Eliza Bennett was born in 1992, in Reading, Berkshire, England. She started acting at a young age when she appeared in stage productions at school, before appearing professionally as part of the original cast of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Her first big role in Film was as Princess Arabella in “The Prince & Me”. later appearing as Haley Richardson in the TV miniseries “Supernova”. Her big break came in 2005 in “Nanny McPhee”. In 2007, Bennett beat over hundreds of girls for the coveted part of Meggie Folchart in “Inkheart”, based on the novel by Cornelia Funke.
At this year’s Oldenburg International Film Festival, Tara Karajica quizzes her about her latest film “H8RZ”, creepy high schools, fame, TV, music and Julianne Moore.
Can you talk about your background and how you started acting?
Eliza Bennett: Well, I actually started when I was very young. I did child acting for a long time. I actually started in the West End, in London. I did a musical called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That was my first ever job. I went to an open audition when I was nine and I got it. I did that job for about a year and a half and then, after that, I started going into film a lot more. When I was younger, I did movies like Nanny McPhee and Inkheart and then I just finished school and did my exams. I had this incredible acting experience; I worked with some lovely, lovely people and I had one of those pleasant child acting experiences rather than those horror child acting experiences that you hear about sometimes.
How does a child actor keep from getting lost in all the fame? How did you do it?
E.B.: For me, I was so lucky because my parents are awesome. No one in my family is in the industry; no one’s an actor so I have this amazing kind of world I go back to where everyone’s really normal and really grounded. I feel so lucky because I have no control over that aspect but, honestly, it’s the thing that keeps me grounded and gives me normality. I went back and I finished school and I took some years off acting when I was sort of 17-18 and that was one of the best things I think I ever did because I value it so much more now and I like to think I don’t take it for granted. So, honestly, I have to say, n°1 are my family and the people I surround myself with.
So far, your career seems to be divided into two categories: horror/thriller films and family films. Can you comment on that? Aren’t you afraid of being boxed into these genres?
E.B.: I think it’s funny because, when you’re younger, a lot of the films that you go for tend to be family-based films because you’re a child and they’ve got children in them. Nanny McPhee and Inkheart were very family-based films, which was an amazing experience. And then, as I’ve got older, they’ve become more diverse now, which I love! Over the last couple of years, I did a show called Strike Back, which is an action show. That was great! I got to do an action show and that was something I’d never done before and then I just did a period drama in Austria… I love the heavy psychological thriller type of things, but it’s been really lovely also to sort of have 1950s make-up and wear really great costumes. I feel like maybe when you’re younger you get boxed into sort of doing the children family roles but that’s really changing as I’m getting older and I’m really enjoying it.
Can you talk about H8RZ, your new film, and its references to Usual Suspects and The Breakfast Club?
E.B.: The only thing is that it’s dangerous if we talk about that because I don’t want to reveal anything… I think it’s similar to The Breakfast Club in the fact that it centers around five kids that are in very different backgrounds and that are sort of forced to be together over a period of time. And, the dynamics between that and how that creates a catalyst for dangerous situations, prejudice and bullying, I think, is interesting. And then, the narrative that’s told throughout the film has a similar feel, I think, to Usual Suspects but Usual Suspects also has that center of five characters…
What is it about high schools that is so creepy and yet so appealing in horror films?
E.B.: It sounds awful but it can be something quite soulless about high schools. I did a horror film years ago called F and it was all based in a high school! Especially, when a high school’s empty and doesn’t have many kids in it, there’s something rather creepy and soulless about it. I don’t know what it is! I think it’s the open spaces and all the colors that are very dull and neutral. That’s why I think it’s such a popular choice. And, the age is also such an interesting age because you go through such an identity crisis at that age and you also try to find where you want to root yourself. Being a teenager is an incredibly huge psychological process in itself. So, when you put a scenario that messes up that process, I think it creates a really interesting catalyst.
They say it’s the “Golden Age” of TV now. How different is it in the UK and the U.S.?
E.B.: That’s a good question, actually, because I find it really different. It’s difficult to sort of straddle both worlds because I do really love both of them. TV’s changing massively now because the writing in TV is so good that the level of TV shows is incredible. I think it’s a great thing because it’s a large amount of consistent work for people and that’s why people are really attracted to it. The difference between England and the U.S. is that they just work differently. The casting process is different. There are thousands more people in L.A. so the process feels a lot more ruthless. But, yeah, we’re very well-known for period dramas and BBC and I love all that stuff. It’s where some amazing actors have come from like Colin Firth… So, I’m very, very proud of this stuff that we produce in England and I think it’s getting a higher and higher standard every year. It’s being picked up by America now and shown on their channels, which is fantastic! And, Netflix has changed all of that as well. We have so much more access and it’s really exciting for England. I think that a lot of stuff’s being acknowledged more and there are projects now that are the combination of the two and Strike Back is an example of that because that’s between Cinemax HBO and Sky so the more stuff like that, the better! It blurs the lines…
Do you watch any TV series? Do you binge watch?
E.B.: I do! I binge watch! I can’t do that “watch every week” thing. I have to get the whole thing and then sit three days in my pajamas and watch the entire show! But, my favorite shows, I’d say, are The Sopranos and The Wire. They’re the sort of thing that I could probably watch again every few years.
In which TV series would you like to star?
E.B.: I would have loved to have been in The Wire! Oh my goodness! Yes! I love that show! Most recently, I just saw True Detective, which obviously, everyone loved and I thought that was incredible! I loved, loved, loved that! Honestly, when the writing’s that good, it’s an absolute honor to work for writers that are that good.
I think there’s far more awareness of equality of pay now and I think that’s great that that’s happening now. I think we’ll all look back on that in years to come and wonder why it was ever an issue.
So, you’re also in The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music, a sort of spin-off of The Sound of Music. Can you elaborate on that?
E.B.: Well, it’s our version of that. It’s from the perspective of the eldest daughter. We bought the rights to Agathe von Trapp’s book. It’s not a musical but there is music in it because, obviously, the von Trapps, their whole life evolved around music. For me, singing is something I grew up with and I love it, so to be able to do that intertwined with acting is a dream come true because I get to do sort of two things that I love. But, the von Trapp film: I have to sing in German and opera – Schubert – so that was really stressful! I was really stressed because that wasn’t my comfort zone at all but I had these amazing lessons with this person in Salzburg and I had an incredible time. It was a great experience!
Talking about singing, you sang on the soundtrack of Inkheart too, right?
E.B.: Yeah! I did! That was a real surprise that I was able to do that because that was never planned. When we were filming Inkheart, we used to have these nights with the director, Paul Bettany and Brendan Fraser. We used to hang out in Iain Softley’s house and we would play the piano and the guitar and then, we would all sing together. So, when we finished the film, the director asked me whether I would sing on the soundtrack at the end of the film. And, we recorded it in Abbey Road, which was a massive dream come true for me! Honestly, that was a real surprise I got to be able to do that but something that I’ll never forget! It’s off the bucket list as well, Abbey Road…
You’ve worked on Film, TV, and stage… What do you prefer?
E.B.: I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to do a mixture. Film is what I grew up doing and so I think that my heart is always in there but TV is so fantastic now and I really enjoyed doing more TV over the last couple of years. I’d love to do a combination between all three, I think. I’d love to do a play; that’s one thing that I’ve never done. But, musicals… Honestly, singing eight shows a week is a heavy ask, so I don’t think I can do that permanently. I have huge respect for people that do musicals all the time. I think it’s an incredible skill. I’d love to go back and do that every now and again but you can sing in acting roles now in film and TV but Film and TV are where my heart lies for the most part.
Who is your inspiration? What role would you like to play? Who would you like to be?
E.B.: Oh my goodness! There are a lot of actors I think are incredible and that I love: Hillary Swank has always been someone that I love. I think Julianne Moore just has the most incredible career, longevity and incredible performances in everything she does. Those are two people I’ve always loved. When I was younger, I loved Natalie Portman because I watched her in Leon. As a child actor I was like “Oh my goodness! She’s done such an incredible thing at 12 years old!” I really admire all those people but I really admire people that find longevity in their career because sometimes, you know, it’s very easy as, an actor, to have a burst and then burn out and I think that people manage to be consistently incredible are amazing role models for other actors. I think that people like Julianne Moore and Hillary Swank have this incredible longevity in their career. Oh! And Meryl Streep, obviously! But, everyone picks her! And, they give you someone to look up to and you look at their parts: they’re so diverse and so transformational. If I could be halfway as good as any of them, I’d be happy.
As far as roles go, I don’t know! The things I’d like to do are things that I’ve never done before. I’d like to do a very physical part. I’d really love to do a part where I have to train because sometimes when you have blonde hair and blue eyes, you get the damsel in distress roles often… I’d love to train and learn a new skill. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.
Recently, the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has been entered in the Oxford Dictionary. What do you think of that term?
E.B.: It has? I’ve never heard of that before!
Seriously!? The thing is that the film critic Nathan Rabin coined it while reviewing Elizabethtown and described the MPDG as that “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writers-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”…
E.B.: Never! I think that it’s kind of sad that they have a name for that now. That’s sad because it takes away from writing, from the writers boxing everyone into the same part. I think that’s probably a lot more complex than that, but with the amount of films there are in the world I think you could probably create a word for every single part! There’s always the male love interest, when it’s a female-led film, that brings them out of a depression. And, you could probably find a name for that, sadly, because we’re in an age where women tend to be the subject of sexism in the industry. I think that’s why that word’s probably come about. I think things are changing very quickly and I think that’s great! I think there’s far more awareness of equality of pay now and I think that’s great that that’s happening now. I think we’ll all look back on that in years to come and wonder why it was ever an issue. I really hope that.
And for the end, what do you have in the pipeline now?
E.B.: So, I’ve just finished doing some work on a TV show in Grantchester, which is a 1950s drama. I did some work on that this week. And then, I have the von Trapp Family film coming out towards the end of the year as well.
This interview was conducted at the 2015 Oldenburg International Film Festival.