Actress Bel Powley comes of age as 1970s adolescent

Actress Bel Powley, star of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Picture: Getty Images
Actress Bel Powley, star of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Picture: Getty Images
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SHE auditioned in the bedroom for her latest role, but then Bel Powley admits she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play a sex-obsessed teenager in her first 18-certificate film, she tells Siobhan Synnot

Bel Powley was second in line to the throne as Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out this summer. But the Londoner proves she’s now ready to reign with a raw, funny, and risk-taking performance as a 15-year-old in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl.

Bel Powley in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. Picture: Caviar/Cold Iron Pictures/Archer Gray/Sony Pictures Classics/The Kobal Collection

Bel Powley in The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. Picture: Caviar/Cold Iron Pictures/Archer Gray/Sony Pictures Classics/The Kobal Collection

When the film had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Powley arrived at a packed screening in the shadow of her lanky co-star, Alexander Skarsgard, and appealed for more movies about forthright, courageously sexual women protagonists.

“Female characters these days are very 2D,” Powley said to her audience of mainly twentysomething women. “There’s the princess waiting for her Prince Charming, or the quirky friend, but there are no well-rounded characters who represent teenage girls.

“We see a lot of movies about teenage boys wanting to get laid, losing their virginity and discovering themselves but I think this is the first movie with an honest depiction of a teenage girl that I’d ever read, which is why I wanted to be a part of this.”

Brutally honest, 18-certificate coming of age stories are certainly in short supply, but raw Minnie Goetze isn’t an easy character to play. “Does everyone else think about f***ing as much as I do?” she wonders, shortly after losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Skarsgard with a porn star moustache). Brash, immature, and self-absorbed in the most adolescent ways, she’s not a character who audiences might immediately warm to.

Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures, this is perhaps the chirpiest movie about underage sex ever made, with a refreshing lack of judgment of its teen heroine and the adults she loves and lets down. And unlike, say, Lolita, it’s narrated by the girl at the heart of the story, who documents her thoughts, and perhaps far too much evidence, into her tape recorder. Neither a melodrama nor a paean to groovy free love, Powley is in every scene, carrying the weight of the movie on her slight shoulders.

Audiences have been swept up by Powley’s naturalistic, unblinking performance of a teen struggling with sexuality, identity and gauche parenting in 1970s San Francisco. When the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, distributors ran out of the cinema to bid for the rights. After its UK premiere in Edinburgh, Powley admits she did some running around of her own, sampling Edinburgh night life and trying to find a deep-fried Mars bar at 3am.

Powley is small, dark and vivid, with Betty Boop eyes, and before The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, she had never kissed anyone on screen, let alone stripped off. “When I first saw the movie and the sex scene on a massive screen, I thought ‘Wow – that was brave!’” she says, laughing. “I was trying to portray something real, and I wasn’t trying to be beautiful or sexy.”

Skarsgard, perhaps best known as the pansexually-active vampire of the True Blood series, was much more experienced in that department, so they spent two weeks plotting out the scenes beforehand with the film’s writer-director, Marielle Heller. “Once I got on set it was very easy. It was a closed set and having a female director helped because we could both relate to each scene in the same way. We had some great discussions and I felt very listened to, and Alex is in the sexiest TV show in the world, so he’s the king of sex scenes. I kind of just took his lead and he was great. We shot all the sex scenes in the first week, so we got them completely out of the way, and although it was very nerve-racking, it was fine.”

Powley is 23, but her doll features and tiny frame mean that she has always looked younger than her age. When she was 17, she played a 13-year-old girl who becomes obsessed with her mother’s death in the TV series Murderland, with Robbie Coltrane. An intense, psychological drama, it was reminiscent of Coltrane’s Cracker days (“That’s a bit before my time.”). This was quickly followed by the role of Emma Clayson in The Whistleblowers, also on ITV. Other television credits include blonde Bianca Dyke in the sixth series of ITV’s comedy Benidorm. By the age of 20, Powley had an agent in America and had done a pilot season – the LA summer tryout where actors audition for roles in everything and anything that the networks might be placing in their autumn schedules.

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is Heller’s first film, although she nursed the project for years. She adapted it for the stage in 2010, then workshopped it through Sundance’s scheme for new filmmakers for another year. Powley got hold of the script through her agent and videoed an audition for Heller in London.

“When I read it, I thought, ‘I’ve got to be in this movie.’ I always tell people you don’t have to have slept with your mum’s boyfriend to relate to this movie, you just have to understand the feelings you had as a teenager. So I related to it completely on that level.” She videoed a scene in bed, rather than the usual neutral white wall background, and at the end of her reading broke with character and accent to add a personal, impassioned appeal to Heller.

Impressed, Heller signed her up. Not all of Powley’s auditions have gone so smoothly. When Atonement director Joe Wright was making a musical in London, Powley was sent along for a tryout. “I was very excited to meet Joe Wright, and the acting side went well. But then we were in a big room with a grand piano and sheet music.” The song was Danny Boy, and her rendition of the Irish ballad had dogs wincing three streets away. “That’s when it fell apart: it was too high for me.”

Two months ahead of the filming for Heller’s film, Powley had a brutal haircut and was given a coach to help her work on a Californian accent. She was also put in a boot camp devoted to everything 1976 to immerse her in the music, fashions and attitudes of the period. “I was born in 1992, but I learnt a lot about the 70s from the film. It’s like getting history lessons,” she says in an earnest manner than makes anyone who actually remembers the 70s feel like an artefact from ancient times.

Isobel Dorothy Powley may be young, but she’s been acting for more than half of her life. She was 12 when she was talent-spotted at a youth theatre to play child spy Daisy Millar on the BBC children’s show MI High. “I had crazy gadgets, disguises, and some cool leather Catwoman outfits. It was the most fun a 13-year-old could ever have. I certainly didn’t feel like it was a job because there wasn’t any pressure. I would probably have done it for free.”

Raised in London, Powley went back to school after two years of MI High. “I did the TV show so I could have money for university; it wasn’t until I did theatre that I actually fell for acting.”

But the profession is in Powley’s blood. Her father, Mark, appeared in 88 episodes of The Bill as PC Melvin and has gone on to do everything from Holby City to Emmerdale. Her mother is casting director Janis Jaffa. Even though Powley’s stage debut in Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court was described by one reviewer as acting “of the highest order”, both parents have tried to dissuade her from a performing career and push her towards university.

“They know how difficult this can be, and they would have liked me to be a doctor or a lawyer.” She got as far as applying for a degree in history and politics in London, but was sidetracked by an offer she couldn’t refuse. Instead of studying, she led Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on Broadway, playing a maths prodigy, and earning rave reviews. She deferred her place for a couple of years, and still hasn’t entirely discounted the idea of mature study, but that may have to wait for a gap in her schedule. Right now she’s lined up for film director Drake Doremus’s sci-fi romantic drama Equals, with Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, set in a future where humans have no emotions. She’s also set to play the lead in Ashes In The Snow, a Second World War drama based on the bestseller, Between Shades Of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, and has had pole-dancing lessons for her next film, Detour, “a thriller about some people on a road trip to go and murder someone in Las Vegas, in which I play a stripper”.

This all sounds miles away from the last feature we saw her in, the fanciful frolic A Royal Night Out, which riffed on the Queen and Princess Margaret heading incognito into the streets of London on VE Day. Canadian actress Sarah Gadon played Princess Elizabeth, already fond of a headscarf, but it was Powley who stole the show as the champagne-swigging younger royal, who joyfully takes her first ride on a bus and later hunkers down in a strip joint, where she befriends a Soho gangster. Word has it that the Queen was not amused by the idea of her sister as a tippling, fun-loving 14-year-old, but Powley is a hoot and regarded its panto drama as light relief after filming The Diary Of A Teenage Girl.

“We shot all night at Trafalgar Square for VE Night with 300 extras, all dressed up in 1940s clothes, people in soldiers’ uniforms, and Sarah and I running around in our party dresses,” Powley recalls. “There was a real magical atmosphere around. It did feel like we were there. I got to hoick up my dress and splash around in the fountains – and no-one gets to do that because it’s illegal and the police immediately pull you out. So that is my proudest moment of the film.”

After a regal turn, starring on Broadway, being feted at Sundance, and bumping bodies with Alexander Skarsgard, Powley could be forgiven if she sounded a little weary. Edinburgh is the latest promotional visit in a global tour – her next stop is LA. Instead, she’s bright, happy to talk about the work, and still capable of being awed by some of the company she keeps. She has no hesitation in conjuring up her favourite A-list meet. When she was working on the play Jumpy, with Tamsin Greig, the Episodes actor invited one of her co-stars from the BBC comedy to visit backstage. “Matt LeBlanc showed up, and to be honest I was pretty freaked out because I grew up watching Friends every day after school. I couldn’t believe that it was Joey Tribbiani – although I’m pretty sure he’d be upset to hear me say that.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is released on Friday