Bel Powley Grows Up With ‘Lobby Hero’
“If she were a man, people would think differently about her.”
Bel Powley is contemplating audience reactions to her “Lobby Hero” character. In the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s play, which runs through May 13, Powley plays Dawn, a newcomer on the police force, who is caught in a maelstrom of difficult situations.
On the one hand, she’s being investigated for her use of force on the job. She’s also sleeping with her misogynistic partner, played by Chris Evans, who’s manipulating her and has someone else on the side. And she’s investigating a murder, while one of her potential sources, a hotel lobby security guard played by Michael Cera, is coming onto her. So Powley is trying to figure out why so many people find her character irritating.
“Even though she’s really tough, she’s still fighting against people who see her as annoying or precocious, and that’s something that only women get,” Powley says over iced coffee on a weekday afternoon. “Like, even Chris’s character is still really likable, and he’s the worst!”
“Likable” has become a dirty word for women in Hollywood, but Powley, who has a long resume for her 26 years, doesn’t worry about likability when choosing roles. The British actor broke onto the scene in 2015’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and she’s has played a series of complicated young women from Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out to Mary Shelley’s step sister in Mary Shelley to most recently, a girl becoming a werewolf in Wildling, which premiered earlier this month.
“When you’re choosing the role, the character has to have some sort of redeeming features, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be likability,” Powley says. “You could be an evil, bad character, and have redeeming features, like you’re funny or interesting or engaging. In light of that, what women get way more than men is that people find them annoying.”
While the response to Dawn as annoying has been “getting to her” recently, the play’s relevant subject matter was one of the main reasons she wanted to do it. Although “Lobby Hero” originally premiered off Broadway in 2001, the topics highlighted, from racism, police brutality, sexism, resonate just as strongly today.
“It literally couldn’t be a better time to put this play on,” Powley says. “What Dawn is going through is basically highlighting what the #MeToo movement is about. It’s literally it, put into like one character in a play.”
Powley has been wanting to return to the theater for years but was having trouble finding good parts for women her age. When she heard about the audition, she submitted a self-tape for the role, but she didn’t hear anything. Then, while on a boat in Italy visiting her boyfriend, she got a call that the creative team wanted to see her for the part. However, 10 other actors were coming in, as well, and Powley was scheduled to start a job in London the next week.
“It’s not like me and three other people, 10 is quite a lot,” she says. “It was quite a big risk. And I was like, it’s just too good of a play, and it’s too relevant. It speaks to me too much for me to miss out on it, so I flew myself out to New York.”
Her investment paid off, and she was able to return to her first love. She made her West End debut in high school at the Royal Court Theatre, and from there, she knew she belonged onstage. While Powley grew up in London with parents in the industry (her mom is a casting director and her dad is an actor), her upbringing was far from the business.
As a “geeky and precocious” child, she was focused on extra-curricular activities, piano, and getting straight As, and she went to a Saturday drama club with friends just as another extra-curricular. A casting director came to the club looking for actors for the kid’s BBC series “M.I. High,” and within a week, Powley was at her final audition.
“It was never anything that my parents wanted me to go near because they knew the risks of it, they knew how difficult it was,” she says.
“Lobby Hero” marks Powley’s second Broadway outing. She made her Broadway debut in the 2011 revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia. “I was 18 years old, I had never been away from home,” Powley recalls of her Broadway debut. “I’d never been to America. And I was doing a Tom Stoppard play, which I didn’t understand a word of. The first rehearsal, I was still a kid. I was like everyone’s little sister. This time, I feel like I’m really, I’m more of an accomplished actress.”
She’s also had a different experience living in New York. In 2011, she lived in a high-rise near Times Square, which she thought was amazing at the time and now would be her “worst nightmare.” This time around, she’s living in Williamsburg, and she’s had a revolving door of family and friends coming to visit her.
However, she says it’s more fun to do a show in New York. “I feel like there’s more of a community on Broadway than there is in the West End,” she says. The “Lobby Hero” cast and creative team has gotten really close through the process. Powley and director Trip Cullman and assistant director Susanna Wolk do hot yoga between shows on Wednesday. The cast goes to Sardi’s every Thursday after the show.
When Powley celebrated her 26th birthday on March 7, Brian Tyree Henry organized a karaoke outing to celebrate, during which they all drank champagne and “screamed at the TV.” She’s looking forward to another cast outing this week to go see “A Quiet Place.”
“Lobby Hero” marks one of the first times she’s played a character her own age, instead of a high school or college student. About two years ago, she had a conversation with her agents about moving beyond teenage roles, which had been her bread and butter for so long. “I know I look young, and if something really amazing comes along that is like a high schooler, of course I will read it,” she says. “But I need to try and actively move out of this bracket now. I don’t want to turn 30 and have people still see me as a 17-year-old girl.”
Powley knows that in order to grow in her career she needs to grow with her characters. Next up, she plays a detective in the upcoming BBC series “Informer,” and she plays the sister of an undercover FBI informant in Detroit in “White Boy Rick,” which also stars Henry and is based on a true story.
“If you don’t actively make a choice to try and play against how people see you, then it’s never going to happen,” she says.