The risk-taker: informer's Bel Powley takes on Matthew McConaughey in White Boy Rick
By Natalie Jamieson
It’s 7.45am in Los Angeles when Bel Powley comes on the phone, 3.45pm in the UK. She begins by apologising into the ether to whoever she spoke to before me, because she hadn’t managed to down any coffee beforehand, whereas now she’s managed half a cup and is feeling considerably more awake. In those precious few seconds of sounding each other out before the conversation properly begins, there’s bonding over how frustrating it is when movie trailers give too much plot away (“I find it really annoying when you watch trailers and you think ‘well I’ve seen half the film now!’”) and how enjoyable it is to be surprised by what you’re watching (“I love going in to see plays when I know nothing about it”). With that no-spoiler spirit in mind, we come to White Boy Rick, the 1980s-set film, starring Matthew McConaughey, based on the true-life drama of Richard Wershe Jr. and his family, where Bel shines as Rick’s troubled older sister, Dawn. It’s a riveting yet nightmare-ish story as the characters battle to survive trading drugs and guns as their main currency.
“That giant scene where he (Matthew McConaughey) comes home and I’m high on crack and snogging that guy and then I run into the street in my underwear, was definitely diving in at the deep end.”
“I was like ‘wow, I know nothing about this, I know nothing about Detroit in the 80’s and it scared me,” she admits. “And honestly, the first day on set I was shaking. I was so scared, thinking I’m not going to be able to pull this off, I’m not the right girl for the job.” It was a far cry from how she felt when she took on Minnie in 2015’s much-praised The Diary of a Teenage Girl. “I’d always played roles that I had a sort of affiliation with, especially Diary of a Teenage Girl. When I read that script, I was like ‘this is me, I should play this role, I need to explore this because I know that character inside out’.”
The introduction to Dawn in the opening minutes of White Boy Rick is beautifully timed in a scene blending comedy, drama, and the painful awkwardness of family relationships. Conceived as one long tracking shot initially, it was also the very first scene Bel did on day one, still shaking with nerves. “That giant scene where he (Matthew McConaughey, playing Dawn’s father Richard Wershe Sr.) comes home and I’m high on crack and snogging that guy and then I run into the street in my underwear, was definitely diving in at the deep end.” She’s wearing pants and a T-shirt, and let’s face it, that’s hardly an unusual costume to put a woman in, in any movie, but refreshingly it was all Bel’s idea here. The original script had her character getting dressed after she’s interrupted mid-coitus on the sofa but that wasn’t working for Bel.
“Initially I was meant to have clothes on,” Bel tells me, “then I was like ‘it doesn’t really make sense if I’m high on crack and it’s this frantic movement for me to get up and then before I run outside after my boyfriend, to like put my clothes on?’ I was like, ‘I’ll just run out in my underwear, it’ll be really funny’.” She’s absolutely right that the scene would not work nearly so well if she paused to put on her jeans as in that moment, Dawn is fully flying off the handle. You get a sense of the action from the trailer. The only regret involved the Ohio weather as the scene took three days to complete. “Those three days of shooting it, it was sleeting, snowing and raining, so I was running around the middle of Cleveland in my knickers and socks getting drenched, but literally we must have done that like 50 times, just back and forth. It was a real work out and I was very scared when we first did it but once we got into it, I think it was quite a good scene to start with.”
It’s also pleasing that on this, her ninth cinematic release, and still young in the film world at 26, Bel Powley feels suitably empowered to make her opinions count. Choosing to disrobe on screen is a perfect example, “and also the other way around” stresses Bel. “I’ve done movies and shows I’ve been in where there has been a scene where the character is in her pants and I’ve gone, ‘well actually no, that makes no sense, I’m not going to do that’ so it works both ways.” She’s preaching to the converted here but it’s a solid point. “Which is totally how it should be,” she continues. “The way it should be is that women, or men, anyone should all have the power to decide how much do they expose their body at any point.”
“When I go back and think about all those Disney cartoons I watched when I was a kid,” she says, “it’s like ‘bloody hell!’ That was the view of a woman that I had when I was five years-old! It was bloody cartoon Cinderella. The recent ones are much better, but the old ones are quite weird.”
It helps when the director, Yann Demange (’71, Top Boy), was open to listening to what Bel had to say and make changes as needed. I ask Bel if at this point in her career, whether she’s fixed on any personal rules on which she won’t compromise when taking a new job. “I think it obviously has to be a director who I’m excited to work with,” she considers. “I mean obviously I’ve worked with first time directors, so it doesn’t have to be someone who’s got a plethora of amazing previous work, but it has to be someone that I’ve connected with. And in terms of the role, I mean honestly, as a woman, it just has to be a role that’s multi-faceted, three-dimensional that I can really dig deep into. Times are slowly changing but there are still a few two-dimensional roles floating around out there.”
Powley has also played Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out as well as Mary Shelley’s sister Claire in the film of the same name; historic maverick figures who might well have disappointed the rigid expectations their peers had for them as aristocratic young ladies. I bring up the questionable gender roles exhibited in some early Disney movies I’ve seen recently, many of which I still love, but that would be made very differently in 2018. You’d hope. “When I go back and think about all those Disney cartoons I watched when I was a kid,” she says, “it’s like ‘bloody hell!’ That was the view of a woman that I had when I was five years-old! It was bloody cartoon Cinderella. The recent ones are much better, but the old ones are quite weird.”
There’s much to admire about White Boy Rick, including having Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie in cameo roles as Dawn and Rick’s grandparents, and the captivating Jennifer Jason Leigh and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry making you question just which is the right side of the law to be on. It introduces Richie Merritt as the Rick of the title, plucked from high school to Hollywood, triumphing in what must have been quite an initiation starring alongside an endearingly flawed Matthew McConaughey as his dad. It’s easy to get swept along with the excitement of the 80’s scene shown here, especially when some of the action plays out at a hipster-cool roller disco (albeit one rife with corruption and exploitation) but I ask Bel if that’s all merely a filmic front for addressing the trials of parenting. “I think it’s a film essentially about parenting and about family,” Bel agrees. “And about how every parent wants to look after their kid and is just doing the best that they can and every family just kind of wants to stick together, whatever they’re faced with.”
Before Bel gets to drink the rest of that cup of now lukewarm coffee, we touch on her recent BBC hit Informer, a show about which she’s “incredibly proud” and the current job that’s brought her to LA, the high-profile, big-budget series being made by Apple about morning television, which is still without a title. “I’m three days in,” Bel says. “It’s going good, but I’m still at that point where it’s a little nerve-wracking to go to set but it’s good, it’s a lot to take in. I’ve never done an American show before in a studio and also because it’s a show within a show, it’s quite complex. The set is The Morning Show set and we’ve got all The Morning Show cameras and Morning Show crew and then around that we have our cameras and our crew so it’s a lot of people. But I’m working with some amazing people like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, say no more. A lot of incredible women.”
Understandably, much about Apple’s venture into a series on this scale is still under wraps but even so, is it still unusual to go to set, look around and think – ‘look at all these women I can learn from?’ “Yes, a hundred percent,” says Bel. “And we’ve got a female director, female showrunner, female exec, this is a very female-led show and for a reason because it’s a bit about the #MeToo movement, so it makes sense that we’ve got women making it.” Bel Powley may still need to shake off those early nerves, but however she channels that energy, it’s clearly working in how it translates into her acting. Plus, it doesn’t sound as if she’s about to give in to the intimidation of taking on a new challenge. “I think it’s boring to just coast and do things that are easy or do things that you feel fully comfortable with,” she says. “Life would be boring if you did that all the time. You’ve got to take risks.”
White Boy Rick is released on December 7th in the UK by Sony Pictures