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Yellowjackets’ Ella Purnell: ‘I was 15 doing photo shoots and they’d pull out a bra and knickers’

The British actor had a big year as the star of ‘Yellowjackets’. Now she’s set to join the Star Trek universe. She speaks to Annabel Nugent about the importance of setting boundaries, getting hate over ‘Army of the Dead’, and what she wishes she had done differently about those Brad Pitt dating rumours

Saturday 23 April 2022 09:06 BST
If there is a thread connecting Purnell’s characters – besides their large eyes, animated or otherwise – it is the fact they are mostly headstrong, opinionated women
If there is a thread connecting Purnell’s characters – besides their large eyes, animated or otherwise – it is the fact they are mostly headstrong, opinionated women (Getty)

The first thing you notice about Ella Purnell is her accent. It’s British. Very British. The actor possesses the sort of born-in-Whitechapel, raised-in-Bethnal Green accent that four years of LA living has done nothing to dim. It’s a testament to her acting skills, which are typically put to use in Stateside roles. “Actor does accent” is not news, obviously – but when someone makes their mark playing a ponytail-flipping, soccer-playing, all-American teen as Purnell did in last year’s runaway hit Yellowjackets, “bloke” is the last word you expect to hear from her mouth. “I did say ‘obvs’ the other day, though,” she cringes. “I’m a monster.”

Monster is harsh, but it’s certainly in the vicinity of vocabulary that fans used to describe Purnell’s character in Yellowjackets, a queen bee with a mean streak, who becomes stranded in the wilderness with her football team after a plane crash. The series toggles between the aftermath of the accident and its present-day survivors, played by adult actors. “Unlikeable,” is how Purnell describes the parts she gravitates to. “It fills me with rage to think of playing ‘the girlfriend’ or the ‘damsel in distress’. Blah blah blah.” She rolls her eyes, which for Purnell, is a grander gesture than it sounds.

Finding your signature as an actor can be difficult, but Purnell was born with hers: a set of enormous green eyes. Everything else – her slight five-foot-three frame, button nose, and cropped bob – shrinks in comparison. Directors love to film her eyes. In the promotional poster for Yellowjackets, they’re tearful; the shadow of a demon-like creature is reflected in the pupil. Across Netflix’s zombie heist movie Army of the Dead, they were fixated in equal parts terror and determination. To watch Purnell as a pixie waif in 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is to witness Tim Burton’s imagination come to life: wide-eyed, wasp-waisted, and spindly-legged. Her next role does away with those eyes altogether, if only because it is a voice-over part. More specifically, Purnell is lending her voice, minus the east-London accent, to the alien life form Gwyndala in Nickelodeon’s highly anticipated series Star Trek: Prodigy.

Purnell hasn’t seen Star Trek. “Honestly, the shame that I feel around that has really taken hold,” she laughs, vowing to binge the entire thing over the weekend. In terms of voice acting, Star Trek isn’t her first rodeo. Last year, she starred opposite Hailee Steinfeld as the voice of Jinx in Netflix’s Arcane, a quietly – but hugely – successful series based on the computer game League of Legends. Despite little fanfare, the show has a coveted 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Purnell won an Annie award for her work on the series. “I literally could not believe it. I was like, ‘I am a scam artist…’” she says, only half joking.

If there is a thread connecting Purnell’s characters – besides their large eyes, animated or otherwise – it is the fact they are mostly headstrong, opinionated women. Moments after meeting the actor, who is abuzz on foamy lattes and kicked back on the couch, it becomes clear that such roles aren’t far from the real thing. But the problem with playing the “badass chick” in action fare is how closely “badass” is associated with scantily clad. ​​Apparently, the best attire for slaughtering enemies and fleeing danger is a bra, hot pants, and platform boots. “It’s still very new to see a woman be violent in a way that isn’t fetishised or used for the gore tactic. In Yellowjackets, we’re not these half-naked sexy cannibals. We’re just surviving, and you don’t see that often, so it’s interesting when you do.”

Fresh off her Annie award for ‘Arcane’, Purnell lends her voice to Gwyn (second to the left) in Nickelodeon’s ‘Star Trek: Prodigy’ (Nickelodeon/Paramount)

This was playing on Purnell’s mind when she signed onto Arcane, but as she puts it, “I wasn’t sure how to ask a room full of blokes: ‘Are we still doing the boobs?’” She had a similar concern over Army of the Dead. “You know, it’s a Netflix Original. Zach Snyder. It all felt very boys’ club,” she recalls. “Being in your early twenties, that s*** comes up all the f***ing time and you have to be really firm about it from the start. So I came in hot, saying, ‘I’m not gonna wear high heels! I’m not gonna wear a push-up bra!’” Only then did she see her costume rail; it was full of cargo pants and tops that one would actually wear to a zombie killing spree. Not a push-up bra in sight. Purnell was relieved but notes “it would’ve been a different conversation 10 years ago”. She quips, “You’re a woman, you get it!”

The actor herself is only just starting to “get it”. Putting up boundaries hasn’t always been easy. “I’ve gone into photo shoots when I was 15 and they’ve pulled out a bra and a pair of knickers for me to wear,” she says. “As a 15-year-old, I don’t have the power to say no because I’m thinking, Am I going to get cancelled? Am I not going to work again? Am I going to burn bridges? So, it really becomes the job of other people to protect you.” Purnell counts herself lucky she had the right people around her. “But you can understand how easily it can go the other way for anybody that doesn’t have that support system. There are not enough child protection laws around that.” It’s only as she has gotten older – and more successful – that Purnell has learnt to say no. The irony isn’t lost on her that she needs this skill now less than ever before. “The more well-known you are, the less people push you,” she says.

Purnell as queen bee Jackie in last year’s hit thriller series ‘Yellowjackets’ (Showtime)

But Purnell isn’t naive. Even now, with a Zach Snyder tent pole, viral hit series, and a Star Trek credit to her name, the actor knows she still must play the game. “How do I put this diplomatically…” she pauses for a second before forging on. “As a woman in this industry, you are constantly trying to find the right balance. You can’t be too strong, you can’t swear, you can’t wear short skirts. You can’t be too sexy because they won’t respect you, but you can’t not be beautiful because then they think you don’t have value. We’re taught to hold our grudges inside because at the end of the day it’s still a man’s world and you’re trying to get paid.’”

It’s a matter-of-fact attitude that likely derives from her decades-long experience in an industry notorious for chewing young girls up and spitting them out. Purnell began her career in baby modelling. “I did a Dior campaign – when I was four!” she peals. There was also a memorable commercial for the chocolate caramel brand Toffifee when she was nine. Then came a small part in the West End production of Oliver! “I loved it but realised that I was relatively shy and didn’t have the presence or the confidence to do musical theatre,” she says.

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The first big job Purnell landed was playing Keira Knightley’s younger counterpart in 2010’s Never Let Me Go. After that, similar roles followed. “It became my thing for a while,” she says. The actor went on to star in Maleficent, embodying the younger version of Angelina Jolie’s character – a role that she bagged over Anya Taylor-Joy (perhaps the only other actor with eyes large enough to rival Purnell’s). Two years later, she played a young Margot Robbie in The Legend of Tarzan. Purnell was conflicted; she didn’t want this to become her schtick but then again, “If someone asks me to be the young Margot Robbie, I’m not gonna say no!”

By the time Yellowjackets premiered last year, Purnell had been working for more than a decade. Somehow in that time, she managed to evade the scrutiny that coming of age as a woman in the public eye inevitably brings. Purnell was 21, living in New York alone for the first time, when the tabloids finally got her. “F*** the Daily Mail,” she mutters now. In 2017, it was reported that Purnell was dating Brad Pitt. The Brad Pitt. As in Brad Pitt of Brangelina, that Brad Pitt. Initially, Purnell found the rumours funny. “I sent the story around to my friends being like” – she mimes a hair flip and puts on a haughty voice to intone – “‘Ah yes, me and my boyfriend Braaaad.’ I thought it was hilarious.” The punch line? She had never met him. Pitt was just a producer on Sweetbit​ter, the TV show in which Purnell had been cast.

“I went to bed and the next day it was f***ing everywhere. I was terrified and really upset. I felt like I couldn’t leave the house, I was so embarrassed.” Overnight, Purnell became the “brunette British beauty” dating America’s biggest star 35 years her senior. Family members texted to congratulate her on the new relationship. And then Purnell proceeded to do the worst thing she possibly could in that moment: she Googled her name. “I read all the comments saying, ‘She’s a little slut. She’s a gold-digger. She wants to get famous. She’s a homewrecker.’ Not one person was saying, ‘Shame on Brad for dating practically a child.’” Her wide eyes grow wider with incredulity. “Essentially, what the tabloids were implying was that I’d only got the job because I slept with the producer. It never would’ve happened to a 21-year-old male lead of a show,” she says. Now, at a distant-enough emotional remove, Purnell has regrets over how she responded at the time. “A) I should’ve nipped it in the bud sooner. B) I should’ve used that platform to make a political stance.”

Purnell as Kate Ward in Zach Synder’s Netflix tent pole ‘Army of the Dead’ (Clay Enos/Netflix)

Her run-in with fans came a few years later when Army of the Dead was released. “I got more s*** for that movie than I’ve ever got in my whole career,” she groans. On paper, the role seems innocuous. Likeable, even. Purnell plays Kate, the estranged daughter of Dave Bautista’s character, who willingly enters a zombie fight zone – not to win the $200m cash prize but to save her friend. A quick Google search makes it clear that viewers did not take to Kate – to put it nicely. “I can’t explain it,” she says of the backlash. “I got so much s***. It got to the point where I couldn’t post a picture without people commenting, ‘You should kill yourself’, ‘You’re a terrible actress.’” She turned off her comments and put out an Instagram post asking people to “back the f*** off – but in a nice way”.

There are no topics off the table with Purnell. No questions that she politely skirts around. For her, the personal is the political. Her Brad Pitt tabloid nightmare? “It reignited my passion for feminism.” The creep-infested industry she has found herself in? “I love talking about it.” The Army of the Dead backlash? Purnell uses her experience to discuss the wider issue of trolls on social media.

Purnell appeared plucked from Tim Burton’s imagination as Emma Bloom in the director’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (YouTube)

Between her candour, her not insignificant charm and that cinematic gaze, it’s easy to see why Purnell has been working steadily since those baby modelling days. It’s less easy to see why she is yet to drop the prefix from the Next Big Thing label she has been assigned all these years. In the days following our conversation, Purnell announces her casting in Amazon’s TV adaptation of the video game Fallout. Surely that will be it; the thing to really make her name. Either way, Purnell doesn’t seem fussed. The upside of working since you were four appears to be patience. Right now, she’s happy sprawled on the couch speaking about anything and everything. When our time is up, she wants to continue. “My cigarette break can wait.”

‘Star Trek: Prodigy’ premieres on 25 April on Nickelodeon UK

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