Ella Purnell splashed on the scene with a standout role in Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and has since appeared, with Bill Nighy and Matthew Goode, in the critically acclaimed Ordeal By Innocence, which was Certified Fresh at 94% on the Tomatometer and U.S. audiences saw on Amazon. She also played teen Maleficent in the 2014 live-action Disney film that starred Angelina Jolie as the titular Sleeping Beauty villain.
The actress is all grown up now and starring as Tess, a 22-year-old who tackles the competitive New York City restaurant scene, in Starz drama Sweetbitter. At the end of the first season, Tess got her coveted job in Howard’s (Paul Sparks) restaurant, which was only the beginning of the drama for Purnell’s character.
In the season 2 premiere, Howard takes his staff to a farm to see where the food they prepare comes. It seems to affect Tess deeply, and she starts calling some of the chefs out on their cavalier attitude toward their ingredients. There also might be a bright spot in her relationship with Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) — but how long can it last?
When Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Purnell, she told us of her love for Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s work and what’s in store for her character in season 2.
WHAT’S ON YOUR DVR?
I don’t generally watch that much live TV because I’m always in different time zones and traveling around so much. I can tell you which TV shows I watch every single night religiously when I binge-watch them.
My first one has to be Killing Eve, because it’s incredible. I’m obsessed with it. I’m obsessed with Jodie Comer. I’m obsessed with Sandra Oh. I’m really fascinated by shows with female leads, written by females. I know season 1 was Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I don’t think she did the second season, but I still really like the second season. I’ll be intrigued to see where they go after this. I actually first heard about Killing Eve when I was doing press for Sweetbitter because everybody kept comparing Tess and Simone to Villanelle and Eve. That’s how I got into it and they are pretty similar. I love the way that relationship is built.
WHAT’S ON YOUR STREAMING QUEUE?
Fleabag. I love it. It’s too short though. I need more than six episodes, because it’s so addictive. I think I binge-watched the whole first season in one night. It’s so brilliant. The humor is amazing, and it’s interesting once you know that Phoebe is involved in both [Fleabag and Killing Eve]. You can absolutely recognize her writing style and the way she brings characters to life. It’s super unique and so smart. She’s brilliant.
There is a show that I can’t stop watching. It’s called Easy. I think that show’s been on for a while, but it just hit Netflix, so I’ve only just kind of discovered it. It’s set in Chicago, and each episode is like an anthology series. It starts off as an anthology series, but I think halfway through season 1 you get to meet the characters from episode one again later. Then by season 2 and season 3, you’re following the same four or five story lines except for then they add new story lines every other episode. Each one is different, but it kind of all centers around relationships, friendships, marriages, couples, all sexualities, all genders. It’s so interesting, all ages. Evan Jonigkeit, who plays Will in Sweetbitter, is on Easy. I was watching the show and I was like, Oh, that’s Evan. And I texted him, “I love your show.” I think it’s all mostly improv and the guys that do it are just like friends who get together and make this thing. It’s such a cool concept, I love it.
My last one is Black Mirror. I am always obsessed with Black Mirror. I will watch it. I watched it last night. I rewatch episodes, and every time I rewatch an episode, I learn something new. I’m obsessed with Black Mirror.
And Mrs. Maisel — I have to say that.
That’s my top five.
WHAT’S COMING SOON THAT YOU CAN’T WAIT FOR?
Oh, I haven’t seen Big Little Lies yet. I loved the first season and I love Meryl Streep, so I would say Big Little Lies season 2. The Crown season 3 and 4, I think, have finished filming already. Maybe they haven’t finished yet, but … Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter are two of my top five favorite actresses, so I cannot wait to watch that. Really excited for that one.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Is visiting the farm a game changer for Tess?
Ella Purnell: Definitely. I think it’s pretty symbolic of them switching it up. It’s a way of Howard switching things up in the restaurant industry, making everyone aware that sh–’s about to change. But for Tess, it’s also like, Hey, don’t think that just because you’ve got the job that you’re done. That happening wakes her up, I think, from any idea of complacency. Also her reaction to it surprises herself; her curiosity and interest in it reminds her not to underestimate herself and it reminds her that there’s so much stuff she hasn’t seen, so much stuff she hasn’t experienced.
It seems to change her attitude in the kitchen. Will that continue?
Oh, definitely. Absolutely, yeah. In part, it’s having a better understanding and appreciation for dining as a whole experience, but also the intensity behind it. I think it’s a good reminder to Tessa, like it’s a job. This is kind of each man for himself out there, and I think that becomes apparent in the last scene of the season with a scene between Tess and Howard. She does something really ballsy, really ballsy. And it’s really interesting. I’m really interested to see what people make of that last scene. It’s dramatic.
Does Tess and Simone’s relationship become more harmonious?
Yeah, I would say so. Well, no, actually. For like a brief second. Episode two they have an incredible bonding experience. You find out a bit more about Tess’s backstory and Tess’s mother and perhaps get an inkling as to why she’s so attracted to Simone, what their relationship is about. I don’t really know. It’s painful. I’m really interested in the relationship. I’m really interested in female relationships in general. I think she’s just as in love with Simone as she is with Jake, so she’s hypersensitive to any changed or nuances in their relationship. I think it’s really painful for Tess.
Does Tess’ journey in the restaurant industry have any parallels to yours as an actor?
Definitely. I always think it’s so funny how art imitates life in a weird way. Definitely last year was so funny because it was my first time in New York. It was my first time doing TV. So everything she was doing, everything she was experiencing, I was experiencing too for the first time. I’d never worked in this industry, and I was thrown into this new industry. What I mean by that is movies and TV, American television is totally different from anything I’ve ever done, so I was thrown into this thing that I was trying to figure out and keep up with and look like I knew what I was doing in the same way that Tess is. And then the gratification it gives you when you seize life for all its worth is incredible. I moved to New York after we finished filming, and I feel like it’s changed my life, not in a cheesy corny way, but genuinely changed the course of my life.
Sweetbitter new episodes air Sundays on Starz.