Giant role for young talent

Ruby Barnhill was hand-picked by Steven Spielberg for her breakthrough part and yet the young actor from Cheshire still gets stage fright during her GCSE drama class

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Ruby Barnhill has had to get used to answering questions. Ever since the 14-year-old actor from Knutsford made her film debut as Sophie in Steven Spielberg’s 2016 adaptation of The BFG she’s had to answer dozens of them, often from journalists on the red carpet, but the most intrusive ones have come from her peers at school.

“One of the questions I get asked constantly is: ‘How much money have you made? Are you a millionaire?’ And I’m literally just like, erm, no. I don’t know why people are always asking me that question,” she tells me at a screening of her latest film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Spielberg said she came into the part with questions and ideas to help develop the character

Barnhill’s break into the film industry came after years of watching her father Paul Barnhill take on roles on the stage and screen, including Coronation Street and touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Northern Broadsides. One of Barnhill’s earliest memories is watching her dad play Mr Toad in a stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, but she was so young that she couldn’t distinguish between her father and the part he was playing, so when Mr Toad was chased around the stage by other cast members, his concerned daughter burst into tears in the audience.

“I have quite a few memories like that from when I was younger and I didn’t properly understand what acting was,” she says.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for Barnhill to get the hang of it. After attending a local youth drama club she was selected for the role of Sophie after Spielberg set out on an eight-month search for a young girl to star with Mark Rylance’s giant in Roald Dahl’s classic tale of acceptance and self-discovery.

Barnhill, whose only previous acting credit was a part in CBBC show The 4 O’Clock Club, was just 10 when, after several rounds of auditions, she was flown to Berlin to meet Spielberg, where he was working on the Bridge of Spies set. The veteran director later announced he had “hit the jackpot” when he saw Barnhill, saying one of the reasons he felt Barnhill was right for the role was because she came into the part with questions and ideas, and was able to help further develop the character.

What followed was a four-month relocation to Vancouver for Barnhill and her family, where the youngster stepped into the role of Sophie under Spielberg’s direction. The release of the film coincided with Barnhill’s first year at secondary school, and news quickly spread through the corridors.

“I remember in year seven it did get a little bit tricky because the entire school knew I was in the film. I used to get a lot of questions but I don’t so much anymore because everyone knows me. Everyone accepted me and nobody ever said anything mean or anything like that – it was just the typical questions but it was quite bizarre.”

Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a Japanese anime cartoon dubbed in English, is the story of a girl, Mary (Barnhill), who finds a mysterious flower that gives her the power to become a witch for just one night.

Growing up she was an avid watcher of Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli’s anime feature films, and this release, the first film by Studio Ghibli’s lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura’s own company, Studio Ponoc, has been a chance for Barnhill to see what happens behind the scenes and to follow in the footsteps of former child actors Elle and Dakota Fanning, who voiced the young girls at the centre of My Neighbor Totoro in 2005.

“I loved the Studio Ghibli films, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is in a similar style to them. It had been a dream to be a part of one of those anime films for my entire life, so to achieve that was so amazing. Everyone worked so, so hard on this film and I am honoured because it is the first Studio Ponoc film. To be playing the main role is just a dream come true.”

The past couple of years have been packed with surreal moments for Barnhill. One of the most memorable, she says, was celebrating her 12th birthday at Cannes Film Festival, where she was presented with a birthday cake by Spielberg. Another was when Spielberg offered her father a small part as a butler in The BFG some weeks into filming, and the two Barnhills were given the opportunity to share some lines on the big screen.

Barnhill has been touted as “the next Drew Barrymore”, who was famously cast by Spielberg in ET at the age of seven. She has also recently been announced as education charity Into Film’s youngest talent ambassador, following in the footsteps of Eddie Redmayne, Naomie Harris, Kenneth Branagh and Rhys Ifans. It’s a lot of hype to place onto young shoulders, but sitting opposite me at Knutsford’s Curzon cinema Barnhill is mature, her answers well-thought out.

Her third film, Princess Emmy, another animated feature about a young girl who can speak to horses, is out this summer. After that, Barnhill wants to focus on her schoolwork. Of course she has taken drama as a GCSE subject but, despite her Hollywood credentials, admits she is not immune from feeling stage fright.

“I have so many great friends in my drama class and I really like acting with them and learning with them. It’s quite funny that I get so nervous performing in front of the other students. We will be sat down ready and I will be saying, oh my gosh, I am so scared, and one of my friends will say: ‘Ruby, you acted in a film. Why are you scared to do this?’

“I do tend to get quite nervous. Obviously on my first day at the BFG I was terrified but after a while I got so much more comfortable, but I always tend to get nervous at school.”

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is out now. Princess Emmy is released in August. The Into Film Festival, a free UK-wide celebration of film and education for 5-19 year olds, is on 6-22 Nov (intofilm.org/festival)

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