Eleanor Worthington Cox: We’ve never had any primadonnas in our household
The 18-year-old on precocious success and staring in the year’s muddiest movie
Eleanor Worthington Cox: We would walk into Tesco apologising because I’d still be covered in fake mud.
At 18 – only just – Eleanor Worthington-Cox is a well-seasoned veteran of stage and screen. In 2012, aged 10, she became the youngest ever recipient of a Laurence Olivier Award for her depiction of Matilda on London’s West End. In 2015, she was shortlisted for a Bafta for her role as the afflicted adolescent at the centre of The Enfield Haunting. She featured as one of Screen International’s “Stars of Tomorrow” in October of that year. To date, she has worked alongside Timothy Spall, Barry Ward, Johnny Knoxville and Angelina Jolie.
“I was 11 when I was working with Angelina Jolie on Maleficent,” says the cheery teen from Merseyside. “Obviously it was a huge opportunity. It was my first film. I had no experience on a set. And to be told that you’re working with Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning and all these people on this huge project and that you are going to be a Disney princess should be so overwhelming. But I didn’t really realise the significance of it until later on. It’s in my nature to just take things in my stride and understand that I’m very, very lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”
Worthington-Cox began attending classes at the Formby School of Performing Arts as a pre-schooler, yet has no formal training. She assumed, early in life, that she’d follow her mum into law. Her career was a logistically tricky surprise. She had to commute to London for work on Russell T Davies’s TV drama, Cucumber and CBBC’s adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather. On the West End, she has played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Blousey Brown in a 2015 production of Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith.
'I have two older brothers who have always been able to take over as chaperone and make sure I’m safe and happy'
“It has been a team effort,” says Worthington Cox of her impressive CV. “Obviously, under the age of 16, you need a family member with you all the time. And luckily, I have two older brothers who have always been able to take over as chaperone and make sure I’m safe and happy when my mum has been in work. I have always felt really looked after.”
Worthington-Cox’s turn in the dark folk tale, Gwen, which requires her to keep pace with Maxine Peake’s discomfiting turn as the girl’s ailing mother, has attracted rave notices: “Worthington-Cox is terrific; the mounting uncertainty in her eyes seeds the suspicion of wrongdoing throughout the film”, writes Wendy Ide in Screen International; “(Her) whose impressive range of anguished emotions should guarantee her a bright future in dark drama”, writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter.
Set in 19th century Snowdonia, Wales, Gwen is the debut feature of writer-director William McGregor – who cut his teeth on Poldark and Misfits – and stars Worthington-Cox as the beleaguered title character, a young girl who is desperately trying to hold her family and home together against increasingly sinister circumstances.
Struggling with her mother’s mysterious illness, her father’s failure to return from the front, hostile locals and a ruthless mining company encroaching on their land, Gwen may be the victim of a patriarchal-capitalist conspiracy or possibly the target of more occultish machinations.
“It’s the conflict between being an adult and a child and I think a lot of people can relate to that; some people do have too much expected of them from an early age,” says Worthington-Cox. “And I think I learned so much watching Maxine Peake. I’ve never seen such stoicism. We were working in such incredible conditions. It was minus 8 windchill some days. It was December in Snowdonia. We had a really tough time even keeping the lighting rigs up. There were blizzards. And to watch how kind and gracious Maxine was to everyone on set was a real lesson.”
Production was halted on three occasions due to 113kmh winds and snow storms. But Maxine Peake wasn’t the only one keeping her chin up. “Eleanor’s already got more experience than I have,” says the film’s director. “She’s a fantastic actress and had such fun between takes. She was inspiring to a lot of the crew as she always turned up with an infectious smile. It was freezing, but she gave it a life and a soul and kept us going.”
The trials weren’t just confined to the shoot. Gwen, a striking, windswept picture, must be the muddiest looking film of 2019.
'Whether you play Disney princess or not is not relevant. You are still going to do your chores.'
“We would finish a 15 or 16 hour day and go back to the village where were staying,” says Worthington-Cox. “We used to go after filming to the local Tesco just to get some dinner. And we would walk into Tesco apologising because I’d still be covered in fake mud, handing over money to the cashier telling them not to worry; this is makeup. The magic of the movies, that is.”
Precocious success does not seem to have spoiled Worthington-Cox: “I’ve had the same best friends since I was four,” she says. “Even though I’m moving around, I’m completely rooted in my little village Formby just north of Liverpool. All my family are here. I’ve been putting on little plays for them since I was five or six. We don’t even talk about my work. We’ve never had any primadonnas in our household. No princesses allowed. Whether you play Disney princess or not is not relevant. You are still going to do your chores. You are still going to have to scrub the toilet.”
Gwen is released July 19th