Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'When I was 15 or 16 I started self-harming... I still have the scars and it's something that I did that I will always regret; it's on my body forever'

 

Currently bringing Agatha Christie to life on Sunday nights, Ella Purnell can now add being a Chanel ambassador to what is an ever more impressive acting CV. But life has not always been so easy for the actress, as she tells Nick Curtis.

In a noisy corner of Shoreditch House, Ella Purnell plonks two cubes of sugar into her coffee. "No judgement, please," the 21-year-old actress says, her saucer-sized eyes mockingly wide. Until now the former child star was best-known for playing juvenile versions of Keira Knightley, Angelina Jolie and Margot Robbie in Never Let Me Go, Maleficent and The Legend of Tarzan - and latterly as grist to the relentless tabloid gossip mill that 'linked' her to Brad Pitt and Spider-Man star Tom Holland.

But this year Purnell has come of age. She is currently on screen in the Sunday night must-see Agatha Christie adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence, and has shot her first grown-up lead role, as waitress Tess in the Starz network's controversial adaptation of Stephanie Danler's New York-set bestseller, Sweetbitter. She has a new role as brand ambassador for her red-carpet favourite, Chanel. And she is also a year into a relationship with James Coates, "a singer and a good egg", and in a place where she can talk for the first time about the depression she suffered in her teens.

But the sad stuff can wait a little. First, we talk about her Chanel gig. "It's not a hard job," she sparkles. "You get to wear amazing clothes and meet amazing people, and then, like Cinderella, you give the dress back at the end of the night." (Not always: she gets to keep some of them). For this professed tomboy who hates high heels, attending couture shows with the Chanel 'family' was a steep learning curve.

"I didn't understand anything. I had to google everything," she says. "The detail that goes into couture stuff is insane. Everything is handmade, every sequin, every double stitch. I learned about the silhouettes, the textures, the colours, the fabrics, the shapes. To me, before, fashion was just jeans and a top. There, I got to try on the new collection afterwards - it takes four people to get you into a dress."

It helps that she is tiny. She's come to Shoreditch House from The Vault, the gym her mother and stepfather run nearby. Purnell's parents split up soon after she was born. Her Scottish businessman father lives in Fulham with his second wife and their three sons. Purnell is close to them all and holidays with them every year, but grew up all over east London with her mum and stepdad and still lives with them near Canary Wharf. She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School and spent a year in Oliver! in the West End aged 12 in 2008. Never Let Me Go followed in 2010, and parts in Ways to Live Forever, Intruders and Kick-Ass 2, before Maleficent in 2014.

"Keira Knightley remains one of my mentors," Purnell says. "I absolutely love her and will turn to her for industry advice or reassurance or validation at any time. She is very classy and elegant and lovely. I have a bit of a woman-crush on Keira." She adores Margot Robbie, too, but was only briefly on the Tarzan set with her; she didn't meet Angelina Jolie at all during Maleficent.

Acting helped pay for her education at City of London School for Girls: "Some of the girls took the p*** out of my accent so I started to talk posher. I learned survival skills pretty quickly." She went on to the Forest School and took her GCSEs a year early in order to make Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children with Tim Burton when she was 17. She loved working with Burton, too, but filming was taking its toll. "Growing up and working at the same time is difficult," she says. Just when she should have been working out who she was as a person, she was on camera, under pressure to look good and to perform, "terrified of tripping up and making a mistake".

She took some time out to go travelling in New Zealand and Australia, where she made friends who subsequently introduced her to Coates at a London party. As her almost 300,000 Instagram followers know, the two are very loved up - when their schedules permit them to be together. "Yeah, I have a weird thing against PDA (public display of affection) on social media," she laughs, sheepishly, "but long-distance relationships are bloody hard, so any sign of affection … We've been together just over a year, not very long, but it feels good."

While we're on the subject, she has never met Brad Pitt, and though she danced and chatted with Tom Holland at a Bafta party, she was already with Coates and he with his girlfriend (plus, his mum was at the Bafta bash, too).

While her love life was falling into place she was having doubts about her profession. "Just before I got Sweetbitter I thought, I'm 21, I haven't had a job in a while, I really don't know if this is a job I want to continue doing," she says.

The roles she was being offered were "the girlfriend of the main, male character; a female that needs saving; or the goal, something that is wanted.

"Just there to be a sex object, portrayed as weak, pretty, nice. I had all these plans to go to university to study English or film or psychology and never did go. I felt really quite lost and didn't know who I was. Then I read the first line of the breakdown of my character in Sweetbitter: 'Tess's life is a shambles.' I thought: Ha! This is relatable."

In Sweetbitter, small-town Tess moves to the Big Apple and via waitressing learns, as Purnell puts it, "about drugs, alcohol, food, wine, sex", including an ill-advised liaison with her older boss. When the (admittedly, sex-heavy) trailer screened at the Television Critics Association in January the makers were asked whether the show deserved a place in the post-Weinstein world of #MeToo. Purnell, angry, points out that it features "a female (character) leading a show, who is completely unapologetic about not fitting into any box, who wants to explore and learn about her sexuality and her sexual preferences in her own way in her own time".

In some ways, though, she felt as far out of her comfort zone as Tess. "It was the first time I had done nudity, which is why it was such a hard role for me," she says. "I was terrified and it was awkward as hell, but the most important thing for me was that it was real, that it doesn't look like a porno, there's no shaved things and no weird uncomfortable sexual positions, and it's sometimes awkward and gross."

She was helped through the process by the show's female assistant director, and the book's author Danler, who is a producer on the series. However, #MeToo still looms over our conversation. Ordeal by Innocence, initially planned for the Christmas schedules, was delayed and then reshot, with actor Christian Cooke taking the role originally played by Ed Westwick, after Westwick was accused of sexual assault and rape, which he denies.

"Legally I can't speculate on anything," says Purnell firmly. "But it is good that we are having these conversations." She has never personally been sexually harassed, but as we are learning - or as we've always known - the culture of film sets and many other work environments offers subtler power-plays. "It's very hard to not give in, to sell your soul: to flatter a more experienced male person of power, a producer or director, in order to get what you want," she says. "You feel a pressure to flutter your eyelashes and flirt, because you know that will work, and I think it's admirable to not do that. I don't think that is a comment on women, I think it is a comment on men in power."

Purnell is keen to put her burgeoning visibility to good use. In the future, she wants her professional projects to reflect gender (and other) diversity. She already works with the charity Educate 2 Eradicate, which helps teachers and students address FGM and honour-based violence. And she is looking to hook up with a mental-health charity this year, for intensely personal reasons. "I have anxiety and have had depression in the past," she says.

"When I was 15 or 16 I had a bad experience at school - some issues with other classmates and somebody I was seeing, we don't need to go into it. I started self-harming and did that for a long time until my mum caught me and I started to learn about it (mental health). I thought depression was something you could only have if your parents died, or your were about to jump off a bridge. I certainly didn't feel comfortable enough to talk about it then. Had it happened to me now I'd feel able to say, 'Mum, I need to take some time off school,' or, 'Mum, I am suffering with this thing.'

"Self-harm is not about attention - I hid (my scars) for six months, wore long T-shirts, covered them up with make-up. It's about punishing yourself, for people who dislike themselves or suffer from insecurity or self-doubt. They want to hurt themselves because they think they deserve it: that's where I was at. You know it's wrong, you don't want to worry other people, but if you are in that headspace it feels good. I'm sure it releases adrenaline or something, it made me calm, and for that reason for me it became an addiction. I had to work very hard to remove my trigger points and to create a safe space so I wouldn't become tempted to get back into it again.

"I still have the scars," she continues, "and it's something that I did that I will always regret: it hurt a lot of people around me and it's on my body forever. It's something I never felt comfortable talking about before, but I have decided I am going to start working with mental health charities this year. Because through opening up about my own experiences I can start conversations and make other people feel less alone and less guilty."

Purnell says she always needs to feel part of something bigger, whether it is a cause, an artistic endeavour or her extended family, to abate her feelings of loneliness. Many of her friends are away at university, but she has compensated by taking Coates and his muso mates to old haunts: Ronnie Scott's, the Queen of Hoxton and the funk and soul nights at Peckham's Bussey Building.

She's also started singing with a blues-jazz band herself: "Amy Winehouse is one of my biggest inspirations." And she's looking to move out of home and buy a flat, in Shoreditch or Limehouse (she fancied a houseboat but is away too much to maintain one), another thing that sets her apart from her contemporaries.

"I still need a mortgage and everything, though," she qualifies as she hugs me goodbye. "I'm only 21."

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