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5 minutes with Ella Purnell: 'Natives is draining, I've never worked so hard in my life'

As she prepares to make her professional stage debut in Natives, we chat to the actress about her beginnings in Oliver! and working a regular 9-to-5

Ella Purnell in rehearsals for Natives
© Helen Murray

Ella Purnell started her acting career at the age of 11 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane as one of over 100 children cast in Oliver!. From there, she has worked extensively on screen, playing a young version of Keira Knightley's character in the 2010 film Never Let Me Go, and starring in Tim Burton's 2016 film Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Now, she's returning to the stage in Boundless Theatre's production of Glenn Waldron's play Natives.

Oliver! was my first job when I was 11 and it was pretty amazing. It gave me the stage bug, if you will. It was an experience. 120 kids working on it and three different teams of kids. I made some lifelong friends, I still hang out with some of the people I did Oliver! with. Working with Rowan Atkinson was great, too, because when I was a kid I used to love Mr Bean.

Everything you work on, be it on stage or film, shapes you. From tiny technical things like what your best angle is or which way you should turn to face the camera. Even working on Natives for two and a half weeks and seeing how much prep goes into the work. You're constantly learning I suppose. You take something away from everybody you work with.

I grew up with Pirates of the Caribbean so when I met Keira Knightley I was like "oh my god". She was quite young when she did that too, probably as old as I am now, so that was a pretty starstruck moment. Moments like that happen all the time. When I met Tim Burton I lost my mind, but really, they are just people.

This is my first professional stage job, and my first first experience having a day job. I've never worked so hard in my life. It's quite physically and emotionally draining. But it's so rewarding when you see it finally come together and you look around you and think "ah, that looks really cool". It's like watching a plant grow or something, it's really special.

Natives is a fresh modern take on a coming of age story. It's a Black Mirror-style story about growing up today and how teenagers are faced with so much possibility. It explores the issues of violence and love and lust and social media and social pressure and how that all affects the decisions we make. In one sense it's hugely relatable, but what is difficult is differentiating your personal experience with that of the character's. That's the most challenging part, but ask me again tomorrow and I'll probably give you a different answer.

Theatre feels so much more grounded and thorough to me. On film sets, you meet everyone on the first day and then just jump in when someone says "action". But I can't wait for these performances. . It's definitely something I'd like to do more of in the future. Maybe another musical, or possibly a Shakespeare.

Natives runs at Southwark Playhouse from 31 March to 22 April, with previews from 29 March.