Throughout the summer, we’re interviewing up-and-coming actresses you’ll see on TV and in feature films in the coming months. Find all of the Q&As here.
By any measure, Eleanor Worthington-Cox qualifies as a young actress. At 18, she’s the eponymous heroine in “Gwen,” a dark thriller that hits U.S. theaters Friday. But the truth is that Worthington-Cox has been a young actress for nearly a decade.
At 9, she took to the professional stage in London to play Matilda in “Matilda the Musical,” a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book. She won an Olivier Award for her performance, making her the youngest-ever actress to receive the excellence-in-theater accolade.
“Gwen” is Worthington-Cox’s first lead role in a feature film (U.S. audiences might recognize her from “Maleficent”; she played a young Aurora). The movie, set in the hills of Wales in the 1800s, follows a young girl trying to hold her home together as her mother (Maxine Peak) suffers from a mysterious illness. It’s Gwen’s strength, Worthington-Cox says, that she hopes audiences will learn from and relate to.
Below, Worthington-Cox discusses her earliest performances in nursery school, the responsibility she feels toward other young women, and more.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: Hi, Eleanor. I was actually just reading about how you first attended performing arts school when you were just 2 years old.
Eleanor Worthington-Cox: Yeah, I went to an after-school club. I went to a normal school, but after school, every week, I’d be doing drama and dance and singing and it was always something I knew I wanted to do. Acting really spoke to me. I’m really glad that that was nurtured and that it’s taken off the way it has. I’m really grateful.
TL: It’s incredible you’ve been doing it so long. What was the first moment you can remember when it really clicked for you?
EWC: The first time I knew I wanted to perform was my first day of nursery, when I climbed atop the bookcase and sang “Big Spender” to the entire class. Everybody kind of figured out that I was meant to be a performer. But I remember watching films as a kid and really, really wanting to be a part of something like that, but not knowing how to get into it.
Then I saw “Matilda the Musical” in Stratford when it was in preview, and I had never seen anything like it. I was completely blown away. And from that moment on, I knew I had to do something like it, if not that exact show. Which I actually ended up doing, and I was so unbelievably lucky to do. But I guess that was my real break into figuring out what I loved the most.
TL: It’s so serendipitous that you ended up starring in it and to such great acclaim.
EWC: Oh, thank you, no, it was such a great experience. I was such a young child as well. I was 9 when I got the part, so yeah, I was just very grateful.
TL: It must’ve been so overwhelming to be in that position at such a young age.
EWC: Gosh. I knew it was a huge responsibility, but equally, I’ve been trusted with huge responsibilities since then. And I think if I hadn’t cut my teeth in such a demanding role in theater, which is often thought to be the most draining form of performance — it’s night after night, you’re giving the same performance, and it is really grueling. I adored it so much that I’ve been trusted with responsible roles since then.
TL: Definitely. The emotional weight of the movie really seems to rest with you. I wanted to know what your favorite aspect of your character is.
EWC: I don’t know what there isn’t to like, at least for me, in Gwen. I kind of fell in love with her the moment that I read the script. She is such an incredible character. The moment I read the script, I thought it was so important not only for young women to see someone like this represented on-screen, but equally for any person, really.
She’s got weight heaped on her shoulders: She’s got a patriarchal community and an entire family to look after, and I think her strength, more than anything, was the thing I loved most about her.
TL: Totally. And hopefully, increasingly, we see young women in roles like that, where they do anchor the strength of the film. But I also think that in this moment, it’s rare.
EWC: Completely. It was so refreshing: The moment I saw the script, it was just — it’s so relevant now to be telling this story.
Feeling weighed down by a patriarchal community, being scared and unsure about your future, having responsibility placed on your shoulders at a young age. Those are topics that people all around the world can relate to.
Even when the slight bits of horror creep into the film as well, it’s not 360-degree rotating heads or something dramatic and scary like that. It’s your family being ill or knowing you have an entire failing farm to bring back to life.
I think all these topics are relevant for today and it’s important that audiences can relate to stories like this, especially ones driven by young women. The mother-daughter relationship in the film, too — I think that’s incredibly important as well.
TL: Being an actress and in the public eye, do you feel a sort of responsibility as a young woman to be a role model?
EWC: I think that what must be done for anyone who’s been given a voice or platform is to use it, to help people or to support others or to make somebody’s life better. Even if that’s just through talking to someone who sends you a message on social media, or actually taking the roles that you think will be a positive influence, then I feel like you’re making a difference. I think anyone who’s lucky enough to be in my position should do the same.
TL: What are you thinking in terms of going to Hollywood or staying in Great Britain?
EWC: I adore traveling. It’s the one thing that fascinates me. You meet so many different people and you make so many different friends. Whether it’s in Wales or South Africa or Prague, I’ve been so lucky to be part of these communities for short periods of time.
I’m always willing to travel, but really, at heart, I’m a bit of a home nerd. So I think in between jobs, it’s important for me to be at home and stay grounded and be with the people I love the most. Equally though, one day if I had to go for a job … I absolutely love the States. I’ve been there a few times, and honestly, it’s one of my favorite places.
TL: In terms of film and television versus theater, what are you most drawn to?
EWC: It’s so difficult to choose, and I feel like the three genres are so different. You’ve got a live performance every night where you have people sitting in front of you and you can see their faces. And then with film and TV, they’re indelible, they’re forever, whereas your theatrical performance only lives on in people’s memories.
You can’t compare the two, but the only thing I can actually say is the exact same:
It’s just telling a story. And storytelling is the only thing I’m passionate about doing, so whatever form it’s in, it’s almost irrelevant. Telling the story you’re passionate about is the main thing.
TL: What has been your favorite movie or television show or performance — your favorite story — you’ve seen in the past year?
EWC: I’ve seen so many amazing things recently, but the latest has to be “Killing Eve,” which everyone just fell in love with in the UK. To see a character like Villanelle — with all the complexity and different layers to her character, so flawlessly acted. She’s hard to like, but at the same time, you fall in love with this woman and the whole world around her. Absolutely fantastic series.
TL: Anything else you want other young women to know?
EWC: If there’s anything I can do through my job ... I’ve not been a big social media influencer, but I feel like if there was a young woman who felt like she could connect to me, or send me a message even or just talk to me about film or her love of it, it would enrich not just me but also hopefully give her a better experience. I’m always open for people to tell me if I could be doing something to help them out or make them feel better.