Bel Powley is great at coming of age. She broke out as an adolescent on the doorstep of her sexual awakening in Diary of a Teenage Girl, played a young royal embracing the freedom of anonymity in A Royal Night Out, and now, you can see her in Wildling as a teenager who steps into the world for the first time right as she’s about to undergo a huge transformation. In Wilding, Powley plays Anna, a young girl raised by a man she knows only as Daddy (Brad Dourif), who’s brought her up as a prisoner in his basement, and been injecting her with hormone suppressant since she got her first period. When Anna is finally found by authorities, she experiences the world around her like a nervous animal — which is fitting, considering the creature she is about to become.
Daddy keeps Anna in a sort of suspended animation, which is exactly the kind of professional confinement Powley has sought to avoid throughout her career, and why she’s made a habit of playing women who are unapologetic, both sexually and intellectually. In the lead up to Wildling’s release, Vulture chatted with Powley about her constant pursuit of complex roles for women, what really needs to happen for talk about gender parity onscreen to become sustainable action, and what she does in her free time with her Broadway co-stars Chris Evans, Michael Cera, and Brian Tyree Henry.
What drew you to Wildling?
As soon as I read it, I found it incredibly intriguing. I’m always attracted to projects that subvert the norm. And I love horror, but I felt like Wildling flipped really traditional messages in horror films on their head. Obviously the main character is a woman, not a man. That’s kind of rare. Also the woman is the beast, but they’re a sympathetic character. They’re not someone you’re afraid of. They’re someone that you’re rooting for. All of those aspects just made it really different immediately off the page the first time I read it.
Also, it was just immediately apparent that what Anna goes through in the movie is symbolic of what every girl goes through when they become a woman. What happens to Anna, and her turning into the Wildling, is just a big metaphor for becoming a woman. Everybody in the village, everyone after her is kind of representative of society, and the obstacles that society puts up against young girls when they grow into women.
You’ve made a career so far of playing women and girls who are coming into their power, starting early on with Diary of a Teenage Girl and now Wildling. You’ve been in this industry now for a decade, beginning as a teenager and now in your late 20s – did you identify with that struggle of people around you wanting to define your path for you?
One-hundred percent. I definitely do, and I think that the way I personally combat that is very apparent in the projects I choose, like Wildling. Rather than trying to adhere to a stereotype or fit into the box that society wants to put me in as a woman and as a female actor, I try to fight against that and continue to find projects that show me in a different light, show that I’m multifaceted, and also push the boundaries of what society expects of actresses.
The conversation about representation and the need for more complex female characters has been building now for a few years. As you seek out projects that are told from a feminine perspective and with central stories built around female leads, do you find those options are opening up? And if not, what do you wish you saw more of?
I think right now we are in a period that is obviously important, but it’s a weird one whereby The Conversation is at the forefront of all conversations. So, the material that’s being made for women is being made for women because it has to be. Do you see what I mean? So it’s kind of like a forced thing. People will be like, “We have to make a movie with a central female beast!” Like Wildling. “We have to make a movie that’s a story about women!” Rather that it just being, like, set into the norm of things that we create, and I think that will be the next step. The next step will be a story that used to be written as a man will now just happen to have a female central character, rather than us just being so conscious of creating those stories. That’s the situation we’re in now. It’s not like suddenly there is a plethora of roles out there and I’m like a kid in a candy store. There still aren’t that many. Like, I’m doing a play right now on Broadway, a Kenneth Lonergan play.
Right. Lobby Hero.
Yeah, Lobby Hero. And it’s the only female part in this all-male ensemble, and it really is like one of the only great female parts that was out there in theater at the time when I auditioned for it. Everyone wanted to play this role, so it’s not like on Broadway right now there are loads of available parts for women. There are still a select few across the board, but it is getting better. I’m sorry. I don’t want to sound too negative.
Of course not. It’s important that we interrogate what’s really happening right now, instead of everyone just patting each other on the back for talking about it.
To me, Wildling stood out in your body of work in part because Anna has a sort of relationship with a boy her age. Your characters tend to connect with older men, despite often being in their teens or very early 20s. That also happens in Lobby Hero, where your character, a police officer, engages in an affair with her senior officer that brings about a problematic imbalance of power, right?
Is that intentional? Do you just really enjoy mining the conflict in that dynamic?
I think that is just the world [laughs]! I don’t think that’s anything to do with the projects I choose. That’s just the world, and I think the patriarchy is so much a part of female stories you can’t get away from that. It just is. So I think it’s better to confront it and show it and create around that subject than to pretend it’s not happening.
Vulture did an investigation once of how leading men age but their female co-stars pretty much don’t. And Jennifer Lawrence gets cast to play women up and down the age spectrum — somehow — but her leading male love interests are usually 10 to 20 years older than her.
That’s so weird! Why [laughs]?!
I suppose if I was a middle-aged man writing a script that’s how I’d frame my narrative surrogate on the page — because I guess that’s how middle-aged men think. Like you said, the perspective is embedded at this point.
Yeah. I think also they want to freeze women in time. Men are so scared of women getting older, and that’s part of what Wildling is about as well. This Daddy character, he’s someone who has this little girl and nurtures her and loves her but is so afraid of her growing into a woman. Men and the patriarchy are just so afraid of teenage girls and women. They don’t know what to do with them [laughs].
You’ve also embraced very sexually forward characters in your career, and haven’t shied away from exposing your own body onscreen. Do identify with the boldness in these characters, or do you pursue them because they’re unfamiliar and a challenge in that way?
My immediate reaction is that I do identity with that boldness. I think there’s something really beautiful that we can do when we make film, in that we can go really close up to someone’s face and just see what they’re thinking with the blink of an eye or their expressions, or when we’re really bold and we see skin and nudity and it’s there all onscreen. I think that’s got something to do with having started out in theater, where I’ve been much more used to using my body and having to perform every night to an audience, to create a much bigger performance than is necessary to do when we’re doing film.
It’s quite the tone switch to go from this raw teen girl coming-of-age horror story to Lobby Hero, where, as you said, you’re the only woman. But it seems like being onstage with Chris Evans and Michael Cera and Brian Tyree Henry is a pretty okay way to spend your time. Tell me about working in that group.
They’re all amazing, and I really do feel like they’ll be friends for life. It’s just a blessing to be doing a play where there’s only four of you. It makes it so much easier. It’s just us four and the audience. It’s a beautiful thing. We’ve all got on since day one. We’ve been really good friends since day one. We’ve celebrated each other’s birthdays together. We’ve partied together. We get drinks together. They’re all such great people, and they’re all such brilliant actors. I enjoy being onstage with them so much. I only have like one line with Brian, though, and I wish I had so much more. He’s a phenomenal actor, but they all are.
Have you gotten started on The Bell Jar?
No! We haven’t! We’re still waiting to get some money together for that, but it’s a wonderful script and the part is so cool. And Kirsten Dunst is amazing, so I will hope that starts soon.
This interview has been edited and condensed.