In her American feature film debut, “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” 22-year-old British actress Bel Powley is so convincing playing a 15-year-old teenager in San Francisco in 1976 that you’ll swear it’s an autobiographical role and she’s somehow time-travelled from the ’70s.
“It’s rare to witness a young girl so openly express her need for physical intimacy in a coming-of-age movie, but ‘Diary’ bravely endeavors to fill a gaping hole in contemporary portrayals of female adolescence,” wrote Anisha Jhaveri in her review of the film for Indiewire.
Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name by writer-director Marielle Heller, “Diary” follows 15-year-old Minnie (Powley) as she explores her sexuality by losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). Kristen Wiig plays Minnie’s fun-loving, irresponsible mom in the film, which was just acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.
Indiewire recently caught up with Powley at Sundance, where she had been quickly anointed the festival’s “it” girl.
I got the part off of a tape. I’ve been doing tapes for three years. I’ve probably done about 500 tapes and it’s never gotten me a role before.
I come from a theater background. I started doing a kids’ TV show when I was 13 and that’s how I got an agent. But I really fell in love with acting when I started doing plays. From ages 17-22, I was doing plays. I was really lucky to go to amazing places. That’s where I feel I really learned how to do what I do because I didn’t go to drama school.
I could relate to everything about the character bar having sex with my mum’s boyfriend, which I haven’t done. But the way Minnie is and how honest she is about the way she feels about her sexuality and about love and about her lack of love in her life was something that I definitely went through when I was a teenage girl. I feel like most people probably went through it even if they don’t want to admit it.
It’s one of the most honest depictions of what it’s like to be a teenage girl ever. Mari [Heller] captured so well the feeling of being a teenager — especially a girl — the frustration and the extremity of feeling, oscillating between two things: love and hate or anger and happiness (they’re constantly changing). Mari captured that so well. It felt so true.
I had some training for the [American] accent, which was really useful, even before I left London. And then Mari encouraged me to only speak in an American accent while we were on set. I’m really glad she made me do that.
I’ve played a lot of young characters because I look so young. [To get into the role of Minnie], it was just tapping into that thing of being emotionally immature in some ways. But I was that young teenage girl, so I just needed to go back to it and to remember. I think Minnie, in some senses, is also really mature. I could bring parts of myself as a 22-year-old to her. It was just being emotionally vulnerable.
Of course, I was nervous about being naked at first. Weirdly, when I read the script, obviously, I knew about the sex. But the sex scenes and the nudity didn’t pop out at me. I didn’t think “oh my God, there’s so much sex and nudity!” because the story is just so strong. Those scenes are so important for the story. But me and Mari spoke about it at length and really chose specifically the points where there would be more nudity. The sex scenes are sex scenes, but I’m not actually showing anything in the sex scenes. It’s more in the scene where we [Minnie and Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgard] have a big fight and when Minnie is examining herself in the mirror. That’s when I was actually most exposed…I want people to watch it and after watching it, maybe think that female sexuality should be less of a sensitive subject.