Ellie Bamber has a confession to make: she judges books by their covers. “Sometimes – and I know people say this is awful – I do just go into a bookshop and think, ‘Oh, that cover looks nice’,” the actor laughs.
But that doesn’t mean the content of the book need be equally palatable. Her current read, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, which she brings to breakfast with Stylist, has a quaint, period cover. But Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel “is about this woman who gets loads of sleeping pills and decides to hibernate for a year because she thinks it might help her,” explains 21-year-old Bamber in a Bloomsbury cafe near her central London flat. “It’s intriguing. The author has a dark voice.”
Another less-than-light read is the reason we’re meeting. Bamber recently devoured Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in anticipation of her role as Cosette in a new dramatisation of the French historical novel. The six-part BBC drama dispenses with songs to stay closer to Hugo’s doorstop of a book. The period piece also draws parallels with contemporary global unrest.
It’s lavish, but it is gruelling. Fans of the novel, the blockbuster musical or this new adaptation on BBC One will know that Bamber’s turn as Cosette comes after several episodes of untold misery. She gets all the nice costumes but she doesn’t escape scot-free. “You see that Cosette is given away by her mother to this extremely abusive family and, as Victor Hugo says, she’s treated like the household drudge by the parents and children.”
We meet the week before Christmas and Bamber is working right up to the break. This is what it’s like when you’re an actor of the moment. She’s just back from shooting a film, The Seven Sorrows Of Mary, in Rio. Currently, she’s juggling work on another British film, The Show (“a comedy shot through an LSD lens”, she laughs) and a second BBC drama. It doesn’t leave much time for rest and relaxation.
“I was filming two different things all last week,” she says. “So I had a fairly chilled out weekend just hanging out and reading this book.”
Bamber has been in demand ever since she started acting at school, where she won drama scholarships. Brought up in Berkshire and with the support of her parents – her mum is her manager – she was on the West End stage with a part in a prestigious Sir Trevor Nunn play, Aspects Of Love, by the age of 13.
Television, theatre and film work followed but it was playing the daughter of Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher’s characters in Nocturnal Animals that gave her a Hollywood break. Chanel appointed her as an ambassador in 2016. But while Bamber is major red carpet material, she’s much more than outward appearances.
She’s drawn to all sorts of stories, but she excels in dramas that blend her obvious glamour with substantial amounts of grit. It started with Nocturnal Animals. The work of a celebrated designer, Tom Ford’s film looked suitably stylish. But its substance dealt in the knottier, often violent aspects of the human condition. Bamber’s character, in particular, had a grim time of it.
Her new work, discussed over scrambled eggs and Americanos, also sits on the grittier end of the spectrum. The Seven Sorrows Of Mary is a terrifying-sounding thriller about a tourist couple who are kidnapped and tortured by a gang in Rio de Janeiro. The other BBC drama in the works is The Trial of Christine Keeler, a take on the political sex scandal that rocked the British establishment in the Sixties, written and directed by women.
Bamber plays Christine Keeler’s friend and fellow showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, who challenged the characterisation of herself as a fallen woman. It’s a meaty role that should seal 2019 as Bamber’s year. She shows Stylist a snap on her phone of herself in character, complete with Sixties’ bob and red lipstick.
But while the actor enjoyed the glitzier side to Rice-Davies, she was drawn to the substance of her story. She read her memoir (Bamber really does her homework) in which the former showgirl proves herself to be more than what the headlines of the time portrayed.
“Mandy was so fun and vivacious, she didn’t hold back,” says Bamber, a woman who clearly likes to look beyond appearances. “But the way these girls got labelled by men at the time… it was a lot.”
Do you like stories that are ‘a lot’?
Yeah! I like bold stories. The Trial Of Christine Keeler is a bit like Les Misérables, which is also a lot. It was interesting to dive into my character, Cosette. You see a lot more backstory than you would in the musical. We have more space and time within six hours than the couple of hours you’d have in the musical, so you see more of the stories from the novel.
How did you view Cosette?
She has this curiosity and for Hugo, you can see she’s a real image of hope in the story. She has this curiosity where she wants to step through every door and try to overcome her fear. She is very much haunted by her horrific past.
Was there any period glamour?
That was quite funny because everyone was saying to me, “You get all the nice costumes.” Cosette does, because Valjean wants to spoil her and keep her as this thing of fatherly adulation. But the costume designer, Marianne Agertoft, wanted me to feel really free.
I wore a corset but not a proper one; it wasn’t all bones. I had a wooden block all the way down my chest like a plank and thinner bones around the side.
The cast is prestigious. Your love interest is played by Josh O’Connor, your father is Dominic West and Olivia Colman plays the matriarch of the abusive Thénardier family. Do you share the screen with her at all?
There is a moment, yeah. A brief moment. I took the train back to London with Olivia and that was the most fun I’ve ever had on a Eurostar… with the Queen! We had a conversation about microwaving eggs. It was very silly.
Are you into food?
I love breakfast. Well, I just like food. I’m properly into my food. It comes from my father. If we go anywhere we like to look up the best restaurants.
Are you a good cook?
I love cooking. I’m really enjoying making sh*t up [laughs]. When I was younger, my dad taught me how to cook. He’s a genius in the kitchen. I went to Vietnam with my parents and I went on a cooking course with him.
Two years on, what do you make of working on Nocturnal Animals?
I feel very lucky to have had that experience and to have worked with Jake. I mean come on – I was like ‘F*ck yeah!’ I respected him, Amy [Adams] and Isla enormously. Isla was super cool.
At the time of the film’s release, I saw a poster of Nocturnal Animals in the Curzon cinema beside where I live and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I felt really lucky to be part of it, so seeing it I thought, ‘Oh sh*t!’
Did you feel any pressure at that point?
No, not really. I just thought, ‘I really hope I get another job. I hope this isn’t it.’
It looks like you’ve had a pretty glamorous time since…
Well, let me tell you!
Is it all as glittering as it looks?
Parts of it are glamorous. I get to go to Chanel shows, I don’t think it gets more glamorous than that. But I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. When we were filming The Seven Sorrows Of Mary recently in Rio and getting to those dark places, I wouldn’t exactly call that glamorous.
What about that story attracted you to it? It sounds quite brutal.
The couple gets kidnapped. She gets raped and he gets beaten up. There’s an incredible turn in it where her bravery is just extraordinary. The story, for me, is about how damaging rape culture is for our society.
I read this book, Asking For It: The Alarming Rise Of Rape Culture And What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding, which talks about how when someone comes forward and says they have been raped, the immediate reaction of a lot of people is to say, ‘No you weren’t’.
Statistics show that if someone says they have been raped, they have – there’s a very small percentage of people who make a false claim. That reaction needs to be addressed.
What do you think needs to change?
Rape cases aren’t taken to trial because the victims feel that they’ll lose [the case] which is something that is so wrong. Why isn’t any of this being addressed? Young women need to be believed. It makes me angry. Really angry.
What else makes you angry?
Rude people! Lots of things… but I’m quite a happy person.
What struck you about telling Christine Keeler’s story now?
It was about seeing the story within the current dynamic. It’s really interesting to look back at it and see how much really went wrong and how these labels were put on young women. How, if we looked at the case now, the outcome would have been extremely different and how the power men had worked at the time.
Mandy and Christine were both put on trial for being prostitutes, which for a young woman was an awful thing to experience. To be shamed in that way, to have the public call them names. They went through all of this and reacted in different ways. Mandy kind of ran with it…
She embraced it?
Out of all [the women involved in the scandal] she was the one who made a fortune, ran all these clubs and became this successful businesswoman. She was a go-getter. She wanted to be an actor and a model. She went to Israel and became what she calls a tourist attraction because people would want to meet Mandy Rice-Davies. She would tour the British army camps to keep the morale of the men up.
Does your interest lie in doing grittier stuff?
I’m taken by a story and a character. I’ll read a script and if it touches me and moves me and makes waves, that’s why I’ll choose it. Like with Mandy, I thought she was just incredible. That’s my defence for any of the characters I play.
Les Misérables is on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One and available on iPlayer now