When I ask Ellie Bamber for the names of some of the actresses she admired growing up, her answer unintentionally provokes a giggle. “Definitely Nicole Kidman,” she starts. “Moulin Rouge was one of those films that I watched as a kid and was like ‘Oh my god, that’s what I want to do.’ And I love Emma Stone, I think she’s a really amazing actress.” I pause, waiting for the moment of recognition, then laughing, point out the common theme of red hair, shared also by Ellie. All at once, she’s surprised and apologetic, almost as if it didn’t occur to her. “That’s so weird, sorry!” She nervously laughs. “When I was a kid, I was blonde. I’m naturally blonde. It’s weird how as a kid I was already gravitating towards that – that’s funny actually.”

Real or not, Ellie Bamber is a redhead rising through the ranks, her signature strawberry-blonde hair a striking point of difference from many of her peers. It’s this hair that would have played at least a small part in snagging her career-making role in Tom Ford’s haunting 2016 thriller Nocturnal Animals, where she joined a flame-haired acting trifecta completed by Amy Adams and Isla Fisher. After a disturbing, but powerful performance as a daughter on a doomed family road trip, it sparked excited murmurs surrounding the Berkshire-born newcomer. But hair is just one thing. Talent is another.

And talent is something that Ellie has in buckets. She’s been lauded as somewhat of an industry chameleon, seamlessly embodying all manner of roles. Pre-Nocturnal Animals, there was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a comic, feminist, gore-filled riff on the Jane Austen classic which saw her train for two months in martial arts. Last year, she made her much-celebrated Donmar Theatre debut for a modern adaptation of the famous Henrik Ibsen play, The Lady from the Sea. In 2017, after the visuals for Shawn Mendes’ hit “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” were released, fans went into a frenzy investigating the identity of his music video love interest – played convincingly by Bamber, a free-spirit in the early raptures of love.

A stint as Tom Ford’s muse means that her style – which she describes as “a combination of classic, pretty things, and street style” – has also snagged her opportunities such as being appointed as a Chanel ambassador. Casual. She’s also the lead in upcoming project, Taipei (High Resolution), a love-in-the-age-of-social-media tale, about “a couple who takes loads of drugs together, film themselves and put it out on the internet.” Currently, she’s speaking to me over the phone from Brazil, where she’s shooting a harrowing abduction true story, The Seven Sorrows of Mary, which she calls a “tough” but also “really important piece of work.”
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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.


Marius & Cosette in Les Misérables

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.

Bamber (second right) on the front row at the Chanel Haute Couture a/w 2018 show in Paris

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.”

Bamber will play Mandy Rice-Davies (left) in an upcoming BBC drama about the trial of Christine Keeler (right)

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.’

Bamber withdirector Tom Ford and co-star Isla Fisher at the Nocturnal Animals premiere in New York

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

Les Misérables Andrew Davies’ six-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, for BBC One:

Ellie Bamber plays Cosette

Tell us about Cosette
For me, Cosette is a representation of hope and the future for the story. Her journey is the story of her becoming a woman, but one from a really tough past. Previously I feel audiences have had a different idea of Cosette – she’s often seen as a passive character within the plot, but Andrew Davies’ script delves into her past so you can see why she is nervous at the beginning of her teenage life. She does have a huge capacity to love and that begins to show.

I haven’t played a character recently from this time period so wearing these amazing costumes is incredible, as are the sets.

Tell us about Les Misérables as an adaptation
I loved Andrew’s scripts, they are so eloquently written. An audience who hasn’t read the book but might have seen the play or seen the movie adaptation will see new details that they wouldn’t have seen or known before, especially about the characters’ pasts and where they are going.

Tell us about the relationship between Cosette and Jean Valjean
The relationship between Cosette and Jean Valjean is wonderful, as they depend on each other. She teaches him how to love and that’s beautiful. The interesting thing about the journey they go on together is Cosette becoming a woman: it’s a father holding onto his daughter, but also letting her go.

If you were going to categorise Ellie Bamber’s 2018, ‘intense AF’ springs to mind. No stranger to a gritty role – you will recognise Ellie from her chilling role in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals – Ellie jetted to Brazil to portray a real-life backpacker who was kidnapped, repeatedly raped and abused in the back of a tiny van for the film, The Seven Sorrows of Mary.

Then if that wasn’t gut wrenching enough for one twenty-one-year-old, she popped on a corset and tackled one of the most iconic roles of all, Cosette in BBC’s sans singing adaption of Les Misérables. Set to become Christmas TV’s break out star, Ellie’s star turn takes her from rising eugine to fully fledged power house.

Here, one of Britain’s best rising stars opens up her photo album and takes us on a whistle-stop tour of her 2018 from the trap music loving set of Les Misérables to the Chanel Couture show…

Do you wanna build a snowmannnn…

I don’t think this snowman has been my best work. With this being taken a year ago, I am looking back at myself in this picture and realise I have gone through tonnes. I don’t think I would speak to you about things in the same way, then. It’s hard to put my mind in the same place that I was because I feel like I’m growing at such a rapid rate that I can’t even keep up. Playing different roles escalates that growing up process, too.

Les Misérables Trap Queens

My first reaction when I watched Les Misérables was, ‘wow, my hair looks good!’ They put half a wig in and I was always kinda worried it was gonna make my head look twice as big! This is the girl playing younger Cosette and I. It was actually really bizarre as there was an even younger child, called Milo and then there was a baby me. It was interesting to see what they had gone for and how similar they had made us.

The real lol was, one morning at 5am I asked Dominic West if it was it ok if I played trap music and he said, ‘absolutely I love trap music!’ Next minute I’m playing trap music and we’re having a dance around the trailer. That was fun.

Some Friday nights the crew put on parties in the car parks where we had the trailers. We had fire breathers, smoke machines, disco lights, like, 90s raves!

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The 21-year-old actress – who is dating ‘Bodyguard’ actor Richard Madden – spent six weeks away in Brazil shooting ‘The Seven Sorrows of Mary’ and admitted her absence can be tough on her loved ones, but things are always fine again once they get chance to reconnect.

In an interview with the new issue of Red magazine, she said: ‘Being away puts a strain on family and friends, but my best friends came [to the ‘Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ premiere] and, even though I hadn’t seen some of them in ages, we just picked up where we left off.’

But despite being away from her loved ones a lot, Ellie always gets to spend a lot of time with her mother, as she’s also her manager.

She added: ‘It means we make time to see each other and she’s always got my back.’

Meanwhile, the ‘Nocturnal Animals’ actress doesn’t feel particularly famous but revealed there are aspects of being in the public eye that she finds tough.

She said: ‘[The hardest thing was] moving away from my friends and family… walking to the chip shop on a Sunday with a hangover, that’s not so good.’

‘I don’t acknowledge it, I don’t really feel I am famous in any way.’

But despite being away from her loved ones a lot, Ellie always gets to spend a lot of time with her mother, as she’s also her manager.

She added: ‘It means we make time to see each other and she’s always got my back.’

Meanwhile, the ‘Nocturnal Animals’ actress doesn’t feel particularly famous but revealed there are aspects of being in the public eye that she finds tough.

She said: ‘[The hardest thing was] moving away from my friends and family… walking to the chip shop on a Sunday with a hangover, that’s not so good.’

‘I don’t acknowledge it, I don’t really feel I am famous in any way.’

Boyfriend Richard starred in ‘Bodyguard’ – one of the year’s biggest TV shows – and he and Ellie enjoyed watching it back together.

She admitted: ‘We watched it together at his house.’

Despite a very successful year herself, the ‘Les Miserables’ actress feels she is still “learning”.

She said: ‘I’m still finding my way, so it can be hard. I’m still growing, still learning, still changing.’