One of the sublime performances in Studio 8/Sony’s White Boy Rick belongs to British actress Bel Powley, who portrays Dawn Wershe, the sister of Detroit teen-turned-drug-dealer/government informant Rick Wershe Jr.
Yet while Rick initially lifts the family out of its financial problems before getting arrested, Dawn spirals, becoming a crack addict; in many ways collateral damage of Rick Jr.’s fortune, even though he’s not dealing to her.
“She’s gets worse and worse throughout the film, that by the end, she’s living in a full-on crack house. We actually shot in a real crack house,” says Powley, who was guided by director Yann Demange on the nuances of her performance.
How did Powley get into character? “I actually watched a lot of YouTube videos of people smoking crack,” said the actress, to great laughs at Deadline’s The Contenders London.
But aside from playing victim well, Powley delves into the grittyness of an urban American accent, and helping her to do so was newfound actor Richie Merritt, who plays Rick Jr. and was discovered for the part, the filmmakers attracted to his real inner-city persona. “It was really difficult and in the end I had to get Richie –he’s from Baltimore and has that accent himself– he wound up recording all of my lines for me, so I could play it in my head and get all the intonations.”
In the film, Matthew McConaughey’s Rick Sr. is continually trying to pull Dawn back into the family. But she’s a loose cannon. Organically, Powley and McConaughey kept their distance on the set.
“We stayed away from each other on set, not in a fully method way, but we gave each other our space to create that real push and pull between us,” says the actress.
Powley was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit award in 2016 in the best female lead category for her turn in the Marielle Heller feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl.