Ella Purnell is definitely not your ordinary child actress. already at the tender age of 14 years old, Purnell possesses a mystical quality that draws you in, leaving you wondering if she has a touch of the dark side in her. “I am very deep,” she reveals. Indeed, within seconds she exhibits a gift for making others around her at ease (surely that’s meant to be the other way around) as she falls effortlessly into conversation about Never Let Me Go, this year’s surprise Oscar wildcard.
“I have watched it three times now,” she exclaims. In the film, a substantive and emotionally taxing picture about three young adults who find out their own lives will be cut short—sacrificed—in order to lengthen humanity. Purnell stars alongside industry heavyweights Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley, with whom Purnell shares the role of the protagonist Ruth. A challenging part even for someone as experienced as Knightley, Purnell takes it all in stride. “I like to take on roles with substance and character,” she says with a heavy dose of confidence. “I’m determined and just me.”
She does acknowledge, though, that acting in such a heavy film can lead her astray from a normal childhood. “I found working on set matures you very quickly,” she says. “You’re forced to learn a lot about social skills due to the number of adults you have to deal with on a daily basis.” But it’s not all work and no play. “I had my first onscreen kiss,” she shyly admits, before leaning in and whispering, “In fact, it was my first ever kiss!” What was that like? “Awkward. And we were both really nervous. [Purnell’s smooch-partner/co-star] Charlie [Rowe] kept eating peppermints and I am allergic to them, so I had handfuls of wine gums to try and counteract it.”
With all the accelerated maturation abetted by the excitement of first kisses, the transition from thrilling filmic exploits back to the snakepit of secondary school must be drastic for the pubescent thesp. “Making the transformation from set back to school was a little weird,” she says. “I had tutoring throughout filming which kept me grounded. It is important, at my age in particular, not to get ‘above yourself.’ My friends have been amazing and supportive. A few have tried to latch on, but I know the ones that have always stood by me.”
Through it all, Purnell has kept her head in check. She talks about getting star struck and attending a Teen Vogue party, spending the whole time pointing at people with her mouth open. “I felt like that when I met Keira,” she divulges. “I remember on set when someone asked her what advice she would give an aspiring young actress, and she jokingly said, ‘Don’t do it.’ It made me laugh, but it’s not advice I’ll be holding onto.”
Purnell is self-aware and self-assured, and surprisingly prescient of her future path. She continually interjects throughout the interview that, “You only live once. You can’t waste your time not doing something because you are scared.” She has the air of fearless youth, but with a touch of grounded careerist woman—well, as much as that’s possible. “I am really serious about being an actress,” she says with conviction. “It is quite difficult juggling everything, so I took my headmistress [who so happens to have also been Carey Mulligan’s] to the premiere of the film.” Buttering her up a bit? “Well, a little,” Purnell says with a grin. “Besides, she was having more fun than me!”