- 12 Jul 18
There is no denying the extraordinary impact that the 16-year-old from Co. Donegal has had as the eponymous heroine of the hugely popular Netflix series 'Anne with an E'.
For me, as for so many others, Anne Shirley is the most beloved fictional character of my childhood. Anyone who was going to portray the central character in the Anne Of Green Gables novel, and its numerous sequels, was faced with high, perhaps even towering, expectations.
Cue the arrival of Amybeth McNulty, an exceptionally bright young teenager from Donegal, whose father is from Ireland and whose mother is Canadian. Amybeth had begun her career with performances in An Grian‡n Theatre in Letterkenny, as well as acting in local productions of musicals by the writer and composer Paul Boyd. Then her world changed.
At just 14 years of age, Amybeth was cast to play Canada's literary sweetheart in Anne With An E. This Netflix adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic story was written and produced by Moira Walley Beckett, a three-time Emmy award winner for her work on Breaking Bad.
That link with Breaking Bad is an important one: Walley Beckett spotted what has been described as the 'accidental feminist' within Annie. While the end result is inspiring and positive, the series doesn't shy away from dealing with darker themes of the kind with which teenagers today frequently have to wrestle.
As it turned out, Anne With An E has surpassed even the unreasonable childhood expectations of millions. It has been a huge hit, with the first series winning an Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Award for Best Dramatic Series.
Netflix promise that the second season - expanded to ten episodes - will continue to chart new territory, adding characters and storylines and exploring "themes of identity, prejudice, feminism, bullying, gender parity and empowerment through the lens of its fierce, starry-eyed, irrepressible 14 year-old protagonist."
And at the centre of it all is this remarkable young woman from Letterkenny in Co. Donegal.
My own inner child was also equally pleased at the prospect of conducting my first ever interview, during my internship here at Hot Press, with a vivacious, chatty and ever so charming international star who - luckily for me! - was every bit as endearing as her counterpart on screen...
LET'S START FROM THE BEGINNING
To an outsider, it is one of life's great mysteries - and no better woman, I figured, than Amybeth McNulty to unravel it! So how exactly do you get cast in a major movie production or a TV series like Anne With An E?
"Well, my agent got me the audition. So I did a self tape from Donegal and I sent it over to Toronto," Amybeth says, with the hint of a grin. "I did one or two of those - and then I got invited to Toronto. After I had done my two live auditions there, they emailed me and said: 'We're going on an adventure'. Which sounds kind of creepy when you think about it!
"So I got in a car with them, and the next thing I know, I arrive at this mansion. They just said 'Ok, we want you to create a school play with the flowers, and dance around and make thrones and talk to Lady Cordelia'. It's one of the best auditions I've ever done. I had no idea it was for Netflix or anything like that. I just knew it based off of Anne Of Green Gables."
Was there a standout moment when you thought: "I really am Anne Shirley"?
"I think the premiere for Season One. We did one in Toronto and one in Ottawa. So many people came to it and they wanted to see the first episode, and what it was about. I just remember having my photo taken with people and they hadn't even seen me act yet. It was such a wild experience that I'd never even fathomed could be a possibility in my future - and it was happening when I was 15! I was very honoured."
Does Amybeth consider herself a 'kindred spirit' to Anne?
"Oh, for sure," she says. "I've definitely brought quite a few parts of her personality and kind of intertwined them with my own. I'm very inspired by her. I admire her a lot - her bravery and who she is. In spite of what she has been surrounded by, in the end what she has become is such a beautiful human being. She's helped me take a step back - to really immerse myself in nature and appreciate it to its full extent."
I am curious to know what it was like filming on Prince Edward Island?
"It was gorgeous," Amybeth gushes. "It reminds me a lot of Ireland actually. Just because when I went there, it was all rolling hills and clover fields and gorgeous cliffs and sea. It's such an imaginative, inspiring place to film. You feel kind of consumed by the earth."
Amybeth's mother is from Canada. Did that help her to connect with Anne?
"She gave me the book for my ninth birthday," Amybeth recalls. "I'd read the books, so I knew who she was. But I had never been to Canada before. Going to Canada, and knowing that my mum was born in Calgary - the world works in mysterious ways, I suppose."
Does she feel more Irish or Canadian? Amybeth is understandably ambivalent. "Personally, I feel half and half," she says. "I have been born and bred Irish, but I definitely have that Canadian connection now."
ON TO MORE... MUNDANE THINGS
Is it difficult to balance school with acting work? Clearly, it isn't an issue that most kids have to deal with... "Not really," Amybeth tells me. "I'm homeschooled anyway. You have at least two hours of school-y stuff a day. It's kind of funny, to go from memorising math equations to memorising your lines, and then going on set. That can be a bit tricky to do - the switch up."
People may be wondering will she do the Leaving Cert? Amybeth has a remarkably mature attitude to it all... "Yeah, definitely," she says. "I mean, just to have it in my back pocket. I'm looking at GCSE exams too. Just to have those qualifications - it's never a bad thing. Having said that, I have all the education I need: it's just not on a piece of paper."
When she got the role of Anne, did that change how her friends perceived her? Did it change things back in Ireland? "I would hope not," she laughs. "My friend is actually sitting next to me! So she could tell you." Her friend Angel is having none of it!
"Absolutely not!" she says, addressing Amybeth. "We're proud of you."
"I have some people come up to me in Letterkenny," Amybeth resumes, "who are just like 'Oh you're Anne!' - but, no, I still just feel like a wee girl from Donegal, who is getting to do interviews and fancy things. Honestly, the support from my friends, I am so grateful for it. They've really kept my feet on the ground and helped me from getting a big head."
Too often, getting a big head comes with the turf - not least when you have over 120,000 followers on Instagram. How does it feel, growing up with such a fanbase?
"It's kind of weird," Amybeth muses. "I'm someone who's not big into labels like 'celebrities' and 'stars' and 'fans'. They're more kind of supporters for me. The support they give is so overwhelming. I can never fully take it in. They're such wonderful people. I don't want them to be just a number on a screen. But, because of that number, I guess, I have a wonderful platform that I can use for political purposes, to start discussions and topics."
The show is a very woman-heavy production. Doe she think that this is a feminist story?
"That is a huge part of it," she says matter-of-factly. "Especially this season, we had a full writers room that was just women. Which I think is so extraordinary. We need more women in film absolutely. Not just that, but this season we're bringing in new characters, and topics of racism, sexuality and bullying in general are covered. Which I think is going to open up the series to even more people."
BACK TO THE LITTLE SCREEN
With those kind of topics to the fore, was there a standout moment, filming Season 2?
"There are so many, but all of them are really bad spoilers," she laughs. "I think, me becoming more comfortable in myself as an actor was a big moment for me. I trusted myself more to have a better idea of what I was doing."
For a fourteen or fifteen year-old, it must be a strange experience seeing yourself on the television, in what is a major global production. Did she watch the first season with her friends?
"I specifically remember being in the car when the trailer came out," she says. "I remember sitting in the back of the car watching the trailer and crying, just because I was so overwhelmed.
My friends were with me: Poppy, Daisy and Angel. I also remember watching the season for the first time with my grandparents. It's such an insane thing to watch yourself on TV."
It must have been all the more so, as - to prepare for the role - she had to dye her hair red.
"I did," she says. "I'm a blonde naturally. I had no idea when auditioning that I would have to dye my hair. It kind of crossed my mind, but for some reason I thought they'd give me a wig or something. It didn't really correspond with my brain. I just remember going to Toronto and in the first two days they were like 'Ok! Time to dye your hair' - and I was like ÔWhat!?'."
But it can't have felt all that weird - not to someone like Amybeth, who, after all, plays the ukulele!
"I do!" she says, with a laugh. "I'm weird. I don't have a specific genre that I like. I'm very much into Dodie Clark (doddleoddle on YouTube) for instance. She's a wonderful artist and a really lovely person as well. I've had the opportunity to chat with her. I'm a big ukulele person. It can accompany any song."
AND SO WE FACE THE FINAL CURTAIN
As someone who has broken through to the highest level at a very young age, where does Amybeth McNulty see herself going in the future? Not even that thought can faze her.
"I'm kind of just: 'let it happen and see where the road takes me'," she says, exuding a lovely sense of zen.
"I'd love to end up doing camera. Props as well is something I'm very intrigued by. Something in the arts, definitely. If I have any choice in the matter, that's where I am heading."
Finally, I want to know, what is the message that viewers can take from Anne With An E?
"I hope it sparks something in your mind and that you can start conversations with people," she says, in reference to the challenging themes.
"That you get inspired by Anne. Or just feel it. To feel fully what she and other characters in our story are going through and to really develop yourself in that. That's such a special experience to have, in particular the first time you watch it. But really, I just hope people enjoy it and like it. For me, that's enough."