Bells are chiming outside of Emily Beecham’s flat, boldly interrupting the interview underway. I think it’s charming, but Beecham knows better—she’s the one who has to be there, in person, when they start ringing at 6 a.m. “It’s so annoying,” she says. “I don’t know how the locals enjoy it.”
In this moment, she sounds a bit like Linda Radlett—the thrillingly impetuous young heiress of Nancy Mitford’s bitingly satirical and surprisingly generous 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love. Yet while Beecham stars in Emily Mortimer’s three-part series adaptation of the novel, out on Amazon Prime Video on July 30, Lily James plays Linda. Beecham instead takes the role of Linda’s much less animated though still quietly opinionated cousin Fanny, whose mother, referred to only as the Bolter (played by Mortimer), is always off chasing romance. Though the character may seem less flashy, the critically acclaimed English actor—who won best actress at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival for her performance as a morally ambivalent scientist in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe—brings many shades of an unsure young woman’s life into Mortimer’s eccentrically modern script.
The novel focuses firmly on glamorous and sensitive Linda, while Fanny mainly serves as a wallflower of a narrator. Mortimer’s series, however, posits Fanny as a more active and essential observer. “One of the things [Mortimer and I] always discussed was that Fanny had so much going on with her, and so many desires,” says Beecham. “She wants everything Linda has, but also, there is so much that she wants to express and do that is considered masculine, that isn’t on offer to her because of her sex.”
That repression—and resentment of her absent and impractical mother—is central to Fanny’s development and the series’ emotional thrust. Fanny, like many women in that era and even today, can constantly feel herself pressing up against the limits of her position. And unlike Linda and the Bolter, she is geared toward respectability. Stepping out of her place would mean risking exposure and ridicule, feelings she is already well acquainted with after growing up partly under the scrutiny of her Uncle Matthew (Dominic West), Linda’s unpredictable, imperious, and xenophobic father. Fanny only overcomes this sense of fear by continually falling out and reconnecting with brilliant (though formally uneducated) Linda.
In the series, Beecham, 37, and James, 32, play Fanny and Linda from early childhood through motherhood. There are no apparent prosthetics or aging techniques beyond varied styles in their hair, makeup, costume, and performance. To get into character as young Fanny, Beecham said, “one thing we all talked about is this sort of exciting unknowingness, that you don’t know what’s going to happen to your life—you don’t know who you’re going to fall in love with and what on earth is it going to be like. For Fanny it certainly is terrifying, but also exciting.”
In embodying Fanny, Beecham also drew upon a disconnected physicality. “I felt Fanny could be a little bit awkward, because all that really is expected of women, according to Uncle Matthew, is to ride a horse, speak French, and play piano. To basically be pretty and to marry well. And Fanny, being brought up with such a different influence from Aunt Emily”—who’s dependable and practical, and played in the series by Annabel Mullion—“is not focused on those feminine values.
“I also think that is something that teenage girls go through,” she continues. “There’s so much focus on romance, and how you look, and to be attractive in a superficial, pretty way. And I think it’s really wonderful when people get to break out, and approach what they want to because it stops being about that.”
Beecham brought a similar sort of personal freedom to her leading role in the 2017 indie Daphne, in which she played a nihilistic junior chef who is the sole witness to a violent crime. In Daphne, Beecham is wiry and jittery, never comfortable, always looking and never finding anything she’s remotely satisfied with. Daphne reads and quotes Slavoj Žižek, enjoys sex yet refuses connection, and doesn’t call her dying mother back. She’s wildly different from Fanny, whose deep concern about everything prevents her from truly living—yet in both roles, Beecham’s dedication to showing how an emotionally inhibited person might physically move through the world comes piercingly through.
The actor’s biggest film role to date—even more so than an unforgettable bit part as a classic Hollywood actor in the Coen brothers’ *Hail, Caesar!—*is as the title character’s sweet, forsaken mother in Disney’s Cruella. Did Beecham’s fine-tuned skills come in handy when acting out one of the most tweeted-about scenes from the movie, in which CGI dogs suddenly run her off a castle cliff?
Beecham admits, “It was quite a comedic fall.”
“The whole film I thought was quite funny, but obviously it’s Disney. We can’t have a real, terrifying fall. And even my scream, they were like, ‘That was too scary. This is Disney.’ And I’ve got this almost dolly-like dress with this beehive hairdo, and then I’m connected to these wires. I was pulled right up so the dog goes, ‘Hiya,’ and thrusts me upwards in the air.”
“The whole caboodle, everything really, and the dalmatians—I loved it,” Beecham says. “I was telling all my friends, ‘I get murdered by a dalmatian. I get pushed off a cliff by a dalmatian.’”
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