Bel Powley tells STACK how she had to step out of her comfort zone for her latest role, playing the big sister of a high school drug dealer.
With her enormous blue eyes and youthful charm, Brit firebrand Bel Powley, 27, still easily passes for the teenager she played in The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015, portraying another teen in Mary Shelley two years ago and, today, as big sister to a high school drug dealer in crime biopic White Boy Rick.
But, even so, she hesitated at taking on the role of Dawn, sister to the titular Rick in this gritty true-life drama. Set in 1980s Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and America’s war on drugs, Matthew McConaughey plays father to this dysfunctional pair.
“I’m used to playing roles that I can relate to but with Dawn, if I’m being honest, I didn’t relate to her on the page. I’m not saying that’s a reason to not do something, I was just kind of scared of it,” Powley tells STACK when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“And also playing a drug addict, I think is a really hard thing to get right.
“Basically, I just got the fear. But often, if you have the fear, it’s all the more reason to go for something,” recalls Powley who, nonetheless, agreed to meet with White Boy Rick director Yann Demange.
“He gave me his insight into the character and told me how he thought Dawn was really the only person in the film who has clarity. Even though she’s clouded by drug addiction, she sees her dad and Rick for what they are, and she sees what’s unfolding in front of her, and that’s why she kind of runs away from it.”
Set in a city rife with corruption on every level, White Boy Rick tells the incredible true story of how Richard Wershe Jr., in a mind-boggling series of events, becomes an undercover informant and later a drug dealer, manipulated by the very system meant to protect him only to be abandoned by his police handlers and sentenced to life in prison.
Portrayed by newcomer Richie Merritt, Wersche would become the youngest FBI informant in history, commencing his double life at the tender age of 14 prior to his arrest in 1987, aged 18. Now 49, having spent the majority of his adult life in prison, he could soon be released following a current clemency hearing in Florida.
“Dawn had unconditional love for her brother and was a kind of a mother figure to him,” says Powley, who is grateful Demange persuaded her to address her fears in taking on the role. “Sometimes, you shy away from the things you haven’t done before because you’re scared of failure. But then if you take those risks, it can become an amazing experience, and thank God I did it”.
While White Boy Rick’s filmmakers were unable to track down the real Dawn prior to shooting, Powley was able to speak to the real Rick.
“I spoke to Rick a lot on the phone, and he gave me a really lovely insight into what Dawn was like when they were kids, even when their mom was still around. He gave me a play-by-play of Dawn’s life and some quite horrific stories about her, once she became addicted to drugs. So I had a few images in my head that I could work from.”
Given that Dawn and Rick were the children of a gun-dealer, Demange insisted she learn how to use a gun, sending her off for lessons at a firing range.
“They would’ve grown up around guns lying around the house, so they would be very well-versed in how to use a gun. So I had to look like I knew how to use it. But it was terrifying for me, as a Brit, like I’ve never seen a real gun. It’s scary. And I’m small, so it kicks back a lot.”
She’s also grateful that McConaughey had her back. “Matthew is a really generous actor. He isn’t scared of improvisation or going off book; he does what he feels in the moment. He’s a very brave actor and challenged me into realms that I hadn’t worked in before.”