First Eddie, then Alicia and now Bel Powley: Get ready for the next big thing
Remember the name Bel Powley. She's happily not under the microscope of the global media yet, but like Alicia Vikander, Michael B. Jordan and Margot Robbie, she’s part of the next wave of twentysomethings ready to make waves in the movie industry. Actually, she’s already doing it with her acclaimed performance in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
“I made this movie for teenage girls,” Powley says. “I need them to be able to see it. I feel the people that made that decision we missed the point of the film.”
It’s an abnormally warm August afternoon in Los Angeles and Powley is holding court on a bright London Hotel deck as a parade of journalists sit down to discuss her breakout performance in Marielle Heller's directorial debut. The London born actress dissatisfaction is over the recent decision by the British Board of Film Classification (basically the UK’s version of the MPAA) to rate “Diary” with an “18” which is almost equivalent to an NC-17.
“Everyone thought it was going to be rated a 15 because the U.K. actually tends to be more relaxed than America about sex,” Powley says. “And it was rated an 18 which was such a shock. If you’re under 18 there is no way you can see the movie.”
It’s even more surprising since the usually more conservative MPAA gave the film an R-rating. Why all the drama? Well, “Diary” isn’t your typical art house flick.
Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographic graphic novel, “Diary” follows the sexual awakening of Minnie (Powley), a 15-year-old discovering herself in 1970’s San Francisco. Not only is she having fun with her fellow classmates, but soon starts an affair with 35-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) who also just happens to be the boyfriend of her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). In the wrong hands the material could have veered off into a direction that didn’t keep Minnie’s perspective. Heller, who also shepherded a stage version of the material, keeps Minnie’s emotional journey the center of the story while making sure not to ignore the inappropriateness of Monroe’s actions. Oh, and there’s also the phenomenal performance by Powley that the movie simply couldn’t live without.
“I was worried that people would be shortsighted and just see a 15-year-old girl and a 35-year-old boy and just be blinded by that and not see that it’s a film about growth and sexual exploration and about Minnie’s story,” Powley says. “I was never really nervous about the content because I believed in the film so much. I never felt it was gratuitous. I always felt all the sex was so necessary.”
Powley’s comfort in this aspect of the production was rooted in her passion for the material and the relationship she fostered with Heller beforehand.
“We decided together the moments where Minnie would be most naked and they’re actually moments that aren’t sexy. So, that when she’s viewing herself in the mirror and stuff,” Powley reveals. “And I knew that she was going to shoot the sex scenes from Minnie’s point of view, through the female lens. And I knew [those moments] weren’t all going to be really hot and really fake because that’s not what sex is like. Sometimes sex is really awkward and, like, weird and weird positions and all. I knew like it was going to be shot like that and I was proud of that.”
Powley continues, “I wanted to show a women’s body on screen that was real and not, like, some fake Hollywoodized spray tan, skinny version of the woman that [is] so unattainable for teenage girls. I wanted to put it out there to young women.”
The 23-year-old actress was pretty much unknown on this side of the Atlantic when she auditioned for the part. She’d had American agents for four years, but had never been able to help her book anything. Powley notes that when she received the script she told herself this was different and she had to find a way to land the part.
“I relate to Minnie in so many different ways and the whole thing just really resonated with me and just the way that it [approached] female sexuality,” Powley says. “I felt this was something that had never been done before and something that I wish had been done when I was a teenager. “
One reason is because Powley recognizes that, in general, teenage girls in studio movies tend to be presented in three stereotypical ways, especially when it comes to sex.
“It’s like the virgin waiting for her prince charming or there’s a frigid bitch or there’s the high school slut or whatever,” Powley says. “None of these Hollywood versions of women are real. And, as a young woman, it makes you feel really ostracized and a freak for having sexual feelings. So, I just really, really wanted to be a part of like starting up that conversation because I felt it hadn’t been done before.”
She was officially cast after an in-person audition with Skarsgard and was soon on her way to the Bay Area to shoot the movie. Filming took place in January of 2014 and that meant Powley had to wait over a year to see the film with an audience. Everyone at that 2015 Sundance Film Festival world premiere, including this writer, knew Powley had pulled off something special and, well, maybe she did too.
“In the beginning I felt like really emotional watching it,” Powley says. “At Sundance I turned around to Marie and said ‘Ahhhh!’ with tears [in my eyes], but I think it was more because I was like proud of what we’d achieved rather than, ‘Oh my God, my boobs are on screen.’”
And, as we hinted, more Powley is coming. She stars alongside Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in Drake Doremus’ “Equals” which debuts at the Venice Film Festival early next month and recently wrapped the thriller “Detour” with Ty Sheridan. Even more intriguing is acclaimed filmmaker Haiffa Al-Mansour's “A Storm in the Stars." Powley describes the “Wadjda” director as “amazing.”
“It’s myself and Elle Fanning and she plays Mary Shelley and I play the sister Claire Clairmont,” She says. “It’s a true story about when they ran away from home and they went to live in Geneva with Byron and Percy Shelley.”
Powley continues, “It’s kind of like this weird echo of the 70s or like pre-echo because it’s set in the 1870’s but Byron and Percy Shelley were like really into free love and free sex and they had these like 15 and 16-year-old girls with them. It’s interesting.”
After “Diary," we wouldn’t expect anything less.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is now playing in limited release.