! Even so, they go out of their way to make everyone around them comfortable. And Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner, is one of the smartest women I know.
P: Has the programme made you yet more desirable as an actor? I looked up the Starmeter on IMDb this morning and you’re at 227, 301 points ahead of Meryl Streep.
B: Well, that is cool. But I try not to obsess over jobs that I might get or I haven’t got. Once I’ve sent a tape off, I try to exercise some mind control, to forget about it. Because the most difficult thing about being an actor is that your career is made up of factors that you can’t control.
P: Like a pandemic?
B: Yeah, we’d just begun shooting the second series of The Morning Show in LA when this thing started.
P: What have you been doing to pass the time while the studios figure things out?
B: We’ve done an unbelievable amount of cooking; we’ve been around the world in 12 weeks! At the beginning, it was quite cold, so we were doing curries and dhals and a lot of Indian things. But now it’s hot, we moved continents and we’re on classic Ottolenghi summery things. It’s been great. The only thing we haven’t made is sourdough.
Bel is wearing a blue and white striped cotton poplin shirt with contrasting black necktie by PRADA.
Interview by Penny Martin
Photography by Esther Theaker
Thank you Sally Bottomley