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.”Continue reading “Stylist Magazine: Les Miserables’ Ellie Bamber talks corsets, Olivia Colman and what makes her angry”