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‘Sweetbitter’ Star on Service Industry ‘Bootcamp’ as Preparation for New Starz Series

When Ella Purnell finished her audition for the new Starz series “Sweetbitter,” she was convinced she wouldn’t get the part.

She says a lot of actors claim this, but she means it. “I booked a holiday, like I thought I really messed that audition up,” Purnell tells Variety.

But after a few more auditions over the following week and a half, the London-native packed her bags to move to New York for her first-ever television role as Tess, the lead in the drama series based off the best-selling novel by Stephanie Danler.

The show follows 22-year-old Tess who spontaneously decides to move to the Big Apple and soon lands a job as a back waiter in a busy restaurant. Tess quickly learns that waitressing and life in a new city are more challenging than she anticipated.

Here, Purnell shares with Variety how she interpreted her character, her connection to Tess’s experiences, the importance of female sexuality, and how she prepped for a role in the service industry.

Did you read the novel version of “Sweetbitter” before you were cast?

I hadn’t read it before I got the audition. I think it was probably bigger in the States than it was in the UK, and I live in London. When they sent it through to me, I had 30 pages, which was the pilot, and that’s it. I didn’t expect to become so attached to it and so protective of the character. I had a really unique reaction to the book more so than I have really with any other role I’ve done. I just really fell in love with the style of writing and with the portrayal of Tess.

How did you interpret the character when reading?

I think she’s so relatable. She is a completely blank slate. She’s gone through her whole 21 [or] 22 years of living having never really felt anything or done anything big. She’s sort of survived just observing and reacting and on the back foot. She just makes this huge decision to move to New York. She has nothing. She literally has no money. She has a Volvo and some clothes and that’s it. She’s completely lost in her life and she’s trying to figure out who she is. She goes on this journey to become a person, basically. It brought me a great amount of comfort to know that, hey, OK, I’m not alone in this. Also, to know that sometimes when you do things that feel really stupid, they can actually be the bravest things because that’s what triggers your life. It’s the catalyst for action. It was quite inspiring.

Was there anything not in the book that you knew you wanted to bring to the character?

The whole first season of the show is from Tess’s perspective, so I’m in every scene. You see the whole thing through her eyes. The [advantage] of that for me was that I could make it personal in a way that the book couldn’t. Something that was really important to me was the way that she found and explored her sexuality. In the book, it’s very much a sensory awakening — it’s sexy, it’s hot, she’s experienced. But in the show, I wanted it to be clear that I didn’t want her to shy away from it. I think with this current sort of movement that we have with Time’s Up and women’s rights, yes the conversations we’re having are so important and are great, but we also should be having a conversation about female sexuality. If I’m doing a sexual thing, or if Tess is doing a sexual thing, she’s not sexualizing herself. There’s this concept that women don’t enjoy sex or women don’t pursue sex the same way that men do. What I really wanted to show in this portrayal was that she does pursue it and she does want it the same way that a guy does. Coming from being child actor, it was the first time I’d ever done any sort of onscreen shenanigans so it’s really scary and I had to think about that a lot when I decided if I was going to take the role. I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like a porno and she wasn’t sexy. She’s a normal girl who’s learning to love her body the same way that everybody else.

Were there any other challenges that came with taking this role?

Obviously so many people love the book and there’s a lot of pressure taking on a role like Tess. People will relate to her and everyone has their own opinion. I know in the book she was blonde — little things like that. It’s scary to take on that responsibility. Also, I’d never done TV before in my life. It’s completely different from film. Everybody says it’s the same. They are liars. It is not the same. You read a new episode and two days later you’re filming the episode. You have to be so on your feet, so versatile. It also changed the way I created and played my characters because you don’t have an A and a Z. You don’t have a simple storyline which you just know how to play every beat. You have to be on your feet. You’re discovering your person in the same way that the audience is. You both have no idea what’s happening next which means it’s actually easier to do stuff like improvise because you really do become that person.

Did you get any experience in the service industry?

Loads. It’s changed the way I now eat or now interact with somebody who works in a restaurant, in a bar, or any sort of [service] industry. We did a boot camp where we did two weeks of waitress camp, basically. We learned how to act and the way you serve food from the right. Little things like how to correctly open and pour a bottle of wine, how to fold napkins, how to lay a table, how to do a three-plate carry. The three-plate carry ruined my life. They kept falling out of my hands. I broke a million plates. I suck at it. Obviously that was the day I decided to wear a white silk shirt. By the end of day, I was absolutely drenched in red wine. We learned not only that but also how to function as an ensemble. It’s almost like a dance. Everybody’s always in the back of shot. We were all needed every day because you see everyone all the time. It really runs like a real restaurant.

Why do you think this is an important show to have right now?

There’s nothing else that is so simple in its terms but so complicated and beautiful in its execution. I think for women, for young people, and for anybody that’s thinking of moving to New York it’s going to inspire you, and it’s going to make you really hungry.

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