Amybeth McNulty: the Donegal teenager who stars in ‘Anne with an E’
The 16-year-old actor on racism, sexuality and bullying, on screen and off
Amybeth McNulty: the 16-year-old Donegal actor has just finished filming season two of the Netflix series Anne with an E
“It’s wild. I’m insanely young to be doing all this stuff. I’m very humbled that I’m going through all this. I didn’t expect it at such a young age.”
That sounds so self-aware; performing a big role in an international series must make you grow up quickly. “To a certain extent, yes, and I’ve definitely had my independence here and there. But I’m still a kid,” she says, sounding anything but. “I mess around all the time. I am the child on set, which I think is great. I don’t want to lose that just yet.”
This is Amybeth McNulty, the now 16-year-old Donegal actor who has just finished work on season two of Anne with an E. She got her big international break two years ago when she was cast from more than 1,800 girls auditioning internationally to win the title role of the critically acclaimed Netflix series – whose new season starts streaming on Friday – based on Anne of Green Gables, the 1908 novel by the Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. McNulty auditioned first online from home in Donegal, and later in Toronto.
Anne with an E is the creation of the Breaking Bad screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett. Her plots are a grittier and darker reimagining of the original novel
Landing that role threw her into a world far removed from her life in Ireland, but she seems to have managed just fine in the intervening couple of years. Despite being a child on set, she seems wise almost beyond her years, smoothly handling the interview circuit, answers crisply at the ready, with more mid-Atlantic twang than Donegal lilt in her voice.
Anne with an E, the most recent adaptation of the enduringly popular novel, is the creation of the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad screenwriter and producer Moira Walley-Beckett. Her plots for the first series were a grittier and darker reimagining of Montgomery’s original, but the core remained: an ageing, emotionally repressed brother and sister – the ultrashy Matthew Cuthbert (RH Thomson) and austere Marilla Cuthbert (Geraldine James) – decide to adopt an orphan boy because they need labour on their farm, Green Gables, on Prince Edward Island, in eastern Canada. They unexpectedly get a girl, the hilariously earnest Anne – red-haired and pigtailed, smart, talkative and imaginative.
Anne’s vivid imagination is both charming and her survival technique, and the first season of this adaptation was a sadder, more realistic story, as we might expect from one of the creators of Breaking Bad.
Walley-Beckett brought a 21st-century sensibility to a story set in the 1890s, illuminating the “accidental feminist” within Anne, and reflecting on the effects of the cruelty and neglect and of her early childhood.
Working with Walley-Beckett was inspirational, Amybeth says. “She’s such a wonderful, strong woman and incredibly talented in her writing. So I felt very honoured that I was able to add a voice to her material.” Walley-Beckett conceived the second season with an all-women writers’ room.
Netflix says the second season will further explore “themes of identity, prejudice, feminism, bullying, gender parity and empowerment through the lens of its fierce, starry-eyed, irrepressible 14-year-old protagonist”.
Amybeth herself says, “We’re definitely bringing forward more topics that I’m really excited to talk about. For example, racism, sexuality, bullying in general are topics that I am very passionate about. I’m glad I get to have this platform to discuss them, and that comes with the new characters that are being involved into our story, which will be great.”
Amybeth was born and bred in Donegal to an Irish father and Canadian mother, from Calgary. Home is in the countryside near Letterkenny. Stage started early, with ballet and amateur performances at An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny and, later, musicals by the writer and composer Paul Boyd. She played Marta von Trapp in The Sound of Music at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, in London. Her first screen performance was in the four-part RTÉ series Clean Break, and she has also been in Agatha Raisin for Sky and The Sparticle Mystery for CBBC.
An only child, she has been “home-schooled all my life. I’ve never been to school.” Hers is a very different experience from that of most children, but “it’s wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything. I have great social interactions and all that sort of stuff.” Most of her education now is online, which must involve incredible discipline. “It’s kind of self-discipline. When I’m 18 I don’t get any more school time on set, so you only have a limited time to do it. You learn every day, and so I don’t think of it as a chore. I think of it as a great learning experience. I love learning about everything. It’s great.”
I’d like to talk about life in Donegal, being plucked from a rural home-schooled background and adapting to the world of international screen production, but the Netflix PR woman is having none of it and jumps in. The machine will not allow for deviation from discussing the series.
Amybeth gives a translucent performance as the forthright child who deals with ‘never belonging to anybody’ with character and imagination
Amybeth is self-possessed and on message. “We definitely leave off the book in the second episode of the first season, and we definitely have our own storyline hidden in the air at the end of the first season, so that’s what we deal with in the second season. Obviously we’re basing it kind of on the books, but it’s reimagined by Moira, so we have new characters and topics and storylines coming in that weren’t in the books.”
The second season was shot, like the first, in studio in Toronto and on location outside the city and on Price Edward Island. Anne “is 14 now, so she’s definitely growing up and she’s maturing. She’s not quite letting her imagination go yet, but it’s interesting to see the struggles she goes through as a normal teenager now, instead of an orphan looking for a home. She’s now experiencing normal life. It’s very topical and very relatable for me, and I’m sure it will be for many teenagers to watch.”
The contemporary topics it deals with were issues in the 1900s, and “we are bringing them in in modern fashion, to make them more relatable”. At the time “I think they weren’t as talked about and they weren’t as open. Anne is a very intriguing character to bring forward these issues specifically, because she’s a young girl whose voice wouldn’t have been listened to, because she’s an orphan and she’s gone through all these troubles, and no one is going to listen to her opinion. And having the viewers watch her be so passionate about these topics” works well. “I personally love playing these scenes, and I love starting these topics with families who might be watching the show together. I think that’s an awesome opportunity.”
And Anne could grow up even more. “We could keep the story going for a very long time, and that’s what we’re hoping for. We’re not sure about future seasons at this time, but I would hope so. I would really like to explore her more as she gets to 17 and 18.”
The series is beautifully made, with excellent performances, and Amybeth is outstanding, giving a translucent performance as the forthright child who deals with “never belonging to anybody” with character and imagination.
Her future is surely in acting, but she is keeping her options open and being mature about it. “I think it’s dependent on where life takes me. For sure, I absolutely adore acting. It has been my passion from a very young age. But at the same time I am very intrigued by the camera, and also very intrigued by props. So I might perhaps go into that kind of genre, while also staying and doing acting every so often. So I think if I’m lucky enough to get more jobs, for sure I will go on with it. But I’m looking forward to a camera school where I can learn everything I need to know and get into the business that way.”
That might be in Ireland, which “has always been my base. Really, it depends where I am when I’m 18. Who knows where I’ll go and where I’ll be working? Ireland would be a really great place to learn, for sure. There are some really great colleges that I’d be happy to go to.”
For now she’s straddling two worlds but is glad to get home to Donegal. “I love coming home, sleeping in my own bed, seeing my own family and friends again. It feels like a big comfort for me.”
The second season of Anne with an E is available on available on Netflix from Friday, July 6th