Words Daisy Stenham
Photographer Clare Shilland
Stylist Michele Rafferty
Does she get lonely now? ‘Yes, I can get stuck in my own head.’ How often does she cry? More than she used to, but since starting therapy she’s finding it easier to be open.
It’s a dependably sour-faced January morning, three degrees and limb-lockingly cold. We had agreed to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. This is a idecision I regret, but Bel Powley is not one to cancel.
When I find her she is queuing for a black Americano.There is a surgical precision in the way she dresses. Today it’s a black A-line Burberry coat, replete with scarlet stitching, a Margeret Howell jumper, blue velvet trousers (her mother’s) and a bejeweled red leather brick of a Gucci handbag, the gold chain sloped around her neck like an expensive smile. The Burberry and Gucci were freebies, she confesses.
Bel is undeniably very beautiful. Skin blemishfree, as untrodden and porcelain as new vanilla ice cream. Petite, her features are delicate and doll-like.
She hugs me tightly, asking how I am, so good to see me, do I want a coffee? All with that explosive Catherine-wheel of warmth and infectious ease. There’s an almost Herculean-sized togetherness about her. A sort of school-girl pep, a Brownie captain diligence that’s a touch Blytonian. She’s tough too.
Entering the heath I trip and nearly fall. We hold each other up and she laughs: grainy, guttural, spluttering out like a Jackson Pollock painting.
We first met in the spring of 2009, at the Royal Court Theatre. Bel was seventeen and doing her first stage job, playing Maggie in my sister Polly’s play Tusk Tusk. On stage she was ferocious. Two years later she played Thomasina in Stoppard’s Arcadia on Broadway. It was the first time she had been away from home, let alone to New York.
Barely knowing anyone, she explored on her days off, returning to her empty apartment to cook in the evenings. It was a brave new world, sometimes lonely.
On hearing Lindsay Duncan was in New York, Bel wrote to her, asking if she wanted to meet up. ‘It was such a brave thing, I wouldn’t do this now.’ Lindsay did, taking her to an old haunt in the West Village, where they dined on roasted bone marrow (‘I’d never eaten that before!’). She was so young she couldn’t even drink.
I’ve brought two books with me to give to her: Ruby Wax’s Sane World and a selection of Sylvia Plath’s poetry – both tributes to the nuanced space of female mental heath – a world that’s coloured hers lately. Bel spent last year co-directing short film Little Hard, exploring a day in the life of a girl in her twenties (played, written and co-directed by her close friend Alice Felgate) navigating the world through the prism of her bipolar disorder. With an almost eerie symmetry, Bel is now attached to the upcoming film adaptation of The Bell Jar.
From The Bell Jar to Little Hard, the legacy of female mental health representation remains a complex issue. ‘I think people are afraid of mental health issues,’ she says, ‘but when it comes to mental health and women, there seems to be this blanket way of looking at it – calling women hysterical or mad – that’s existed for hundreds of years.’
In Little Hard they endeavoured to show the sheer mundanity and brute reality of a young girl with bipolar. Is this something she has any personal
‘Yes, Alice and I know a lot of young people who suffer from mental heath problems, and often when you’re young, before you have been diagnosed, you can be confused about your feelings. Hopefully it will be good for other young people to see it who are maybe confused and feel alone too.’
The project started small – two friends who had written together – with Bel initially producing. It was only when looking for directors that they realised they shared a symbiotic vision of the film, so why not try directing it themselves?
From the beginning they decided to have an entirely female crew. They wanted to extend opportunities to women, especially in departments like grips and gaffers, which are notoriously male-dominated. ‘Short films are where people start out,’ she explains, ‘so opening up that particular space was even more important for us.’
Convinced it was going to be ‘£500 and us with an iPhone on a beach’, the project grew, getting backing from mental health charity MIND, a successful crowdfunding campaign and production houses. And all of a sudden they were faced with a much more daunting task. ‘One of my immediate responses to directing for the first time was suddenly having a lot more compassion for directors, because I was experiencing first-hand how much of a responsibility it is. Pretty much every question comes down to you; you’re never off. But also you have to make every creative decision – everyone looks to you for answers.’
Bel is scorchingly aware of her context. Being in the public eye, she says she feels an obligation, ‘especially to other young people, to try and make them comfortable with the way they feel.’
She felt passionately about her role in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an eruptive coming-of-age story about female teenage sexuality in seventies San Francisco, written and directed by Marielle Heller. Despite campaigning for the film’s certification so that young girls had a chance to see it, it was depressingly rated an 18 in the UK. But, she tells me with a wry smile, ‘It’s on Netflix anyway.’
I press her further on the subject. ‘People never talk honestly about female sexuality. I feel like society is scared of teenage girls. We’re not taught about how to cultivate our sexuality or make ourselves feel good – you’re never taught how to celebrate it.’
We talk about gender inequality in the film industry and the lack of substantial roles for women and diversity within them. ‘It’s about creating 3D roles. For example, I’ve played a pole dancer in a film, but it’s a well-written, well-rounded role that isn’t just there to serve a male counterpart. It’s just about exploring female stories.
‘I think it’s very simple. The first rule of feminism is don’t judge other women. It needs to be inclusive for men and women and for women of all kinds. Otherwise it’s going to fail.’
Would she turn roles down? ‘Yeah! I think it’s really important to only do things that you’re going to be proud of, even if it’s a risk.’ But she adds, ‘I did a lot of grafting. I went and lived in Spain for four months for Benidorm, playing what was probably a really sexist role. I spent the whole time in a white bikini. But I was also living on my own in Peckham and I needed to pay my rent.’
We have brunch at Burnt, her sister Honor’s new restaurant in West London where Bel was born and raised. It feels right to eat here, considering how important family is to her. Now a vegetarian since watching Cowspiracy, we share slow-cooked poached eggs, avocado and lotus flower pickles. She tells me she was here yesterday to help out. Can you make coffee? I ask suspiciously. Yes (and bake) – she worked at a friend’s café when the acting jobs weren’t coming in.
Sharp as vinegar, she studied hard at school and adored her Holland Park comprehensive where she harboured a teenage romance for Marx. ‘I kind of had a crush on my history teacher. She was a full communist and had a red flag in the classroom.’ Bel used to write countless ‘angry’ political theories in her school diaries, ‘I know very well that some of my views may have been a bit messed up, badly backed up and a matter of opinion, but at least I had some.
‘I was an incredibly romantic teenager. I’ve always written in some way or another. Since I was twelve, I’ve written a lot of terrible poetry. I’ve always been seeking and searching for love.’ More of a dreamer than I thought. What’s more important: feeling safe or free? Safe, she says quickly.
En route to study history and politics at UCL she founded the school debating society, which she was consequently kicked out of in what was effectively a coup to usurp her. Acting was far from her radar. She wanted to be either a history teacher or ‘[laughing] the first Jewish female prime minister’.
We return to Kensal Rise, to the flat she shares with childhood best friend Lola. It’s an airy, elegant two-bedroom with a mid-century/Scandi/Brooklynite feel. There are discarded silver cowboy boots on the floor ‘They’re Lola’s’, Bel’s royal blue Tokyo bike, potted plants, a sixties love seat, Harry Potter, Ali Smith, and their collection of stolen glasses: an art deco set swiped from The Savoy, a cactus-shaped margarita glass, and two bronze goblets nicked from her favourite hotel – The Bristol in Paris.
She took Lola with her to Paris. ‘I really should’ve taken a manager or a publicist or someone to tell me what to do. But I was like, “Fuck that – I’m taking my best friend.”’ They had this ludicrous Marie Antoinette-style suite at The Bristol, got dressed up and devoured steak frites and escargots at a tiny old-fashioned Parisian restaurant. They ended up passing out in bed together after getting heroically drunk at the hotel bar. Sweetly, both refer to it as the best weekend of their lives.
It sounded like a scene in a Greta Gerwig film and I thought it summed Bel up perfectly. Her understanding of female friendship and its importance in her life can also be seen in the well-rounded roles she counts herself fortunate to have played.
I thought it would be fun if she bought me a book in return. A book can say so much. She sends me a copy of poetry collection Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Flicking through it I come across the line, ‘most importantly love / like it’s the only thing you know how’, and I think of Bel, the endless dreamer…
Make-up Celia Burton using Bobbi Brown Cosmetics
Hair Kota Suizu at Caren using Bumble and bumble
Photographer Assistant Andrew Moores