Tess — the quick, quietly confident central character of Starz’s new Sunday-night show Sweetbitter — isn’t the kind of role Ella Purnell usually gets in her in-box. Tess moves to New York near the end of the early aughts, and finds a job at a swanky Union Square restaurant. She lusts after the sad boy bartender, and learns at the feet of the veteran servers, ultimately navigating the alliances, dalliances, and drug habits of the restaurant and its staff. Purnell, meanwhile, is used to playing the girlfriend, or the perfect ideal of womanhood: “The one who has to be pretty. The one who is sexualized. The one that follows a very clear trajectory of marriage and relationships and children,” Purnell says. “And Tess feels very much like she is not trying to please anyone. She is not living to anybody else’s expectations of life.”
Sweetbitter, based on the bestseller of the same name, is a coming-of-age story about being messy and ravenous in a city that requires being quick on your feet. Tess is tangled up in the friendship between the moody bad-boy bartender she has a crush on and the worldly server she wants to emulate. Purnell, who’ll be at Vulture Festival next weekend, told us about playing into that dynamic and about her own move to New York, and responded to the tabloid rumors that she dated Brad Pitt.
What was your first impression of Tess?
[When] I read the first line of the character breakdown that arrived in my in-box, I was going through a funny time — what 21-year-old isn’t? — questioning everything I’ve ever known about myself all my life. I read this first line, which was like, “Tess’s life is a shambles.” I was like, Ha. This is hugely relatable.
When I signed, I had only the 30 pages of the pilot to go off of, and the book, obviously. I ordered the book immediately. I loved how open and vulnerable and honest Tess is. It gave me the courage to sort of strip back everything — all the pretense and the masks of pretending to know what I’m doing and have my life together — and just say, It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to be unsure or to be figuring it out. I think she’s a very brave and honest person. Moving to New York is a big, brave thing to do. I genuinely like her. I also feel like Tess is very similar to myself, so it wasn’t that hard to play.
She’s so observant; she’s such a watcher. Do you feel that way in your own life?
Absolutely! Me and Tess — she is me and I am her. We spend a lot of our lives just watching and our brains tick-tick-ticking and trying to make sense of things up here, but maybe not showing very much. And I think when people see her, or me, they might think that they’ve got it figured out. They think they know who she is based on her looks, maybe. But I think there’s a lot more going on than people give credit for.
I also feel, on a separate note, that Sweetbitter feels like a very feminist piece. Tess is trying to forge her own path in a very honest way that feels very true to herself, and that was very refreshing for me.
I feel like I’ve seen the same movie five times this year alone: A teenage girl has an affair with an older man, and that’s the extent of her sexual awakening. I appreciate that Sweetbitter doesn’t rely on that. It’s nice to see a show be curious about a girl who has a normal job, navigating a regular life.
I’m so thrilled that you said that. Definitely what we were trying to get across [is]: This is real life. There is sex in this show, ‘cause sex is what happens in real life. And it’s not done in a porno-sexy-weird-unnatural way. Everything is, I think, so natural and just grounded in realism and that was so important to Steph, to me, to Caitlin, to all of us. New York City is not always glamorous and beautiful. It’s also gritty and hard; and blood, sweat, and tears; and lonely. And being 21 is scary and fucked up and all of the things, and we just wanted it to be real life. And that’s why it feels, I think, feminist.
Can you tell me about your audition?
I messed up my audition so bad! I don’t know how I’m sitting in this seat right now. I did two auditions in London with the casting director. I was so under-confident and insecure and having a crisis of self-doubt. It came out as, God, I can’t act anymore. What am I doing? Then, I went to L.A. for the screen test, and sat outside with six other girls who look just like me but far more attractive, who looked how I thought Tess would look.
I went in and there were a bunch of producers, and then a chair where I was supposed to sit. I slammed the door really hard by accident because I was super nervous and had superhuman strength. The door handle fell on the floor! I made a weird joke, being like, “Guess you’ve narrowed down your choices,” and no one laughed. I was so surprised [when I got the offer]. But then Steph was like, “Hey, that’s a really Tess thing to do.” [Laughs.] I was like, “It’s kinda true.”
Even in the book, Tess’s backstory is kind of blank. We know she’s not close with her dad, and that she came from somewhere in the Midwest, but nothing about who she was in college or what she was like as a child. Did that make your job more interesting, or more difficult in some way?
A bit of both. An actor’s instinct is to go, Ooh, well, what happened when I was three? and write this big timeline. Steph sort of put me off that. I didn’t want to put into black and white what her history was. I rewrote it constantly, depending on what the next scene was.
I like that it’s not stated. I like that she’s a blank slate. I like that you can’t look at her and go, “Oh, well, she’s attracted to him because her dad did this.” It makes her a more universally relatable character. The backstory that is hinted at is troubled, maybe. She doesn’t blame anything on that. I think if you show a large portion of her backstory, it’s very easy to make connections and say, “That’s why she is the way she is.” Whereas I didn’t want to give anyone that excuse. She never says, “Well, I’ve done drugs because my mum did this.” She is just an honest person.
Tell me about the back-and-forth between Simone and Tess. It’s aggressive, but it’s also adoring and tender. What was your read on what’s going on between them?
I couldn’t figure it out for a really long time. I think Tess is a little bit — a lot, in love with Simone. She’s very intrigued. Tess never really questioned who she is or what she likes. Who she likes. Then all of a sudden, she is so drawn in by this person, intrigued by this person, and has this need to be close to this person, and she doesn’t know why. I think Tess has never met anyone like Simone in her life. She represents everything New York City looks like it is in the movies: She knows everything about art, about jazz and poetry, literature. She’s classy. She drinks wine. She’s so wonderful. I think Tess, for the first time, sees someone and is inspired by them, and goes, That’s what I want.
Maybe it’s Tess wanting that, and a competitive, sort of jealous drive, where she wants to be her? Maybe it’s an admiration of her beauty? Or maybe it’s a little, “What’s Simone got with Jake,” and Tess is trying to figure out their relationship because she’s into Jake? I don’t want to put it into black and white, and I can’t define it. Caitlin can’t either because it’s an ever-evolving relationship. I don’t want to call them friends or enemies or lovers.
When I read the book I wondered if Tess, Simone, and Jake should be a throuple — as a couple they can’t get it right, but maybe as a trio?
Two’s a company, three’s a crowd. I don’t know if it’ll work. But what does fascinate me about the three of them is that it is mind and body: Simone is the mind, Jake is the body. Simone intellectually stimulates Tess. With Jake, she has a bodily instinct. You can’t have one without the other. You know, if one were to go, the other would go too, and there’s something unsettling there for Tess, that she needs both of them.
How did it feel to be at the center of a tabloid rumor that you were dating Brad Pitt?
Honestly, super ridiculous. Mostly because if I was a 21-year-old boy that had just got a big part in a new show, nobody would have come out and said, “He only got it because he’s dating the female producer.”
It’s tabloid gossip. I don’t know. I felt annoyed by it, but also found it hilarious. [Laughs.] My grandma texted me, saying, “Congratulations!”