It Girl

Ella Purnell's Guide to Surviving Hollywood

Buzzy roles in Yellowjackets and Fallout? She’s not sweating it: “The more you try to control something, the more crazy you make yourself.”

by Iana Murray
Portrait of a woman with arms crossed, wearing a white lace-trimmed top, against a plain background.
Ana Garcia/NYLON

Ella Purnell arrives for coffee on a brisk London morning trying to hide her exhaustion. “I’m shooting nights at the moment, so I slept three hours last night,” she says apologetically. But it was actually her idea to meet bright and early at a Hackney coffee shop — she wants to hold onto a normal-person, daylight-hours kind of life. Still, she concedes, bleary-eyed with a latte warming her hands, adjusting her body clock won’t be a simple feat. “My brain is complete scrambled eggs. I am going to be forgetting things a lot.”

Purnell doesn’t identify as a workaholic, though everything the 27-year-old describes about this exhilarating moment of her life suggests she is. She had already notched breakout roles in Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Sweetbitter before Yellowjackets, Showtime’s appointment-viewing survival-thriller, poured rocket fuel on her career in 2021. She hasn’t had a proper vacation in three years, and she’s just come home from a two-month stint in Wales filming The Scurry, a horror-comedy about — wait for it — a murderous hoard of squirrels. She feels settled into that frenetic rhythm. “The cast is lovely, and it’s really chill, and everyone’s having fun, and it’s a f*cking movie about killer squirrels,” she says. “It’s brilliant. It’s perfect.”

Talia Byre top and dress

Yet few projects have aligned so well with Purnell’s breakneck mode of working as Fallout, Amazon’s hit post-apocalyptic drama based on the video game series of the same name. She spent six months filming in New York, Utah, and Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, whose desolate landscape is a stand-in for a decimated Los Angeles. Purnell plays Lucy, who emerges from a bunker in the year 2296 to search for her missing father and slowly hardens into an anti-hero as the unforgiving wasteland erodes her sunny optimism. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s the kind of meaty role, tinged with tragedy, that makes an actor like Purnell giddy.

“That’s what I love about Lucy at the end of Season 1,” Purnell explains. “There’s this girl who’s just always OK even though she’s been through so much, and she’s just not OK anymore. She gives up. She puts one foot in front of the other and she keeps going, but that light’s gone out. That’s a scary place to be. When that person loses hope, the room gets 10 degrees colder.”

Chanel sweater

In person, Purnell isn’t lacking in warmth. She has the kind of inviting presence that radiates from her striking eyes alone. “Writers own this arse,” she jokes about what’s in store for her in Season 2 (which was greenlit within days of the series debut). “I will do anything they write for me. If she turns into a manic serial killer, I’ll just find a way to justify that.” Like Lucy, though, she’s also had to develop a thick skin. A few years ago, after Purnell starred in Zack Snyder’s zombie-heist flick Army of the Dead, her Instagram was flooded with negative comments from viewers enraged over her character’s supposed incompetence.

“It didn’t really hurt my feelings, because people didn’t hate my performance, they hated my character, which let me know that I was actually being a good actor,” she says. “This is girl math for you.”

Hermès bodysuit, Levi’s jeans

Fallout has its own passionate fan base — the beloved video games date back to 1997 — but Purnell tried to tune out expectations on the job. “The more you try to control something, the more crazy you make yourself,” Purnell says. “I know I'm going to be OK no matter what. We’re all going to be OK. It’s not that deep.” (She didn’t have anything to worry about, anyway: Viewers ultimately loved Lucy.)

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s the most important philosophy I think that I have: You can’t do anything about it,” she continues. “That’s the only way you can survive in this very chaotic industry. I think there is this feeling of surrender, of just letting it go.”

Givenchy dress, Prada shoes
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Purnell is allergic to gatekeeping. Name any area in London, and she’ll have at least a dozen spots pinned to her maps. Hackney? Go to a rooftop bar called Netil360. (“You’re going to be swearing at me under your breath because I’ve made you walk up 300 flights of stairs, but you get to the top and it’s the most insane view of London.”) Notting Hill? That’s where all the best thrift stores are. (“There is nothing better than going into a thrift store hands-free. You’ve got no f*cking bag. You can just dedicate a couple of hours to going through it properly.”) And she’s not a snob about what’s cool and what isn’t — she’ll gladly direct you to the Tower of London of all places. “That’s the thing,” she says, her voice raising an octave in delight. “When you live here, you don’t do it because you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a tourist trap.’ Yes, it is a tourist trap, but it’s a castle.”

She’s a true Londoner in every sense. Her family ping-ponged between eastern boroughs before any of them were trendy: Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, the Docklands, Haggerston. For five years, she attended the all-girls school at the Barbican, a concrete complex famous for its domineering (and extremely divisive) Brutalist architecture. Purnell grimaces when I tell her I love the look of it. “Going to school there when you’re a teenager, full of raging hormones, and it rains 300 days a year… it could be a little intense,” she recalls. “I’m like, just give me some color! Give me some neon! Fuchsia! Color!”

She’s pretty much been working since before she gained consciousness, when her parents signed her up for baby modeling in campaigns for Harrods and Dior. “I have some pictures,” Purnell says, scrolling through her phone for a good minute until she finds one of her old ads. She has no memory of it, of course, but she points out Baby Ella in a blonde bob and red athleisure. “It’s quite an expensive baby tracksuit,” she says, reading the page. “It’s 20 quid!”

Acting followed a few years later, and if that wasn’t precocious enough on top of schoolwork, she also had three extra part-time jobs teaching acting, singing, and piano. “I didn’t miss a single assignment. I didn’t miss a single exam,” she says proudly. OK, maybe she did miss a deadline or two. But, she adds, “I worked my f*cking tiny little ass off to get that done.”

Chanel sweater

All that ambition came to a head when she turned 18 and decided to reassess. She made “all these bloody Venn diagrams” listing the pros and cons of committing to acting full-time and honed in on the career she really wanted.

“I think if I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t be doing things like Yellowjackets and Fallout,” Purnell explains. For someone who had her entire childhood planned out for her, Purnell is almost startlingly thoughtful and assured about it all — perhaps because she had to grow up so fast. “I really have worked very hard in the last 10 years to create the life that I want, rather than living the life that was set out for me. And they’re two very different things.”

Christian Louboutin shoes

I ask if it’s possible to still have big dreams when you’ve achieved so much so young. Purnell, instead, aims smaller. “I always knew I wanted to travel,” she says. “I always knew I wanted a dog. I always knew I wanted to be one of these people that is spontaneous and wears cool clothes and cooks and throws dinner parties. I hope that my career continues long into, fingers crossed, my 70s. God forbid, my bloody 80s! It feels just like a part of who I am. I can't imagine my life without a purpose.”

Perhaps that’s why she can’t imagine taking that elusive vacation anytime soon. “I always need something driving me,” she says. “My job is my main quest, and then everything else is just a side quest.”

Top image credits: Prada dress

Photographs by Ana Garcia

Art Direction by Alex Powis

Styling by Sam Ranger

Hair: Angel McQueen

Makeup: Elaine Lynskey

Manicure: Jenni Draper

Onset Producer: Zoe Tomlinson

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Lauren McCarthy

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert