A recent Tuesday found the English actress Bel Powley plunked down in an orange-and-navy-blue-patterned armchair in the corner of her bedroom, in the London house where she has been self-isolating with her boyfriend, the actor Douglas Booth. Booth, who is known to American audiences for his role as the hair-metal bad boy Nikki Sixx, in last year’s Mötley Crüe bio-pic, “The Dirt,” had just bought a barbecue grill, and Powley was hiding out, hoping that she wouldn’t be asked to help assemble the contraption. (“I was, like, ‘I’m getting out,’ ” she said cheerfully, over Zoom. “It looked like it was a million pieces, like a spaceship.”) The couple had bought the house toward the end of 2019, and had only been in it for a few months when lockdown went into effect. Powley bobbed from side to side in front of her laptop, attempting to align her head with a large square hole in the wall behind her, as if to conceal it. “We’re still fixing the place up, can you tell?” she asked. She turned the computer to shakily display another cavity cut out of the wall, meant to be a fireplace but temporarily housing a vase of delphiniums. “We’re getting a mantelpiece this week!” she said. Powley, who is twenty-eight, was born and raised in West London by an actor father and a casting-director mother, but the house is in Dalston, on the city’s eastern side. “In New York terms it would be, like”— she paused—“I feel like I live in Carroll Gardens?” A big laugh.
Powley began her career when she was thirteen, on “M.I. High,” a popular BBC kids’ show about teen spies, but, in the decade and a half since, she has had relatively ample opportunity to familiarize herself with the metropolitan landscape of the American coasts. She broke through in the U.S. in 2015, by playing a sexually precocious girl in nineteen-seventies San Francisco, in Marielle Heller’s movie “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and in 2018 she starred on Broadway as a Queens cop in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero.” This summer, she appears in Judd Apatow’s film “The King of Staten Island,” which will be available on demand on June 12th. Powley plays Kelsey, the sweet but exasperated friend-with-benefits of the traumatized stoner Scott, played by the comedian Pete Davidson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based loosely on his own life as a Staten Island native who lost his fireman father when he was a child. (Davidson’s father died in the Twin Towers on 9/11; in Apatow’s version, Scott’s dad is killed in a house fire.)
With her pale, bare face, relaxed ponytail, and oversized T-shirt bearing the words “Beautiful Is Boring,” Powley seemed like the laid-back British antithesis of the spray-tanned, dolled-up Kelsey. (In one scene, in which Kelsey tries and fails to get Scott’s attention by bringing a Tinder date to the restaurant where he works, she yells, “Look at me! Look at my tits! It’s literally the Eiffel Tower holding them up in here!”) “Kelsey’s look is a lot,” Powley said. “When I was preparing for the movie, I became obsessed with ‘Made in Staten Island.’ It’s a reality show basically about the children of the Staten Island Mob.” She held up her phone, which displayed a Googled image of a group of unsmiling, elaborately groomed youngsters. “See? The girls were an inspiration for Kelsey’s look, and it was so much fun to put together: big lips, eyebrows, straight-straight hair, tiny outfits.” But the role never descends into parody. “She has her feet on the ground,” Powley said. “She loves Scott, but she also knows she can’t save him. She’s strong enough to self-preserve.”
She went on, “I think because, on a fluke, I started my movie career with ‘Diary,’ I’ve been considered since then a lot for American roles. People are always, like, ‘Oh, she can do the accent.’ ” Powley’s real-life accent, she says, is “probably the most neutral London accent there is. My dad’s family was very middle class.” His father was a surgeon, and his mother was a nurse. “His accent is probably a little bit more posh than mine,” she said. “And, then, my mum grew up in a working-class North London family.” She became animated. “Actually, my great-grandparents on my mum’s side were Orthodox Jews from Russia, and when they were escaping from the pogroms on a boat, heading to New York with all the other Jews, they got off at the wrong stop.” She paused. “Isn’t that insane? The boat docked to refuel in Dublin, and about ten Jewish families got off.” Her grandmother, she says, speaks Yiddish with a thick Irish accent. “On ‘The King of Staten Island,’ one of the makeup artists told me her family had done the same thing!” she said. “So then they were all, like, ‘Fuck, we’re in Dublin.’ ” Another big laugh, and it was time to go and see if the barbecue grill was in one piece. ?