Created by Stephanie Danler, author of the internationally best-selling novel of the same name, the six-episode half-hour Starz series Sweetbitter tells the story of Tess (Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old who arrives in New York City ready to pursue a new life in a new location, and all that has to offer. When she’s hired to train at one of the best restaurants in the city, she quickly learns what it will take to prove herself in the chaotic, adrenaline-fueled world behind the scenes of the food and wine business. The series also stars Tom Sturridge, Caitlin FitzGerald, Paul Sparks, Evan Jonigkeit, Eden Epstein, Jasmine Mathews and Daniyar.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actress Ella Purnell talked about her disastrous audition for Sweetbitter, why she wanted to play Tess, how she relates to her character, the appeal of Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Jake (Tom Sturridge), the fun dynamic between Tess and Sasha (Daniyar), and what she’d still like to see happen with her character, in possible future episodes.
Collider: This TV series is very addictive! I did not plan on watching all six episodes in one sitting, and I just couldn’t stop!
ELLA PURNELL: Oh, my god, that’s the best news I’ve had in days! I can’t bring myself to watch it yet. I’ve got the disc of it, sitting on my table, but I’m too freaked out. I’m going to have to take the plunge. I’m so glad you liked it!
How did you come to Sweetbitter? What was your audition process like?
PURNELL: It was definitely a relatively short one. It happened really fast. I was super overwhelmed. I was really surprised I actually got the job because I did not do a good audition. I really messed up. I just had two auditions and a screen test, and then, a week later, I was in New York.
It seems that, if you’re going to play a character like this, messing up in an audition is the perfect thing to do.
PURNELL: You know what? You are not the first person who’s said that. I walked into the room and there were like 60 scary producers and I broke the door, by accident. I remember somebody at the back was like, “Ha, classic Tess!,” and I was like, “Oh, god!” But, it was good. It all worked out, in the end, and it left me with a story to tell.
What was it about this story and character that most interested you in doing this and made you want to play her?
PURNELL: It’s a beautifully written book. I love to read, so that was an added bonus. I got some amazing source material out of it. Also, you read a lot of scripts and this was the first one that I read where this 22-year-old girl was a woman, who is completely unapologetic for having no idea where she is going or what she wants or who she is. She’s proudly like, “I’m not perfect and I’m figuring it out.” With a lot of female roles, the character is too perfect or pretty or together or, on the flip side, is ridiculously bad-ass. I loved that this was a really real, natural, grounded script, and I wanted to do it.
When we meet her, we don’t know much about Tess or her history, at all. We learn a little bit, by the end of the season, but she’s a bit of blank slate when we meet her. When you read this, what were the things about her that you immediately wanted to know?
PURNELL: What’s lovely about it is that there is so much mystery that surrounds her. Who is this girl? What is she doing? Where did she come from? What’s really cool about it is that the show doesn’t try to patronize the audience. It’s not saying that she had a really tough time, and mommy and daddy weren’t around. She doesn’t look at her past to blame her problems, and I don’t know if she had any particular problems. She’s just floated through her life and nothing has ever really happened to her. She’s never really felt anything, or had a passion for anything, or found her thing. And then, suddenly, for the first time, she’s thrown into this world and she’s so in over her head. I think she really wants to prove to herself that she can do this and that she’s not going to end up like all the other people that she grew up with, who never leave that town. I think she’s hugely ambitious. I’m not sure if that comes from having a difficult past, or maybe just not having any notable past, at all.
She seemingly has no family support, she doesn’t know anything about service in a restaurant, and she doesn’t know anything about wine, so what do you think it is that makes her even walk into this restaurant for a job?
PURNELL: I honestly think she came to New York and just went on Craigslist and found a bunch of restaurants that she could go to. I don’t think there was anything about that restaurant, until she walks in those doors and realizes that it’s the nicest place she has ever walked into. It’s a beautiful, incredible restaurant, and Tess is actually a bit of a perfectionist. She comes to realize that she’s an overachiever. She’s like, “If I’m going to be at any restaurant, it’s gotta be this one.” She says to Howard, “I don’t know if it’s the chairs or the flowers. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something so calming about it.”