How Emma Appleton Got Her Groove
The breakout star of Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, Emma Appleton tells Sagal Mohammed why she’s in her element.
Main image Emma wears: Dress, By Committee. Blazer, Zimmermann. Shoes, Erdem. Earrings, Boodles
All About Emma
You’d think making not one but two red carpet debuts on the same night would be intimidating for a new actor keen to make a memorable first impression, but for Emma Appleton it was quite the opposite. With leading roles in both Dolly Alderton’s new BBC series Everything I Know About Love and FX’s Pistol, the 30-year-old model-turned-actor felt right at home, seamlessly moving from one big premiere to the next within hours. ‘I felt like I was in my element,’ she says. ‘Who gets to do two premieres in one night?’
She’s right. It’s not every day a newcomer gets cast in two of the most exciting TV shows of the year. Perhaps that’s what would make it daunting for most, though Emma was more focused on the thrill of it all, which doesn’t come as a surprise even after just five minutes of speaking with her. ‘I think if you have one show, it all feels a bit like everything is riding on that which would potentially make me more nervous, but because I had two there was a bit more of a comfort,’ she tells me, minutes after dialling into our Zoom call from her new south-east London home. She has a natural charm about her, and the kind of energetic confidence that immediately explains how she made two red carpet appearances in one night look like a breeze.
Born in the Cotswolds, Emma grew up in what she describes as a cute market town, which was far removed from any prospects of an acting career. ‘No one was really going to drama school or singing or anything like that, so it’s just not something I thought about,’ she says. Instead, she fell into modelling as a teenager after a friend suggested she enter a magazine competition to win some free make-up. It opened up the door to a successful career fronting major commercial campaigns for the likes of Converse, Fred Perry and The Kooples. ‘I didn’t want to go to uni so modelling worked really well for me, and through that I got an audition for a short film, and as soon as I got that I thought, this is my chance.’ The film, an indie-short by Sara Dunlop titled Dreamlands, took Emma to Cannes Film Festival 2016, where she ended up meeting her agent. ‘I got really lucky. It just felt like everything fell into place at the right time.’
Following a handful of small roles (in Netflix’s The Witcher and 2018 horror The Nun to name a couple), Emma got a call from her agent last year telling her she had landed a gig in Danny Boyle’s limited series, retelling the story of the Sex Pistols – the legendary 70s rock band famed for its anti-establishment stance and revolutionising British music. She had auditioned for the role of Nancy Spungen, the controversial girlfriend of band member Sid Vicious, known for causing a rift between the group. ‘I remember when the self-tape came through. All it said was “untitled Danny Boyle project” and immediately I was like, sign me up. So I did the tape and didn’t hear anything for months. Then one day around October last year my agent called me to say Danny Boyle wanted to Zoom with me. I got off the phone and frantically Googled Nancy Spungen because I knew of her and I’d seen imagery but I didn’t really know who she was,’ she admits.
While the quick Wiki sweep gave her the basic background knowledge, Emma credits the book written by Spungen’s mother, Deborah, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, as her real source for understanding her character. ‘I was very aware that the Nancy in the script was an interpretation of the real Nancy because I knew that Danny didn’t want an imitation. But I also wanted to weave in some of the truth of her because you want to be respectful and handle it delicately when it’s a real person you’re playing,’ Emma explains. ‘I felt a responsibility in that sense and I thought, well, who knew her better than her mother?’
In an era when Hollywood constantly seeks inspiration from celebrity scandals in the name of art imitating life, one could easily fall victim to criticism for on-screen portrayals of real-life events; take Pamela Anderson’s reaction to Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, in which Lily James re-enacts the Baywatch star’s turbulent relationship with her ex-husband, played by Sebastian Stan. When the show was announced, reports emerged claiming Pamela felt violated by the streamer for telling her story without her approval.
While circumstances were different for Emma and the FX show, it was still something she was cautious about initially. ‘At the beginning I was nervous but then I realised this was going to be an interpretation and that we would have some artistic licence in terms of storytelling. The show is definitely fictionalised so that took some of the pressure off,’ she says. ‘It’s just about breaking the balance – I wanted to pay homage to her in a way we haven’t seen. She’s an icon that has been quite vilified in pop culture but people have different sides to them.’
Aside from getting into character, what Emma enjoyed most about the project was the time spent on set with cast members including Louis Partridge, Maisie Williams, Anson Boon and Toby Wallace. ‘We were this cool little crew that were going on this journey together. Seeing all the boys do Bandcamp was so much fun. It was like being at an actual gig and we were all just so comfortable with one another, especially because we did a lot of improvisation during filming too.’
When she wasn’t channelling a 70s punk icon, Emma was portraying a character that felt much closer to home. She plays Maggie in the BBC’s adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s cult novel Everything I Know About Love, an exploration of young adult life through the lens of millennial women. The seven-part series follows Maggie and her childhood best friend Birdy (played by Bel Powley) as they move into their first London house share in 2012 and experience the highs and lows of life together, from dating and friendship to parties, jobs and careers. ‘There’s a lot I can relate to her about,‘ Emma admits. ‘We’ve got shows like Girls and Sex and the City but I don’t think we’ve seen a show like Everything I Know About Love which centres on female friendships that are as complex as romantic relationships. As soon as I read the script I thought, I have definitely experienced this and there are so many people I know who have experienced it too. Yet we haven’t seen it on screen like this before.’
Unlike Pistol, Emma auditioned and was in rehearsals for Everything I Know About Love within just two weeks. ‘I had to get into Maggie’s head fairly quickly. I had to draw a line between what our similarities were and what made us different. She has so many universal themes and the human emotions that we all share so it was easy for me to tap into that. I’ve got my best friend in the whole world who I absolutely adore and we lived together and have gone through so many of the same things that Maggie goes through.’ The experience was made even more fitting thanks to Emma’s immediate connection with co-stars Bel Powley and Marli Siu. The three met at the show’s chemistry read. ‘We just clicked immediately. It was so effortless,’ she recalls. ‘We all lived in the same apartment building during filming so we’d have dinners and hang out on days we weren’t working too.’
It’s not hard to imagine, given Emma’s warm presence even with a screen between us. Her friendly nature and ability to grab opportunities that present themselves to her have no doubt played a major role in expediting her career and with an abundance of talent to match, the sky’s the limit for her – especially as Hollywood producers watch on with a keen eye. For now, however, she’s taking a well-deserved summer break. ‘I want to take a few months off to live my regular life for a bit,’ she says. ‘There are so many good projects out there and I like taking the time to read scripts. The ebb and the flow of acting is what I love – I don’t have to do it all the time.’
TEAM: Make-up: Nathalie Eleni @ Adrenalin Photographic using skincare by Réduit and make-up by Charlotte Tilbury. Hair: Ben Cooke @ Frank Agency using Lockonego. Digital cover: Tracer Ital @ Adrenalin Photographic. Location images: David Reiss. Fashion assistant: April McCarthy. Digital assistant: Megan Dowson
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