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Indie Spirits: 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' Breakout Star Bel Powley On The Challenges of Growing Up

With her first American role as Minnie in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, British actress Bel Powley has exploded onto the scene as one of the most exciting young talents to watch, subsequently booking major roles in some highly-anticipated independent films by the likes of Drake Doremus and Haifaa Al-Mansour. In Diary, Powley portrays a 15 year old San Francisco-based girl who finds herself in the middle of an artistic and sexual awakening, falling hard for Monroe, the significantly older boyfriend of her own mother, played sympathetically by Alexander Skarsgård. Accruing a win for Best Actress at the Gotham Awards and a BAFTA nom for the Rising Star Award, among a slew of other nominations, Powley’s is a voice that demands to be heard, and is as eloquent and powerful in conversation as on screen. Here, Powley discusses the state of women in film, taking on sequences of heavy nudity in her American debut, working with Skarsgård on complicated character dynamics, and more.

You’re in some pretty amazing company with your Indie Spirit Award nomination. How does it feel?

It feels a bit crazy, like I can’t really believe it. The movie was my first American film, so the fact that two years out from shooting it, the movie’s nominated for an Indie Spirit Award and so am I—it’s quite something.

How was it working with Marielle Heller? It seems that she transitioned you into the American film world pretty seamlessly.

Yeah. She’s amazing. She and I really have one of those kind of director-actor relationships that I keep worrying I’ll never have again with anybody. We had the best relationship. From day one when we first Skyped, we always wanted the same things for the movie and the same things for the character, Minnie. We have always had this insane rapport and always been in tune with each other in that way. She has been holding my hand through this whole process.

Diary is based on a graphic novel—Are you a fan of graphic novels?

No! The truth really is ‘No’, which I think actually worked in my favor. I’m not not a fan of graphic novels, but it’s not like one of my pastimes, reading graphic novels.

Did you read Gloeckner’s work in preparation, or were you familiar with Marielle’s prior adaptation for the stage?

Even when I read the script, I was completely unaware that Marielle had written it into a play and played Minnie herself. That was actually useful to me because I think sometimes it can be slightly damaging as an actor if you have too many influences from other people who have played your role if it’s been done before. So it was actually quite a big decision to me whether I even read The Diary of a Teenage Girl as a graphic novel. I did in the end. I made sure I read it two or three months before we started shooting so I really had time to absorb it and take away from it what I wanted to, and not have it feeling too intimate to me.

In terms of Marielle doing the play, we never even spoke about it once, which is weird because we were talking about the material all the time. She never once said, “Well, I did this…” She never brought it up, and because she never brought it up, neither did I. I think she really wanted to be able to be objective about the whole thing, as well. It wasn’t so much handing Minnie over to me—It was more that Minnie was kind of this entity from both of us that we’d talk about in the third person and would want to honor and do right by.

There are beautiful nuances and quick shifts in moments between your character and Alexander’s, as there’s obviously a double dynamic between you where he’s at once a paternal and a romantic figure for Minnie. How did you work through those moments with Marielle and Alexander?

I think this thing that really draws them together in the first place is they’re both childlike and act like little kids, and then they both have this really romantic, hopeful mindset to them as well—him dreaming about his boat, her dreaming about what she’s going to become. We spent two weeks rehearsing before we even started, and that wasn’t necessarily blocking the scenes—It was more just going through the beats, the whole movie, and making sure that we tracked their relationship and the development of it and were all on the same page about that.

One of my favorite scenes is the first one, when he takes her to the bar, and that was actually the first scene that we shot. I remember us discussing this in rehearsal—it’s really weird how that scene encompasses every beat of their relationship throughout the whole movie in one scene, this push-and-pull that they have—the playing, and then her wanting him, and her pulling away and then him wanting her. All those beats play in miniature in that scene, so we did a lot of work on that—even tiny things. Alex would take one word out of one line and then would add an extra beat to a pause so it really stops the scene, so that they felt really perfect and natural to us.

On a fundamental level, despite all the moments of gentle beauty and emotional simpatico, there is obviously a good deal that is disturbing about the relationship of your two characters. The audience’s perception of this relationship hinged on this very careful work between you two. Was there nervousness about that?

I was definitely nervous because there’s one world where the movie is made and everyone just thinks, “Oh great, this is a movie about a pedophile,” and we really didn’t know whether people were going to think that, or people were going to think something else, until it opened at Sundance. We tried to make the movie that we wanted to make and that we believed that it was, and that was not a story just about an older man sleeping with a younger woman. It’s more about Minnie’s sexual awakening and coming of age, and Monroe just happened to be part of that, but I know what you’re saying.

Did it intimidate you, then, to go nude in your first American role?

When I got the film and we got to doing the contract, I remember I got the first draft of the nudity clause, and it was 12 pages long or something really ridiculous, and my first thought was, “F*ck. I don’t remember there being this much nudity in the movie,” but then I took that as a really positive thing that “Wow, if I don’t remember there being that much nudity in the movie, then it’s obviously not gratuitous.” It didn’t stand out to me. I didn’t read the film and come away from it being like, “God, there’s a lot of sex and nakedness in that movie.” I came away from it sensing other things from it, so that was a very good foot to start on.

Usually with those kind of things, your agent deals with the producers about the seven sections of tit that you’re going to see in one scene, or whatever, and then your agent tells you what the producer said, and you go back and forth like that. Whereas in this, from day one, even before I started work on the movie, Marielle and I were having a one-on-one, very open conversation about it. Marielle would say to me, “I think you should be full frontal in this scene,” then I would say no or yes, and we would discuss it, so I always trusted her even before I flew out to San Francisco. I knew in every scene the reason why I was going to be naked, and none of it felt gratuitous or that my standards were wrong.

Of course, actually getting down to it is different if you’ve never done it before. You’re basically simulating sex with someone you don’t know, and you’re only wearing like two band-aids and there are 12 random people in the room, so that’s always going to be weird, but it was an incredibly safe environment. Our crew was amazing, Alex was amazing, and it always felt necessary.

I’ve watched the movie three or four times and I’ve never once cringed at myself, and I don’t mean that I think I’m really hot or anything. It’s not like I’m in love with my whole body or the way I look, but I just think that Marielle had done it so tastefully, and down to every movement, down to Minnie standing and examining herself in the mirror, which is when I’m most exposed, I can’t deny that it reflects exactly what it is like to be 15-year-old girl. That’s what it feels like, so I’m damn proud of it.

How do Minnie’s preoccupations with youthful loneliness and expectation, whether internally generated or projected by others, relate to your own experience?

I didn’t have sex with my mom’s boyfriend. I always have to say that. I can’t relate to it that way, but Marielle and Phoebe both got what it just feels like in your brain and in your heart and in your stomach to be a 15-year-old girl, and a lot of that comes from how vulnerable you are—like you’re always stepping on eggshells within yourself—and you oscillate between so many different things at one time.

When I first read it, I was like, “Whoa. I remember how this feels.” I also remember thinking, “Fuck, how did I survive?” Because one minute you’re so deeply in love and so happy and feeling so blissful, and then someone can say one thing and then your whole body seems to explode, and you can be angry and want to kill yourself the next second. That’s the type of extremity of emotion that I remember really coming easily to me when I was pretending to be 15 again.

Also, just being unsure of yourself when you’re 15. Being a boy or a girl, your body is changing so much and there are hormones raging through you, so you never quite feel yourself from one day to the next. One day you might think, “Okay, this is what I feel like,” and then the next something’s changing again—like a pair of pants that you put on one week, the next week will hug your butt in a different way, so, you’re constantly rediscovering yourself. I think that’s where the loneliness and confusion comes from, so I relate to all those things, interestingly… I mean, not anymore. I’m fine now. I got through it.

Are there artistic idols you can point to from when you were Minnie’s age that had a similarly profound influence on you?

No. That’s another reason why I was so passionate about doing the movie from when I read it. The truth is, I think I was even more lost, being this ‘90s baby from central London. All the young people I surrounded myself with, all they cared about was, I don’t know, Beyonce and American Apparel. (Laughs)

I was very confused because I wanted to fit in with all of that, but I never did, so I was really lost. The movies I used to watch, I remember always being so angry because I felt like I, as a teenage girl, was never truly represented in a film. There were always bits of me that were represented—I’d watch Juno and be like, “Oh, well part of me is like that, but it’s still not the whole thing.” Or even Mean Girls, which I love— that movie is a huge part of my teenage years— and there were parts of that which I can relate to, but nothing was all-encompassing enough until I read The Diary of a Teenage Girl and I was like, “That’s it. Someone finally got it.”

Following from that, what are your thoughts on the state of women in cinema, whether that be women directing, working below-the-line, or just female characters?

Well, my main thought is “Better late than never,” because half of me wants to talk about it all the time, and then half of me gets annoyed, and I don’t want to discuss this in every interview because it should be something that just exists anyway. Equality should just exist anyway—like, why is it a thing? But then obviously, the other 50 percent of me is like, “Well, it’s a fucking good thing that it’s a thing, because it hasn’t been a thing.” So yes, better late than never, but I definitely do feel like things are changing, and I also think there are still plenty of awful roles out there. There are still plenty of 2D roles—it’s not like every role I read is Minnie in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but at least people being able to watch films like this and me having been in one, I’ve realized that I can strive to be other things than just someone’s girlfriend in a movie.

I know that there are roles out there, and I know that there are writers out there like Marielle who need to stick together and make it happen. I worry that it’s a trend—a trend for this year. It’s just a trendy thing at the moment, and I really don’t want that to be the case. I know that for the rest of my career, I’ll be making strong choices in terms of playing good female roles, but I hope that everyone else sticks to it too.

You have two very interesting projects going into production soon, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s A Storm in the Stars and Marius A. Markevicius’s Ashes in the Snow —what can you tell us about them?

 I’m just about to start shooting them next week, back to back. I’m very excited to work with Haifaa Al-Mansour. She’s another very prolific, very amazing feminist filmmaker, and the story that we’re telling is about Mary Shelley—what happened to Mary Shelley and her sister. Elle Fanning plays Mary and I play her sister, Claire Clairmont. When they were 15, they ran away from home because Mary was in love Percy Shelley, the poet. They went to live in Geneva with Percy and Byron. It’s this weird capsule of time in 1815 that, basically, is exactly like 1965 in San Francisco. It’s very strange. Percy and Byron were big fighters of free love and they were sleeping with many different women, but then also took advantage of these two young girls. But then these two young girls were probably some of the most feminist characters I’ve ever met, really trying to instate themselves in society—trying to be like what the men were at that time. It’s an amazing story.

As I remember, Percy wasn’t very supportive of Mary’s ambitions.

Mary really had to fight to be published under her own name. Claire had to fight to have a baby out of wedlock and keep that baby, so these two women were really kind of driving for a lot at that time.

And Ashes?

 I mean, talk about saving the difficult one for last. Yeah…It’s going to be tough. We’re shooting it in the snow in northern Lithuania. It’s about Stalin’s genocide in the Baltic States, which is a part of history which hasn’t been accounted for in film that much.

And again, it follows one young woman’s journey, who kind of goes from being taken from her house when she’s a teenager, and she ends up being an amazing, strong leader. Yeah. They’re both going to be great.