Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

The multifaceted actor and Under 27 member talks ‘Willow’, ‘The Witcher’ and honing her craft at Dean Street Townhouse

Monday 28 November 2022   By Stuart McGurk   Photography by Alan Gelati

When you’re interviewing an actor who has made a name for themselves as someone who is a specialist in roles dealing with trauma and terror, you really want to dig in and ask what the most intense, draining and downright disturbing role they’ve put themselves through is. Which is why my first question to Ellie Bamber is about the fact that she spent the entirety of lockdown in her central London flat with both parents and her brother. 

At 25, the winner of the Soho House Actress Award has already played real-life women on the hunt for serial killers (The Serpent) and those standing up to the misogynist industrial complex (The Trial Of Christine Keeler). And now, how on Earth did she pull off the role of Reasonable Human Woman for all that time? And, naturally, does the trauma remain? 

‘Ha, that’s a really good question,’ she says. ‘It was because my parents were having work done on their house, so we decided to all live in one place. But it was actually really peaceful and quite special. We’d take turns making dinner. Me and my brother would go for walks. It was really nice.’ To which I can only add: Robert De Niro, you’ve got nothing on Ellie Bamber.

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

Pyjamas, Soho Home

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

Dress, Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini

We’re speaking over Zoom as the actor is on holiday a few miles outside Barcelona. Her bright green top is only outshone by her trademark shock of red hair; her delicate features somehow pitched exactly halfway between catwalk and costume drama. ‘I’m flying home soon,’ she says. 

Her latest project, the Disney+ fantasy series Willow, arrives this November – a mere 34 years after the original film, which was produced by George Lucas and starred Warwick Davis as a wannabe wizard on a quest to save the world. The 2022 version, however, sees Bamber return to something more akin to her hair’s natural white-blonde hue, albeit a lot longer.

‘Yeah, really long blonde hair,’ she clarifies. ‘The stuff the head of make-up and hair was creating was so specific and so precise and thought-through, it was magical. I mean, obviously, the show is magical in and of itself…’ 

As is the way of these things, Bamber is wary of giving away any spoilers. But Davis is back as the titular character, the show naturally taking place years after the events of the film, and Bamber plays ‘a kitchen maid who falls in love with the prince of the castle, and ends up going on a quest with the rest of the characters of the show’. 

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

‘There are things that have changed from how women were treated, but sometimes I think it’s now just shrouded in something different’

So far, so fantasy. Yet Bamber points out that the Disney+ reboot is something of a throwback in some less obvious ways. The main one being, in a TV era dominated by gritty ‘dark’ fantasy series like Game Of Thrones, The Witcher and the Lord of the Rings prequel series The Rings Of Power, Willow will once again be unashamedly fun, a little bit silly and a true successor to both the 1980s original and its spiritual stablemates The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal

‘There are still moments of scariness and horror,’ she says, ‘but at the same time none of us are taking ourselves seriously. There’s magic. There’s realms. You know, this is so silly. The language of the Willow world is hilarious in itself. Like, some of the dialogue, where we’re making up specific words, is just so silly, but also so fun.’

It’s all in stark contrast to the controversy surrounding the Game Of Thrones spin-off show House Of The Dragon, which will once again feature scenes of sexual assault. Showrunner Miguel Sapochnik defended the decision, saying, ‘You can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time’ – leading many to ask what time he’s referring to, given the show is set in a made-up land of dragons. (Though, yes, author George RR Martin has said he loosely based Game Of Thrones on Europe’s Middle Ages.) 

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

Bamber herself has experience of portraying sexual trauma and assault, though in a much more serious way. In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, her character is suffocated and raped. In the forthcoming film The Seven Sorrows Of Mary, she plays a real-life American exchange student in Brazil who was kidnapped and brutally gang-raped in a van. The filming was so intense, Bamber says, that at the end, she asked if she could torch the vehicle. 

So what does she think about a fantasy show depicting such female sexual assault and trauma? ‘I think it’s important for it to be accurately represented and not sexualised in any way,’ she says. ‘Showing it onscreen as it being a fantasy or something is just wrong. And that’s important, because we need to speak to the new generation and show young people that this is not OK.’ Though, she adds as a caveat: ‘I can’t speak on House Of The Dragon or Game Of Thrones specifically, as I’ve never watched them.’ 

It turns out Bamber hasn’t seen half of the projects she’s starred in, either – at least, not all the way through. She hasn’t watched The Seven Sorrows Of Mary, despite being sent a screening link. Though given the subject matter, that is perhaps understandable. ‘Yeah, I still haven’t watched it. I don’t love watching myself [onscreen] generally. But particularly that film, because it’s so harrowing.’ 

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

Dress, Olivia Von Halle; necklace, David Morris

‘There’s so much that, as an actor, you can’t see – that you have to create in your imagination’

But you must have seen The Serpent, I ask, the Netflix and BBC thriller which co-starred Jenna Coleman? And surely The Trial Of Christine Keeler, the BBC’s critically acclaimed dramatisation of the Profumo affair, in which she played Mandy Rice-Davies, a model, showgirl and friend of Keeler who was similarly vilified when she was hauled in for testimony?

‘I watched most of The Trial Of Christine Keeler,’ she says. ‘I didn’t see the last few episodes. Oh god… I watched some of The Serpent. I didn’t watch all of it.’ I guess, I say, she knows how they end. ‘Exactly! I’ve been in those worlds for so long, I know the story.’ Though she has, she confirms, seen all 116 minutes of Nocturnal Animals, the 2016 thriller that starred the likes of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, which proved to be her big breakout role at just 19. ‘Yes, I’ve definitely watched Nocturnal Animals. And I would jump at the chance to work with Tom [Ford] again.’ 

Bamber may not have finished The Trial Of Christine Keeler, but she did end up meeting her character Rice-Davies’ real-life daughter for lunch after it aired. ‘She said that she thought I’d really captured her mother in a way she hadn’t seen before,’ Bamber says, adding, ‘There are things that have changed [from how women were treated in that time]. But sometimes I think it’s now just shrouded in something different. She was so admirable.’

That must have been amazing to hear. ‘It was, it was. And I became quite emotional. I had so much love for Mandy after playing her; I admired her so much. The ability to take a bad situation and turn it around and say, ‘Screw you guys, I’m going to take this and make it mine.’ She was a total hero to me. And it taught me a lot as a woman.’

Ellie Bamber limbers up for the big time | Soho House

Above: Dress, Halpern; ring, David Morris

Before our time is up, I ask what I feel is the obvious question at this point. She does plan to watch Willow, right? After all, Disney are spending rather a lot of money on it… ‘Haha, yes, I will watch Willow!’ Partly, she says, because so much of the world will be created with CGI, and so ‘there’s so much that, as an actor, you can’t see – that you have to create in your imagination.’ (They shot the series in Wales). 

But also, she’s made a promise: to watch it all the way through with co-stars Erin Kellyman and Ruby Cruz. ‘Ruby, Erin and I made a pact. We will watch Willow together, and probably with some of the boys from the show as well. All three of us have a relationship in the show that you will hopefully see onscreen. It was so special. So yes, it will be great to watch it with them.’

Willow is out on Disney+ on 30 November. Bamber was photographed at Dean Street Townhouse, London. Members can book bedrooms at sohohouse.com. To find out more about Under 27 membership, click here