Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future. This week, a special TIFF edition.
Bel Powley isn’t your typical movie heroine – the British actress isn’t one for weapon-wielding or dystopian landscapes – but since her breakthrough in Marielle Heller’s Sundance darling “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Powley has made it her business to snag roles in YA properties that happily buck convention in the crowded genre.
With the Toronto International Film Festival premiere “Carrie Pilby,” Powley has again taken on another thorny and complicated character – and, like “Diary,” another one sprung from a beloved piece of YA fiction. Based on Caren Lissner’s popular novel of the same name, Susan Johnson’s film sets Powley as the eponymous Carrie Pilby, a teen genius who excels at intellectual pursuits but is woefully unable to connect to others on emotional or social levels. When her therapist (played by a wonderfully understated Nathan Lane) tasks her with a to-do list of pursuits meant to push her out into the world – things like “make a friend” and “go on a date” – Carrie’s life changes in some major ways.
As charming as that all sounds, Carrie is a prickly person, a legitimate genius who thinks most people are stupid, sex-obsessed morons – and has no problem letting everyone know just that. In the simplest of terms, Carrie isn’t very “likable,” and that’s exactly what attracted Powley to the coming-of-age comedy.
Avoiding an Annoying Character
“I think that was the biggest challenge for me. That’s what attracted me to her,” Powley recently told IndieWire during the festival. “I read it and I was like, ‘It’s going to be a real challenge to make this character likable.’ If this was played in a kind of 2D way, she’s just another precocious, obnoxious — she’s going to be annoying. It was kind of like digging deep and thinking, ‘Okay, how can I make her likable?'”
Powley cracked the code – in much of the same way she did with her “Teenage Girl” character Minnie – to find the actually likable person underneath all of Carrie’s copious pretense. Despite Carrie’s consistent bad attitude toward the world around her, she really has been through a lot, including the death of her beloved mother and a wildly ill-advised affair with one of her professors when she was just a very young college student. That sort of backstory was elemental for Powley’s process.
“People are likable when they’re vulnerable, because you show a true side to yourself,” Powley explained. “Then it was like, ‘What makes her vulnerable?’ The thing I decided – or that I found – was an underlying sadness that exists because of absence of her mother. It’s kind of just about carrying that with me. It wasn’t necessarily something that was shown in the movie.”
Despite the heavy nature of some of the film’s underpinning, “Carrie Pilby” is frequently very funny, another thing that Powley sparked to almost immediately, billing the film as “a kind of comedy that has heart.” Much of the film’s humor comes from the way that Carrie approaches the world, including her whip-smart and rapid-fire manner of speaking. The character is, after all, meant to be the smartest person in the room at all times.
“The way that she speaks is a real challenge, isn’t it, playing someone that clever, so I could never drop the ball,” Powley said. “It always had to be quick. You had to speak on the line. The thought had to always be there. You can’t hesitate.”
The “Quirky Best Friend”
Much like Minnie, Carrie is the kind of role that Powley is actively seeking out – “3D, complex women,” in her own words – and the kind of part she’s eager for Hollywood to start offering up to other actresses, not just her.
“No one wants to just play someone’s girlfriend, or play a character that isn’t complex,” Powley said. “Character acting is the most fun, and that’s a reason why I love this job so much. The idea that I can be given a person and then try and become that person is incredibly exciting, so the more complex and the more character-ful they are, the better.”
In the early part of her career, Powley was offered those sorts of decidedly non-complex jobs, and she’s not interested in going back to it.
“I always got into a kind of weird bracket,” she remembered. “It was always more kind of ‘quirky best friend’ than like ‘leading lady.’ I was never being offered like ‘hot high school girlfriend.’ It was always like the weird friend. There are all these kind of 2D roles that women get put into, these boxes. That’s not life. People don’t exist in boxes.”
The Right Collaborators
But Powley may have already discovered her own canny way to avoid films that hedge towards so-called 2D women: By working with female directors. Both “Carrie Pilby” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” were directed by women, and Powley’s upcoming slate includes a big part in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s period-piece “A Storm in the Stars.”
“I don’t want to say that there is a difference [between male and female directors], because I think that every director is different, no matter what sex they are,” Powley said when asked about her experiences. “The important thing is just that there aren’t enough female directors, or female directors aren’t given enough opportunity to work.”
Powley, however, seems committed to doing her part to change that. For one thing, she still speaks incredibly highly of her work with “Diary” director Heller, calling her “my big sister, my best friend, my mentor,” and the work the pair did together on the 2015 Sundance breakout.
“As an actor, you need platforms like ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ in order to showcase your work, so that people can see it and people can want to hire you,” Bowley said of her professional life after “Diary.” “A lot of people saw that movie and that movie was received amazingly, so of course it’s changed things for me, because before that no one knew who I was.”
Perhaps most importantly, “Diary” allowed people to see Powley for not only the kind of work she’s capable of doing, but the kind of work she wants to be doing.
“I feel incredibly lucky that this movie was the breakthrough movie [for me] and it was a character like Minnie, because it’s hard to be typecast off of a character like Minnie,” Powley said. “She’s multi-faceted, she’s different, she’s real, so I’m being offered strong, good female roles.”
A Common Theme
Some of those roles are already panning out, and Powley has a full slate lined up for the coming months. And Powley wasn’t exaggerating when she noted that “they’re all really different, which is great,” as her upcoming lineup includes a historical outing about a women in a Lithuanian gulug (“Ashes in the Snow”), a horror-drama about a woman trapped in a single room for entire years (“Wildling”) and a fact-based look at the romance between Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Shelley (“A Storm in the Stars”).
And yet all of these films share one common theme: They’re all coming-of-age tales about complicated women. Call it Powley’s sweet spot, but it’s not the only one she’s wants to pursue.
“As long as the role’s good and the character’s well-developed and it’s an amazing director, I’ll do it,” Powley said when asked about the kind of work she’d like to do these days. “But I am kind of itching to do something a bit more hyper-real.”
She continued, “I’d like to do something that’s like a Noah Baumbach or like an Andrew Haigh film, that’s just two people in a room, having a conversation.”
It seems clear that Powley spends a lot of time thinking about her career and what she’d ultimately like it to look like. If nothing else, she knows what she doesn’t want it to look like: Anyone else’s.
“I want it to be individual and I want it to be specific and tailored to me,” she said. “I’m not trying to emulate anybody, but I definitely look up to those women who have stayed really true to themselves and haven’t really succumbed to the pressures of Hollywood, who’ve just done their own shit, you know?”
Polly’s drive has already paid off for her — and while she’s looking forward to the future, more than anything, she’s excited about continually mixing things up.
“I do feel like it’s getting easier, but there’s always more challenges,” Powley said. “You do one thing, and then you start striving for something else.”
“Carrie Pilby” world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.