Bel Powley on Filming The Morning Show in the Wake of #MeToo
Bel Powley is hungry. "Excuse me if I take a small bite while we're talking," she tells me in her plummy, albeit instantly endearing British accent. She's been out and about all day doing the press rounds for The Morning Show, her buzzed-about project co-starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, which premiered exclusively on Apple TV+ this month, and could seriously use a snack.
One of the flagship dramas to appear on the newly-minted streaming platform, the series follows a popular morning news program whose beloved co-host, Mitch Kessler (Carell), is abruptly fired amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. A case of girl-on-girl drama ensues, wherein Kessler's longtime female co-host Alex Levy (Aniston) is pitted against Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson, a younger, power-hungry journalist not-so-subtly going after Levy's job (or so she thinks).
Given the highly pertinent subject matter, it makes sense why Powley's previous interviews have run long — there is obviously lots to talk about. In fact, the entire cast and crew of The Morning Show, led by Aniston and Witherspoon, have been working overtime over the past year rewriting the script to address new, seemingly never-ending claims of sexual harassment, most notably Matt Lauer's public fallout at The Today Show.
"We show #MeToo in a different light," Powley says. "It's not just about victim and perpetrator — it's about how the corporate world is adapting with all of our relationships: between women and women, between men and women, the legitimate relationships, the illegitimate relationships. I found that really intriguing."
When I ask Powley if she's ever encountered anything unseemly on a previous acting gig, she nods into her phone between bites. "Even if nothing physically has ever happened to you, it's a feeling among women, in every line of work. It's an attitude that men have had and that women have been forced to deal with. But it definitely feels like there's been a shift. I can feel it on sets now — it feels different."
Here, Powley discusses her new role, being a Friends fan-girl, and learning how to fake a Staten Island accent with Pete Davidson's mom.
Were you a big fan of morning talk shows before taking on this project?
Not at all. None of the shows in the U.K. are as flashy as they are here. We're much more evening news people — 100% of everything I know about morning television news was from doing this show.
What surprised you the most?
How early these people get up! I had no idea the lack of sleep that these people are dealing with. Even the writers are nocturnal — they're up there all night — and the anchors get up at 3:30 a.m. My character is the lowest of the low in the pecking order — I play a PA — so she probably gets about two hours of sleep a night. It's all-encompassing, because it's the last pillar of live television. No one really watches stuff when it's on TV nowadays apart from the news, so there's a lot of pressure. It's on the fly the whole time.
Did you binge-watch any particular programs to familiarize yourself?
When I did my first round of press for my first movie [Ed note: The Diary of a Teenage Girl], I did The Today Show and [The Tonight Show Starring] Jimmy Fallon, and I had an actual out-of-body experience. I think I blacked out while I was on [The Tonight Show]. I cannot remember being there because I was so nervous. Doing it live is so scary, but it really helped me understand the mechanics of it so much more: where you sit, where you get carted in, where your dressing room is. You begin to realize how many people are actually working on it.
Tell me about your character. What was it like playing a PA?
She recently graduated from university in the U.K. and has an opportunity at The Morning Show, so she takes it on a whim. It's not as if she always wanted to work in morning television news — she's just 25 and trying it out. It was great because we were both learning about morning television together in a symbiotic way. She was diving into the deep end and so was I. I have a lot of scenes with Reese's character, but I have nearly zero with Jen's character — her character probably doesn't even know who my character is. There's no reason why she would ever talk to me.
Did you grow up watching Friends?
I'm a gigantic Friends fan. I was too scared to speak to anyone during the first month of filming. I was just so gobsmacked that I was in a room with Jennifer and Reese. They're complete powerhouses — they both produced the show and played the leads, and I don't know how they managed to do that. They are quite the bosses; I have so much respect for them.
I read that the show was completely overhauled after the #MeToo movement. How did your character arc change?
The show became all about showing the gray areas of #MeToo, apart from the things we all read on Twitter. My character is having an affair with the weatherman, who's much older than her. It's a completely legitimate relationship — they're very in love — but over the course of the show you'll see how they struggle with their relationship in light of what happened with the #MeToo movement and Steve Carell's character being tried for sexual misconduct.
What does your wardrobe look like? I imagine it's much different than the on-air anchors.
It would've been easy to make me look really generic, but each character has completely individual personal style, which is key to having a show that's set in New York. Everyone here has an amazing sense of fashion. My character wears a lot of vintage. She has amazing boots and this very cool vintage Cartier watch, which hints towards the fact that she's quite posh. Jen is always fully made up, of course.
What's next for you? I know you recently wrapped Judd Apatow's upcoming untitled film about Pete Davidson.
I couldn't believe that I got that job. I enjoy doing dramas but I'm also a huge fan of doing comedy, and love all of Judd Apatow's films. I felt so honored to have had the opportunity to work with him and Pete Davidson, who is a good friend of mine. He and my boyfriend [actor Douglas Booth] did a movie [The Dirt] together and they're great friends, so I knew him pretty well already. It was so different from filming The Morning Show because all of Judd's movies are improvised comedy, which can be really nerve-wracking, but once you throw yourself into it, you always have a really good time. I'm playing a Staten Island girl which is a lot of fun. It couldn't be further from myself. The accent alone was great.
How did you perfect your Staten Island drawl?
I did a play on Broadway last year [Lobby Hero] where I played a cop from Queens, so luckily I already had that thick New York accent in my head. And filming in Staten Island, half the crew had that accent. Pete's mom has a really thick Staten Island accent too, so I hung out with her all the time.
You've mentioned that you have a spot reserved at the University of Manchester. Do you ever think about going back to school?
Maybe. I would obviously love to — I was going to study history and politics together. I think I would've really enjoyed university. Maybe I'll be like Ronald Reagan and be an actor then become a politician! You never know.
What's the craziest thing you've read about yourself?
When I was a teenager, I read on Wikipedia that I used to go out with Brad Pitt. I was, like, 15, so that would've been weird. It must've been someone at my school playing a joke on me.
Do you have an Instagram account that you're currently obsessed with?
I love Man Repeller. It's my number one source for girl's news and clothing. [Founder Leandra Medine] is amazing and I love the way her journalists write — it's an insightful, clever way of writing about fashion, which I really enjoy.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Orlando Bloom, but as Legolas in Lord of the Rings. I had photos of him around my bed. I loved those long, flowing locks.
Which role do people recognize you for most often?
When I'm in America, Minnie from The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and when I'm in London, it's this children's television show that I did when I was 13 called M.I. High about child spies. I still get recognized for that even though it was about 15 years ago.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Stand by Me, Bridesmaids, and The Devil Wears Prada.
What's your biggest guilty pleasure?
Ice cream, specifically Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. I could eat a whole pint by myself.
How would you describe your personal style?