There's Nothing Peculiar About the Actress's Talent
In Tim Burton’s new film, Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, the young British actor Ella Purnell plays Emma Bloom, a teenage “peculiar” who can control air. As in, when she blows, she’s able to increase the momentum into a hurricane, and she can breathe underwater. Emma and Jacob (Asa Butterfield) take on the hollowgasts—monstrosities who feed on the souls of the peculiars. Purnell’s resume already features a long list of supporting roles in films like Never Let Me Go to Maleficent to Kick-Ass 2 to The Legend of Tarzan. But in Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, she’s a breath of fresh air—front and center in the starring role she deserves.
Are you staying in L.A.?
I’ve got some really good friends who live in Malibu, so I just extended my trip for a couple of days. So that’s where I am at the moment. The house is literally right next to the beach. My agent keeps being like, “Ella, stop tanning.” I’m like, “No! You will never stop me tanning.” I love a little bit of sun. I mean, I’m from England. What do you expect?
Did you watch Tim Burton movies when you were growing up?
Absolutely. I didn’t watch Beetlejuice when I was a kid, because my mum said it was too scary—I watched it when I was 11. But I grew up on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, which are quite different from Beetlejuice. It’s not as gothic-y, but he’s still doing his fantastical, otherworldly, colorful imagery. People used to ask me, “Who is your dream director?” and every time, no hesitation, I was like, “Tim Burton. Straight up.” When you find out you’ve been cast in a Tim Burton movie, every actor is going to freak out a little bit, because it’s such a big deal. His movies are just so stylized and fantastical, so it wasn’t naturalistic acting. That was something I had to learn on this job that I’d never really had to do before. I had to be sort of freakish and underlying-ly creepy as possible.
How do you think the fans of Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children will react to Emma being an air controller as opposed to the fire controller that she is in the book?
That’s a great question, and I’m glad you asked it because it’s something I’ve had to deal with a lot over the past months as the trailers have come out. I even put out a statement just to try and chill everyone out a little bit. When I first read the script, I had read the books, and my brothers had read the books. I was attracted to playing a fiery character. Every female actor’s dream is to play a fierce character [like Emma in the book]. But, first of all, you have to trust Tim Burton. He’s such a genius, and he’s got so much experience that you need to say, “Screw it. I’m just going to put all my faith in Tim.” But more than that, the love story between Jake and Emma is so sweet—it’s a first love—and it romantically makes more sense for her to be so light and so floaty. And, it gave me a bigger opportunity to create this character arc, because if she’s so fierce and she’s so strong at the start, she has nowhere really to go, but if you make her timid and gentle at the start, she can discover her own strength. Listen, the film is based on the book; it’s not the book. I remember when I was younger I was obsessed with the Harry Potter series. And I sat on the sofa when I was a kid, going through the first book, trying to match it to the film, and 10 minutes in I was so confused and upset. My dad was like, “Ella, what’s wrong?” I said, “This stupid film is nothing like the book.” And so I understand why diehard fans of the book are going to be upset. Especially when you’ve made that connection to a character or a book. She’s very relatable, Emma, so of course people are going to be very protective over her. It’s still going to be a fantastic movie, and I actually think that people will be pleasantly surprised by the changes.
Since you can float, did you have to do anything that was high up?
Yeah, I did. I actually had experience in a harness attached to wires—floating in the air—when I did Maleficent [who could fly], so by the time I did Miss Peregrine, the stunts guy was like, “Oh, are you going to be OK in the air?” I was like, “Are you kidding me? Put me in there.”
I noticed that you have skydived before.
Yes! How did you know that?
I lurked your Instagram.
You did lurk. No one’s ever really spoken to me about that. I went traveling at the beginning of this year to Australia and New Zealand. I’m a strong believer that you need to live your life in order to be a good actor. My friends were going skydiving, and I was so scared. Part of my brain clicked, and I was like, “Fuck it, I’m just going to go.” It’s a sensory overload. Your whole body is having a panic attack, and your [mind is] calm. You’re just like, “I’m just going to jump out of a plane. No biggie.” Go and do it if you haven’t already. Everybody should go skydiving. It’s does great things for your self-esteem. I left school last year—I’m nearly 20—and it’s that awkward phase between being a teenager and being an adult, where you’re just trying to figure everything out. When you’re skydiving, and you’re up at 5,000 feet, it doesn’t matter—it gives you a lot of perspective.
I wanted to ask you about WildLike, which just came out on Netflix, about a girl who is molested by her uncle.
WildLike will always have such a special place in my heart. I read four or five scripts a week, minimum, and you develop this very good radar for what’s for you or not. This movie, I couldn’t put the script down. I was totally obsessed. The filming was three months in Alaska. All the cast and crew were really good friends. I was 15 when I filmed this movie. To take on that type of material when I was 15, I was scared. I didn’t know if I could do it. Frank Hall Green—the director—just brought out this incredibly emotional performance from me. That scene that I did when she’s on the phone to her uncle, I had a complete meltdown, and all these years of my own personal issues just came out. I’d say that was the job where I learned how to act. I came back from that, and I was a totally different person. I chopped all my hair off really short. I came back speaking with an American accent. All my friends were like, “Who are you? What have you done with Ella?”
What can you tell me about Access All Areas? The filming of that was done in the midst of a music festival, Bestival, which was probably really fun.
It was mental. I’ve never filmed at a music festival, and I’ll never do it again. Especially at a music festival in the U.K., where everyone wants to be funny and jump out in front of the camera, and be like, “Hey guys, wanna film me?” But surprisingly the footage actually came out really good. It’s a movie about four young people who run away to a music festival, and their parents chase after them. It’s a musical film, so there are three or four songs, and I get to sing a couple. I wanted to be a singer when I was a little girl. I think the actual story itself is a really lovely coming-of-age film. It’s British comedy, which is a very particular sense of humor, but I think most people get it. It’s very dry humor. It’ll probably be out late this year or early next year.
How did you get involved in Educate2Eradicate—your nonprofit that focuses on female genital mutilation and forced marriages?
Long story short, about two years ago, I met this incredible young lady [Arifa Nasim] who is an activist and philanthropist. She was the U.K. youth delegate to the U.N. I was like, “How have you done these incredible things at such a young age?” And she was like, “How have you?” It was an instant “bromance.” She was doing work for FGM and child and early forced marriage, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a clue what those things were. I watched her do a talk at a school, and I couldn’t sleep that night. I read this book the next day about FGM. The reason why I’m so passionate about FGM and forced marriage is because it’s such an underexposed issue. Nobody fights for it. Hardly any celebrities will outwardly speak for these issues, and it’s because it’s considered culturally sensitive. I don’t think cultural sensitivity is a reason to brush these issues under the carpet.
And you were the host of TEDxTEEN. Do you feel like you’ve been more of an activist lately?
I can tell you how it started. I did a movie called The Journey Is the Destination. I filmed it in South Africa last year for six weeks, and it’s this incredible true story about a young photojournalist called Dan Eldon, who was stoned to death in Somalia in 1993. But the movie doesn’t focus on his death. It talks about all the incredible, wonderful, philanthropic things that he did when he was alive. For example, when he was 14, he raised $5,000 for his sister’s best friend to have heart surgery. So I met the most fantastic people that wanted to continue Dan’s work in the form of creative activism, and I spent a lot of time with Dan Eldon’s mom, Kathy Eldon, who had set up this foundation called Creative Visions. That’s what inspired me to start doing active things rather than just talking. That’s why I wanted to get involved with TEDxTEEN. I think that work that young people do is incredible, and I will never, ever stop supporting that. x