In Season 2 of the Starz series Sweetbitter, Tess (Ella Purnell) isn’t new anymore, and her curiosity and hunger for knowledge pushes her to recognize her own power, but also teaches her that there are sometimes consequences for exerting that power. And while Tess has no real family support to speak of, the backwaiters, servers, bartenders, dishwashers and even the general manager at the fine dining restaurant in New York City where she works have become the family that she’s been missing.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actress Ella Purnell talked about where Tess goes next on her journey, deviating from the book (by Stephanie Danler) that the series is adapted from, that the theme of Season 2 is power, not knowing the full arc for her character ahead of time, how relevant the issues with these characters are, and whether she thinks Tess is being selfish in the decision that she makes, at the end of the season. She also talked about heading off to New Mexico to shoot Zack Snyder’s zombie movie Army of the Dead, in which she plays Dave Bautista’s daughter, and what drew her to that project, filming the period piece Belgravia, and the type of films she’d like to do next.
Collider: If the first season of this show was the prologue or introduction to this new life for your character, how would you describe the second season? How do you view it, as far as what she goes through?
ELLA PURNELL: In Season 1, she was new and desperately trying to fit in, and find her feet and look like she knows what she’s doing. It was very much that she was observing. She was quite quiet. Life happened to her. In Season 2, we were faced with the question of, “Okay, so we’ve done that. She’s got the stripes. Now, what happens after being new?” Season 1 was pretty close to the books, but Season 2 definitely deviates.
Since you are deviating from the book, how much of the journey were you told, before you started shooting the season? Did you know exactly what her arc would be, ahead of time?
PURNELL: No, I had no idea. I sat down and spoke to [Stuart Zicherman] and [Stephanie Danler], a little bit, about the themes of this season and what this season was gonna be about. I like torturing myself and only knowing what my characters going to do, the day I get the script. It’s much more exciting when I have no idea what’ gonna happen. For Season 2, when we were faced with that question of, “What happens after being new?,” we went ahead and opened up such a huge plethora of experience. The stakes are no longer, is she gonna get the job? The stakes are no longer about the restaurant. The stakes become more integral to her character. The stakes become more about Tess. Is she gonna make it, and is she gonna become the person that she wants to become? The theme is power, and we see that with all the characters.
Where Season 1 is just from Tess’s perspective, Season 2 is definitely is much more of an ensemble piece. We get to know the backgrounds and the history and the intricate details of all of the characters lives, as well as Tess. The thing that I think is actually universally relatable is that figuring out who you are is one thing, but figuring out how to ask for what you want, what you deserve, and what you like is another. What’s really hard, especially for young women, but for all women, actually, is that we have to make ourselves smaller. We’re so used to having to be agreeable, having to be liked, and having to be diplomatic, in the way that we speak and present ourselves, so that we don’t get described as difficult, or emotional, or demanding, or gutsy, or all of these words that we don’t really use for men, so we make ourselves smaller. There comes a point in everyone’s life where you go, “You know what? I work just as hard, and I’m really good at my job, and I do deserve that pay raise. I do deserve that promotion, and that’s what I want, and actually, I deserve it.” You have to accept that. It’s a difficult thing to do, to give yourself permission to occupy space and come into your power. That’s something that Tess is figuring out. She’s not necessarily likable when she’s figuring this out, but she’s definitely growing.