There’s the nondescript businessmen in button-downs discussing their clients, the hungover rockers chaining their Parliaments, socialites sipping on sugary drinks while they check their Instagram feeds on their phones. Just another Wednesday at the Chateau Marmont. My own cell buzzes, jolting me out of my reverie: Hi Tori it’s Ella. So sorry, running 5 mins late, underestimated LA traffic!! X. The actress may have the acting chops to make it in Hollywood, but she’s imported a quintessential British politeness alongside that sets her apart from the typical Chateau demo.
As promised, she arrives five minutes later, wearing a breezy button- down dress, her hair in a wispy updo. She extends her hand, complete with bubblegum pink nails, polish chipped at the corners, and apologizes again for her on-time-by-LA-standards arrival. We head inside since she only packed for sunshine: “Is February always really cold and windy, or is it just now that Trump is in town?” she says with a smile.
Since her first major role in 2010’s Never Let Me Go, Purnell has risen through the ranks by nailing a certain type—usually a precocious teenager or strong-willed heroine facing larger-than-life challenges. But as she’s matured, so have the parts that are coming her way. She’s now exploring the world of television for the first time with her most adult role to date. In Sweetbitter, Purnell is cast as Tess, a struggling New York waitress who is developing a palate for fine wining and dining and sensual trysts. Although Tess’s life may seem lavish, it is far from it—the first episodes find her living paycheck to paycheck, trying to find her calling.
Purnell says that it’s been her most natural role yet. “I do not have to act on the show,” she tells me. “I am Tess.” For someone who has flourished by playing characters in extraordinary, sometimes fantastic situations, Tess may seem like a surprising choice. However, the realistic way in which Tess’s life is depicted on the show was exactly what drew Purnell to the role: “This thing came through my email, and I think the first line said, ‘Tess’s life is in shambles.’ I was like, dude, me too!” Although the actress may seem to have a clear path ahead of her, she, like many of us, is still figuring things out as she goes. “I’m 21 and I have no idea what I’m doing or who I am. Everybody sort of looks like they have their life together on the outside, but nobody really does. Everybody has that ten-percent of them that wants to get a dog, move to Fiji, and open up a bar.”
Purnell admits that the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be overwhelming. Not only does she have to figure out how to do laundry and live on her own for the first time, but she also has to navigate the choppy waters that have claimed so many promising talents trying to make the transition from “child actress” to success as an adult.
“It’s hard. Your sense of identity is so screwed. I have to rediscover myself now as an adult,” she tells me. One such challenge: her first scene with nudity. Though she was opposed to the scene at first, she eventually embraced it: “In life, women masturbate, women have sex. We enjoy it too. It’s never shown, or, if it is shown, they’re a slut. In this, I felt really proud that it was represented in a realistic way. It was so refreshing, and that has changed the way I view scripts. Now if I read a script and the girl is only in it to be eye candy or only in it because she has great sex with this one guy in this one scene that doesn’t add anything to the plot, then no, that’s not what I’m interested in.”
Moving forward, Purnell refuses to be typecast as the girlfriend. For her, choosing a role is about passion, not the paycheck. “If I act, what do I want to do it for? You really have to think about your priorities in life and your goals. I want to see more real women and real people on screen. I don’t want to participate in films that have a damaging effect to society or that misrepresent people.”
Luckily for Purnell, female protagonists are on the rise. But however appreciative she is for the shift, she is skeptical: “I do wonder if it’s just a bunch of middle-aged white men sitting in a room saying, ‘Hey, you know what the world is gonna pay to see now? Wonder Woman 4.’ I think we need to be careful that this isn’t just a consumerist trend that will be over in six months time,” she reflects, a bit of heat in her tone. “I think Time’s Up is an amazing thing—we’re starting conversations that should be started. Trump’s ‘Grabbing Pussy’ thing, as terrible as it is, has obviously had a silver lining. It’s bringing people together, raising awareness. But just because it’s now in the public eye, it shouldn’t be treated like the new autumn colors.”
Though it might seem she has made the leap to adulthood and landed safely, when it comes to Purnell’s goals for the future, there’s still a lot she’s trying to sort out. She openly expresses her desire to explore other creative avenues outside of acting. She wants to learn how to draw and drive; she’s interested in charitable causes. Despite having, “a thousand tabs open at any given time,” it seems Purnell is certain about her passion for acting. If there is any turbulence that comes with liftoff, you won’t find her in Fiji. You’ll find her in London, New York, or Los Angeles, continuing to put herself out there for roles that excite and challenge her. “I’ve decided its time to kick the bucket—no, not kick the bucket—fly the nest!”
Written by Tori Adams
Photographed by Owen Reynolds
Flaunt Film by Dominic Clarke
Styled by Hannah Elwell
Hair: Paula McCash
Makeup: Lucy Joan Pearson
Photographer: Owen Reynolds at Coffin-Inc. Stylist: Hannah Elwell. Hair: Paula McCash using Bumble & Bumble and Babyliss Pro. Makeup: Lucy Joan Pearson using The Ordinary and Urban Decay. Photography Assistant: Samantha Jane Weller. Special thanks to: John Whelan and Leonora Chance.