Ella Purnell couldn’t help herself: she needed a Lenny Kravitz sighting.
In town for the premiere of her new Starz show, “Sweetbitter,” Purnell had gone along to the annual Tribeca Film Festival dinner Chanel throws, and while waiting for the bathroom downstairs at Balthazar, had caught a glimpse of the night’s surprise guest. So there she stationed herself in a leather chair, making for one of the night’s cutest photo ops.
Seeing Mr. Kravitz in the flesh had made all the difference.
“Usually those events are kind of scary, but there was a nice vibe last night,” she says the following afternoon, from a bar stool at the Bowery Hotel’s restaurant, Gemma.
The English actress (whose contract with Chanel likely makes such events all the more appealing) is slowly adjusting to the spotlight, though she remains a rather introverted young woman who prefers a jazz bar to a nightclub and still gets homesick for East London, no matter how fabulous the Chanel parties might be.
All that is not unlike her “Sweetbitter” role, which premieres this Sunday. Purnell plays Tess, a recent transplant to New York whose coming-of-age is captured through her experience working in the fine-dining industry. The show is based on Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, which, published in 2016, was one of that summer’s most popular books.
Purnell, 21, met Danler for the first time while screen-testing for the part — she forgot the cardigan they asked her to bring to hide her tattoos, and Danler stepped in to the rescue — and they began to bond upon Purnell’s arrival in New York, where Danler showed her where to hang (and where to eat).
She also felt an immediate connection to Tess, who is based loosely on Danler, upon reading the script (and, later, the book).
“I felt like it was written about me — this is going to sound really pretentious, but it’s true,” Purnell says. “You know when you read something that you are like, ‘this girl is me,’ and you relate so hard to it that you feel almost fiercely protective of it? I mean this really honestly: I’ve never done a job where I’ve related so hard to the character in my life.”
As for why?
“I was going through a really funny time in my life where I was sort of questioning where I was going.…I guess like every 21-year-old,” Purnell says. “I don’t know any 21-year-old who’s not having an existential crisis. So that was mine: being like ‘where am I going, is this acting thing going to happen, is it not? What do I want, really, out of my life?’ And then I read the first line of the character breakdown, which is like Tess’ life is in shambles’ and I was like ‘oh my God, I relate so hard.’”
Purnell broke out in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” nearly two years ago, after having acted professionally for most of her life. And while it’s very much something she intends to stick with, she’s also looking to give some time to her first love, music.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure when something like this happens to capitalize on the opportunity, but I get quite homesick and I don’t like spending all my time away,” she says of her career plans following the show’s premiere. “I really want to do loads of different things. I’m very fortunate that I really like acting, but it’s not all I want to do. I love to sing, I love blues, I love jazz. I’ve started this little band. I got some mates together and we meet up every week and write music and it’s kind of fun. I’m using this time to do other things. I probably should be going out and getting other jobs, but I’m not. And that’s OK — just be like Tess!”
The role of Tess has proven inspirational and influential in folds. Reading and portraying a young woman so unsure of her own life’s journey has, it seems, been grounding for Purnell.
“It makes you feel like ‘oh, it’s OK that I haven’t figured out my life,” she says. “You have all these expectations to get your s–t together or find your dream job and be happy and it’s like, ‘no, it’s a journey, it’s about that journey being the experience, not the end result.’” She pauses, before grinning. “That was really profound.”
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