Actress Bel Powley: If You Have Sexual Feelings Then You Feel Like a Freak
At the tender age of just 23, actress Bel Powley is being hailed as one to watch. She cut her teeth in kids TV (CBBC show MI High) before moving on to theatre and film, and is now a rising Hollywood star. Just confirmed in the title role of forthcoming film Carrie Pilby, she’s carved out quite a niche for herself in girl-meets-world movies, wowing critics in the coming-of-age film The Diary Of A Teenage Girl.
Based on the 2002 novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the film explores the artistic and sexual awakenings of a 15-year-old girl, Minnie, with a wayward mother (Kristen Wiig) and a complete lack of guidance in her life. So what advice would Bel like to go back and give her 15-year-old self?
‘It’s important to learn to love yourself. In this day and age, the society we live in, it’s very difficult for women, because we’re constantly bombarded with images and ideas of what the perfect women should be. It definitely takes us longer than men to love the skin we’re in.’
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is a film with a young women in the central role – very much the Hollywood exception rather than the rule. The film focuses on Minnie and her feelings, from her point of view, rather than through the eyes of a boyfriend, father, brother or best-friend.
‘When it comes to girls in movies nowadays they’re there because of the guy in the film. It’s a very 2D portrayal of what it actually feels like to be a teenage girl. I feel like society wants us to be little girls, and then women. The middle bit is too messy to deal with.’
‘If you have sexual feelings then you feel like a freak because no-one talks about it. Boys in school share their wanking stories, but girls are encouraged to say – “Oh no, I just don’t do that” – they can’t admit to their sexual feelings. It makes teenage girls feel alone and ostracised.’
So how does a young actress go about mentally preparing for sex scenes, especially those with an actor 15 years her senior?
‘Obviously it’s weird, simulating sex in front of a bunch of people you don’t know, with a plaster covering your nipple! But if it feels true to the character, and you know where you are emotionally then everything else comes afterwards. If it’s gratuitous that’s when it starts to feel weird.’
‘We had a closed set, and I was really lucky – our first assistant director was a gay guy, our camera operator and camera assistant were husband and wife, the director was a women, the electrician was a woman – it was a really comfortable group of people to be around.’
And Bel had plenty of on-camera skin-time with actor Alexander Skarsgard, who plays her mother’s boyfriend Monroe. The film doesn’t pull any punches, kicking off on the day Minnie loses her virginity.
‘Alex has done it a million times, I just took his lead. The on-screen chemistry was there - I couldn’t imagine anyone other than him playing the character. Working with Alex who’s so known for True Blood and Kristen [Wiig] who’s so known for comedy was great. I felt honoured to work with these actors, but in very different roles from things that they usually do.’
Before deciding to go into acting, Bel was offered a place to read History at Manchester University. A very different life choice – so did she see elements of herself in Minnie who is determined to follow her dream and become an artist?
‘I’m actually really rubbish at art, when I was a teenager I was good at maths and science. But I can relate to that burst of creativity that you have when you are young.’
During the course of the film Minnie discovers her independence, and that she doesn’t need a man (or woman) to define her, so is that something that rings true to Bel too?
‘When you’re young you confuse sex and love. Like when Monroe says in the film “I need someone next to me to really know that I’m here”. It’s a milestone in your life when you realise you only need one person – and that’s you.’
‘It annoys me that ‘feminist’ has become a dirty word. Everyone’s like, “Let’s try to re-invent it” or “Let’s try to go back to how it was in the 70s”. There’s no different version of feminism – there’s no bad feminism and good feminism – there’s just feminism. If you believe in equality between men and women then you’re a feminist. If you look it up in the Oxford dictionary, that’s what it says. Don’t’ try to change it.’
As well as boasting a female protagonist, the film is also a Hollywood rarity for its female director – 35-year-old Marielle Heller. So is it different to work for a female director, especially one who has herself played the part of Minnie on the stage?
‘We shouldn’t start talking about separation between a male and female director. There’s definitely a fight to get more female directors working in Hollywood and in this film it was necessary that it was a woman because of the nature of the movie, and that Marielle had been a teenage girl herself.’
So what’s next for Bel? In her next film, Detour, an indie thriller she stars as a pole dancer – a good part if not the perfect role-model. And following that, she’s starring in period drama, A Storm In The Stars, about Mary Shelley and her sister – more strong female characters.
Bel couldn’t agree more ‘Yeah! Strong female characters, they’re all I want to do!’
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl is in cinemas now