How Netflix’s Green Gables Adaptation Anne With an E Found Its Anne Shirley

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Photo: Caitlin Cronenberg/Netflix

Anne Shirley has always been winsome and talkative, but in Netflix’s new adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, she has a little sadness behind her eyes. Anne With an E, which hails from Canada’s CBC, includes many of the most well-known story beats from L.M. Montgomery’s novel — the orphan Anne arriving to stay with siblings who thought they’d sent for a boy; her schoolroom fight with Gilbert Blythe — but also digs into her traumatic past, and traces the bitterness and xenophobia lingering in the town of Avonlea. The new perspective is thanks to Moira Walley-Beckett, a writer and producer on Breaking Bad and Flesh and Bone, who worked with director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) to set the tone for what she described as an “eight-hour Jane Campion feature.”

But if that all sounds too moody, rest assured that Anne With an E comes with plenty of pep, thanks to Amybeth McNulty, the 15-year-old Irish actress who plays the titular lead, and spends much of the show in her own flower-filled fantasy world. In advance of Anne’s May 12 premiere on Netflix, Vulture sat down with McNulty and Walley-Beckett to talk about the casting process, feminism, and why it was important to make sure all the costumes were covered in mud.

I wanted to talk, first of all, about how you found the right Anne Shirley for the show.
Moira Walley-Beckett: It was a huge search. Amybeth’s just been learning about that today, almost 2,000 girls. We did a really long, extensive global search for Anne because without the right Anne, we don’t have a show. So we started really early. We had casting directors on three continents. We also did an online search where any girl, anywhere in the world, can download the side and upload an audition. We did a professional search in London, New York, Los Angeles, across Canada. It was really intense.

Amybeth sent in a self-tape from Donegal, in Ireland. She really caught our attention and she was on our short list for a long time, throughout this search. At the end of it, we brought our five top gals to Toronto to work with Niki Caro and me. It became abundantly clear, especially after we took her on a big improv excursion, that Amybeth was our girl.

Amybeth, what got you to send in the tape?
Amybeth McNulty: I was doing a couple of self-tapes that day. My agent had sent me a couple. But the sides that were sent over, they caught my attention because I related to a lot of the stuff she was saying. I was like, “I said that in my day-to-day life.” I had no idea it was such a big search. I didn’t look it up or anything. I was like, “I don’t want to know.” My agent just kept saying, “No, you’re in the mix for it” a month later and I was like, “Okay!” I was invited to Toronto and then I got an email saying, “Hey, do you want to go on an adventure?” And I was like [hesitant]: “Okay …” Next thing I know, I’m in a mansion talking to flowers and trees and building thrones with twigs.

Was that the improv test Moira was talking about?
AM: That was part of the improv.

MWB: There were these beautiful flower beds and we were like, “Put on a play.”

AM: I was like, “With the flowers? Okay!”

MWB: Her imagination was incredible.

So you’re trying to re-create the kinds of fantasies Anne Shirley would make up.
AM: Of course! My imagination was so drained by the end.

MWB: I’m sure you were exhausted. But I’ll never forget some of the things that you said.

AM: I have.

MWB: You were like [she pretends to talk to a flower], “Now, listen. I don’t want you to worry. I know it’s a small part, but it’s very, very important …”

Then you shot the show on Prince Edward Island?
MWB: We shot some of it. We did some massive exteriors on Prince Edward Island. It was great because it was right at the beginning of our shoot, so it set up a great foundation for our principal actors to have a visceral experience of the place and the cliffs and the wind and that very particular, unique landscape. Then the remaining portions we shot in and around Ontario, in Canada.

Amybeth, had you read the books before?
AM: I read the books for my 9th birthday; my mom gave me the books. So that was my first introduction to her. Since it had been a couple of years since I read the books, it was kind of my new introduction to her, I think. Because I hadn’t seen any adaptations of it, and I didn’t re-read the books. I just read the script and let my portrayal of her come from me.

Was it a challenge to come from Ireland and to step it up to play a Canadian icon?
AM: I live in the middle of nowhere. I’m a country bumpkin in Ireland, in Donegal, and to go from that to Toronto, huge city, massive buildings just stretching so tall. Then, also, to see the culture change as well. I don’t know. Canadians are so different and so lovely. But they’re different. And I think that was a shock for me to see what a difference it was and to play such a Canadian icon. It was an honor. But my mum was born in Calgary. So I had that Canadian connection, but I’d never been before.

How did you get into acting?
AM: I had done quite a bit of stage when I was younger, local stuff, musicals. Then I started professionally, I suppose, when I was 11, in London, in the West End, which was already huge for me. Then, after that, I started getting into TV and radio dramas and a lot of different stuff. I’ve had a lot of different things that I’ve done, but this was definitely the biggest.

The scripts don’t shy away from the darker aspects of Anne’s past, especially her time in the orphanage. Was there an angle on the story you were looking to explore in particular in this version?
MWB: I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be relatable. Young audiences — all audiences, now — are really sophisticated. I’ve never been interested in two-dimensional storytelling. Lucy Maud [Montgomery] deserves for her characters to be brought fully to life. All of Anne’s backstory is there on the pages. I felt it was really important to dramatize it, because I thought we’d care more, we’d invest more if we knew what her original wounding was. And what her obstacles are. And how desperately she does need home and safety and a family and a place to belong.

Why adapt Anne of Green Gables now? What made you want to revisit the story in the first place?
MWB: It felt like now was exactly the time, actually. So many of the themes that are built into the story are part of the current conversation. So all these themes of feminism, accidental or not, bullying, gender parity, equality, and prejudice against those who come from away, those are all right there in the story. It was really exciting to think about, wow, here’s a way to enter the current conversation and provide a role model for these times, and initiate conversation in families, in schools, on these topics.

It’s interesting you say that “feminism, accidental or not,” because, for some shows, like The Handmaid’s Tale, there has been some resistance to using that label.
MWB: I can absolutely say that it’s a feminist thing, whatever that means to each individual. Does it mean that this girl, in the 1800s, this orphan girl in Canada, saw no boundaries for herself? Yes, it does. Does it mean that, like a pebble dropped in still water, the ripple effect from that point of view and that way of thinking touches everyone she comes in contact with? Yeah.

There’s also a little bit of open-endedness in the title — you don’t specify that it’s just Green Gables. Do you want to continue into Montgomery’s other novels?
MWB: I’m not the one that gets to decide that, but I think there’s tons more story to tell. So, we’ll see what happens.

I’m assuming you read the Montgomery novels long before you started this series, but did you see them differently when you came back to them?
MWB: A whole other experience! So different than reading them at 12 where it was all about Anne [for me]. The prose is so glorious. Her descriptions of nature are so inviting and captivating. I completely related to Matthew and Marilla in new ways that I couldn’t possibly have related to them when I was a youngster. My questions then became Anne’s questions in the first episode of Anne With an E: “Why did they never marry? Why are they still living alone? Did they have a tragical romance? Why are these people so rusty and alone and isolated?” I had a curiosity, just like Anne.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the directing for the series. How did you want to approach telling this story visually?
MWB: Niki Caro, who directed the first two hours, was really influential in setting the tone and the style. Together with Niki and our DP, Bobby Shore, we set out to make an eight-hour Jane Campion feature. That was our mission. We wanted a documentary level of real. We didn’t want it be a museum piece; we wanted it to feel authentic and visceral and in the moment of Anne’s experience.

Now I’m thinking back to The Piano, or something. You’ve got this mist and this mystery …
MWB: Oh, yeah. And the mud was muddy, and the rain was wet, and you’re right inside the lead character’s experience. So, that’s what we wanted to do.

Amybeth, what was it like to try on all the period costumes?
AM: I think it felt more like clothes than costumes, which was really nice. It didn’t feel fake. It felt more real and less characteristic, I guess is the right word. And the boots, my favorite part of the whole costume …

You’re trekking through a lot of mud.
AM: They got so filthy! They were great and all the costumes were great. I didn’t have to wear a corset. That would’ve been awful. But the dresses were so gorgeous and you could just see the details —

MWB: Everything was handmade. Hand-dyed. It was all Anne Dixon. She and her team designed and built everything because, if our characters rolled up a sleeve, we didn’t want any modern stitching. So we had an incredible team of people sewing and dyeing.

I’m not a historian in any way, but you look at it and it feels real.
MWB: [The production designer] Jean-François Campeau is so brilliant. Within our story, nothing has changed in [the Cuthbert’s] house in 100 years. It was really important to build in life really deep. Even though Marilla is a perfect housekeeper, there’s a layer of dust on everything. So, I’m really proud of all that. There’s no polyester in our show.

It’s so frustrating if you’re watching a period drama and it’s in the Middle Ages or something and everyone’s clothes are so clean. You get distracted thinking, “Why would they be clean?”
MWB: And why wouldn’t they be faded from being hung outside in the sun for the last 15 years? So everything was distressed. Everything was beaten, had the feeling of having been washed and dried and windblown and made dirty. Matthew, R.H. Thomson, his hands were never clean, because he works with his hands and he’s a farmer. We dragged around crushed red brick for the roads everywhere we went, much to the bane of our line producers’ mental health, because we didn’t want to CGI it. And the farm animals lived on the farm.

AM: That was so much fun! I would just pop into the chicken coop every now and again and just be like, “Oh, hey, how’re you guys doing?”

MWB: Yeah, she named all the chickens.

AM: Named all the chickens, all the pigs, the horses, the cows. It was great.

How Netflix’s Anne With an E Found Its Anne Shirley