Bel Powley on ‘A Small Light’: “I was blown away by how connected to these characters I felt”
Like a defiant boxer at a weigh in, Bel Powley is full of fighting talk. The British star broke out eight years ago in the much-admired indie movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and has returned to our screens this month in A Small Light. The story of Hermine “Miep” Gies, the woman who helped shelter Anne Frank and her family during World War II, this miniseries marks Powley’s first time fronting a television drama.
“It was a new experience for me,” she admits to NME. “I’ve done a lot of TV, but I’ve not led a television show [before]. It was nerve-racking and hard, but I like to think I took it like a champ!”
When we meet, Powley is curled up cross-legged on a chaise longue in London’s Corinthia Hotel. Even with her shoes off, she’s looking cool and chic in a cream blouse, black trousers and a fitted leather jacket. On the table between us sits her phone, its cover embossed with her initials ‘B.P.’. Truthfully, that’s about as bling as she gets: Powley is more about the art of acting than A-List accoutrements. Co-starring with Liev Schreiber and Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole in A Small Light, she evidently took the challenge of leading a TV show to heart. “If you’re number one, you have a responsibility to the cast,” she says. “You need to lead by example.”
Since Hollywood first took notice of her, Powley has worked with some major figures: Matthew McConaughey in White Boy Rick, Pete Davidson in Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island and, most significantly, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in the Apple TV+ drama The Morning Show, in which Powley played production assistant Claire Conway. “Working with Jennifer and Reese, they were complete inspirations to me,” Powley says. “They were hands-on producing that show and were in every scene, and they handled it like champs.” There’s that word again: “champ”. After all, if you’re going to make it in Hollywood, you’d better bring your A-game.
A Small Light is that rare thing: an Anne Frank period drama where the teenage German-born diarist, who hid from the Nazis with her family for two years, isn’t front and centre. Miep, who died in 2010 aged 100, not only risked her own life to bring food to Anne and her family, but later on preserved the famous diaries and wrote her own account of the experience, Anne Frank Remembered. The first episode of the series opens with her brazenly braving a Nazi checkpoint, but, as Powley notes, the more Miep runs the gauntlet, the harder it gets: “It starts physically affecting her. Her hands can’t stop shaking, and [she’s] getting very paranoid.”
Symbolically, Powley was offered the role of Miep on Holocaust Memorial Day. “I’m Jewish myself, so [I’ve] definitely grown up with the weight of this part of history running through my family. I knew that [A Small Light] was probably something that I wanted to be a part of, but I have tended to shy away from period dramas: I often feel distanced from them when I’m watching them or doing them. But then when I read the pilot for this, I was so blown away by how connected to these characters I felt, and how ‘now’ it felt.”
“Miep Gies was a very modern woman for her time”
Did it make her look at her own Jewish heritage differently? She pauses. “I guess I have looked at it differently. And I think, hopefully, it will make audiences look at the Holocaust [differently]. We think about the overarching facts and the numbers, everyone thinks: ‘Holocaust, six million Jews [killed]’. A lot of Holocaust dramas, films and television series… they’re all about the victimisation of the Jews, and I think [A Small Light] is a really interesting take on it. There’s less out [there] about the partisans, the people who were behind the scenes… the non-Jews who were helping the Jews.”
For an actress who once played a young Princess Margaret in the 2015 film A Royal Night Out, it’s interesting to hear that Powley has difficulties with period pieces.
“I find it hard to access those characters at times, [either] when I’m watching or when I’m acting in it. I don’t know if it’s the language or the clothes, I can’t really explain it. But it doesn’t have that tangible feeling to me, where can I really get my teeth into it. But this was so different.” Partly, the language has been modernised, which helped. “Miep was a very modern woman for her time,” she adds. “She was very outspoken, she was quite feminist… I just found it easier to relate to her on those levels.”
Engaged to fellow actor Douglas Booth – they met while making 2017’s Mary Shelley, another rare period outing – Powley turned 30 last year. How did she feel about reaching such a milestone?
“I don’t know,” she sighs. “You can’t not care. Everyone makes a big deal about having their 30th. You know what? It sounds so cringe, but so many people say, ‘Oh, you start to really know yourself by the time you’re 30…’ I kind of get it. You do a lot of searching in your twenties. I think I did a lot in my twenties, career-wise, just because people told me to. I didn’t really know my taste or what I wanted, I often wouldn’t listen to my gut. I think by the time you’re in your thirties, you know what your gut feeling is and you know how to trust yourself, and I do feel that. I still don’t even know if I could play a mum… I have that baby face!”
True enough: Powley’s big blue eyes and long brunette locks do give her an eternally youthful feel, which rather belies her mature outlook. “I’ve always been adult for my age,” she says, nodding in agreement. “I guess it’s always been easy for me from a young age to hang out with grown-ups.” Of course, it helps when you’ve been acting since your teens. Born and raised in London, Powley’s entry into the business sounds almost serendipitous: there was an open audition for the CBBC show M.I. High at her school. Powley lets out a belly laugh as soon as NME mentions this enduring series, which told the story of secondary school pupils working undercover in which she played master of disguise Daisy Millar.
“Oh my God!” she shrieks. “M.I. High, it always pops up. Someone pops up and starts talking about it!” Nevertheless, it launched her into the industry, right? “I don’t really think of it like that. I did it when I was so young, and I wasn’t really that interested in acting while I was doing it. I was kind of having fun being on set, missing school and earning a bit of your own cash.” If they ever brought the series back – it ended in 2014 after seven seasons, with Powley acting in the first two – would she consider a cameo? “Of course!” she giggles. “I’d be the teacher now or something, which would be quite hellish.”
“By the time you’re in your thirties, you know what your gut feeling is and you know how to trust yourself”
At the time, though, it was heavenly. On the back of being cast in the show, she got an agent and started auditioning (“it just happened”). Powley wasn’t entirely green when it came to showbusiness, however: her parents are casting director Janis Jaffa and actor Mark Powley. “They know what this industry is like,” she says. “They know how difficult it is, and how risky it is to try and be an actress.” Much to their concern, Powley decided against university. “I was meant to go to UCL and do history and politics. But I deferred it for four years, and then was like, ‘It’s not going to happen’. I was only justifying it to please my parents. I was never intending to go.”
Powley truly began to understand the joy of acting when she starred in a 2009 Royal Court production of Polly Stenham’s play Tusk Tusk, playing one of three siblings whose mother has gone AWOL. But it wasn’t until six years later that Powley scored her breakthrough movie role in 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
“It was the first of its kind, in that it was the first movie that actually explored the sexuality of a teenage girl in a very honest, raw and true fashion,” she says of her character Minnie, a 15-year-old living in 1970s San Francisco who winds up embroiled in a sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (Succession star Alexander Skarsgård). Would the movie struggle to be made now? She nods: “Obviously the element of her having an affair with her mum’s boyfriend… who knows what the world – the woke world – would think about that now?”
That may be true, but Powley still considers the film to be a “formative experience” for her. “Minnie really was the first character that I ever truly, truly connected with. And do you know what? It’s very rare in our job that you get a project where everything falls into place, where every box is ticked. Diary… was that for me, and so is this show [A Small Light].
“It’s taken eight years to find that feeling again. I’ve enjoyed jobs and I’ve been in good things – I’m not even talking about the quality of the work, how many people saw it, or how much of a success it was. I’m talking about a feeling that I got… I’ve only had it with those two projects.”
After A Small Light, Powley is next due back on the small screen in the Apple TV+ epic Masters of the Air, another World War II drama – this time, though, executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, following on from their earlier wartime shows Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Powley will play British spy Sandra Wingate as part of a huge cast that also includes Elvis star Austin Butler. “I can’t really say much,” she says, although she is happy to talk about the scale of the show. “Absolutely humongous! I thought The Morning Show was big! Even though we have a big set and spent a lot of money on The Morning Show, this was something else.”
She also has two indie movies in the can: relationship tale Turn Me On with Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson, and Cold Copy, in which she plays a journalism student who’s obsessed with her tutor, which will premiere in June at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. But what of the future: are there any directors she has her eye on?
“In my, like, emo teenager days, I was a big mumblecore fan, and so it was one of my dreams to work with Noah Baumbach,” she admits of the Frances Ha and Marriage Story director, before confidently adding: “I think it will happen for sure!” Has she ever written to Baumbach to say how much she admires his work? “Should I do that? Maybe I should write to Noah.”
And with that, Bel Powley makes a mental note to put her next big dream out into the universe. What a champ.
‘A Small Light’ is available to stream now on Disney+