Bel Powley loves Friends. Funny enough, I discover this more than halfway through our chat, as prodding philosophical questions are abandoned in favor of a raucous conversation about our favorite television shows. She’s currently, finally, watching Succession, or trying to. (She’s only on Episode 3 of the first season, beholden to her flatmates’ busy schedules.) She’s not a binge-watcher, per se, but she has no problem watching things multiple times, like episodes of Love Island. And then there’s Friends, a show she watched in real time and can still quote by heart, or tries to.
“I remember when it was the last episode, and all my friends came over,” Powley, 27, tells MTV News. “We were all crying when she’s like, ‘I got off the plane.'”
The “she” in question is Rachel Green, played by screen queen Jennifer Aniston, who is now starring opposite Reese Witherspoon and Powley on The Morning Show. It’s a surreal, full-circle moment for British-born Powley. Then again, the whole experience was surreal. The timely Apple TV+ drama is her first American television role, but when the names Aniston and Witherspoon are attached to a project — as stars and executive producers — then you don’t hesitate. The series follows morning show anchor Alex Levy (Aniston) as she fights to keep her position at the anchor desk after her co-host is fired for sexual misconduct, and Powley plays Claire, an assistant who believes Witherspoon’s fiery and opinionated Bradley Jackson should be the future of morning news.
MTV News sat down with Powley during a recent New York press trip to talk about the series, how it upacks the “gray areas” in the post-Me Too landscape, her experiences in theater, and how she’s taken control of her career.
MTV News: What was it originally that made you want to be part of the show? Was it the talent involved? Or was it the material?
Bel Powley: When you’re presented with a show that’s being produced by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and they’re in it, you immediately know that this is going to be a great show for women. Also Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner, is just incredibly cool and clever. Basically, when I first got sent it as an audition tape, because they were so secretive about it, all I knew was that it was about the morning news, and I was auditioning to play this character Claire. And then I read for my audition. It was three scenes between Claire and Yanko, the weatherman who she’s having an affair with. I just thought the writing was so smart, like how they were portraying agenda politics between an older man and a younger woman.
Powley (left) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (right) on the set of The Morning Show
When I got the part, Kerry laid out my arc and told me what’s going to happen in the whole show, I was just so surprised and also really appreciative that someone was making a show about Me Too, but not on a surface level. It’s really delving deep into what this means for society now and how women and men and all different echelons of this corporate world are adapting to this huge societal shift. It’s not just about victim and perpetrator, right and wrong, black and white. It’s really about the gray areas in Me Too. My character is having this relationship with this guy who’s her senior, but they love each other. It’s consensual, but it leaves them with a question like, “How are people going to view us?” It’s very difficult for them to navigate. And that’s just one of the many subplots of the story that showcases this post-Me Too landscape.
MTV News: Workplace culture rightfully shifted after that. Your character, Claire, and this relationship that she has, it’s right in that gray area.
Powley: It’s not only about them being worried about how other people are going to view it. It’s like they almost start questioning themselves. So she has the question of, “Well, wait. Am I with him because he’s my senior?” She doesn’t want people to think that she’s trying to get somewhere in her job by having sex with the weatherman. So it’s complicated.
Yanko Flores (Néstor Carbonell) on The Morning Show
MTV News: There’s this moment in Episode 3 where Jennifer Aniston’s character tells her daughter, “Sometimes women have to take control.” When is a time that you felt like you took control? Of your life, or of your career?
Powley: I feel like I’ve always been pretty in control of my stuff. I’m learning more as I get older it’s not necessarily about taking control, but I’m just learning more about myself and what I want and what satisfies me in my career and in the rest of my life. When I first started acting and did my first movie, I don’t think I knew really what I wanted to do. I did do a little bit of just going along with what everyone else wanted me to do. So I can definitely say that now I have more confidence in my own choices, and I think that, in conjunction with what’s been happening societally, it makes it much easier for women now just to be like, “I feel strong enough to say what I want.”
MTV News: When it comes to making your own choices in terms of your career, what are you looking for?
Powley: I don’t think I specifically look for something. It’s more of a feeling. I look out for directors that inspire me or, obviously, really smart writing. That’s an obvious thing. But in terms of character and story, I like variety. I don’t like to do the same thing. I like to switch between characters that I feel like can relate to, but then also characters that feel really out of my comfort zone because being challenged is the only way to get better. On a light level, I love doing comedy. I’ve always felt very comfortable in that sphere, but I also love doing drama, too.
MTV News: Do you feel like you were challenged on the set of The Morning Show, either by the material or by the rhythm of a television show?
Powley: That was the main challenge for me. In terms of character, I found it quite easy to slip into Claire. We’re the same age. We’re both British and, also, she’s only just started working on the show, so I could actually afford to not do a ton of research into morning news because it’s meant to be alien to her. We were learning about it at the same time. But in terms of just doing an American TV show, I’d never done one before, and they’re just structured differently. I’m very used to doing film or theater where it’s very much you and your director, holding each other’s hands and going through this journey together. This is an Apple show, it’s huge. So there’s a huge pyramid of people running this show. In TV, different people come in and direct each episode. So, actually, you’re the one that actually knows your character better than the director does. At the beginning it freaked me out because I was like, “Why is no one giving me notes, telling me what to do?” Then I actually really embraced it and realized it’s kind of cool that the showrunner trusts you, so if you come up with new ideas or interesting choices, they’re really receptive to it.
MTV News: You got to spend a lot of time with Reese Witherspoon. What does Claire see in Bradley Jackson? She’s enamored by her.
Powley: Claire is in awe of Reese’s character. I think Reese’s character resonates much more with her as kind of like third wave, maybe a bit more of a hardcore feminist than Jennifer’s character. And she likes the way that Reese’s character really rocks the boat, and she really wants to learn from her. So they start working together.
MTV News: You said that having Reese and Jennifer on set as stars and producers was a huge draw for you. What was it like having them on set?
Powley: Both of them are the most hard-working women I’ve ever met in my life. They were hands-on producers, but then also when they were on set, which is all day, every day, they were completely focused on these characters and their acting choices. My first day was the scene in Episode 1 when Jennifer’s character first interviews Reese’s character, which is a very long and very intense scene. And I remember being so astounded that neither of them dropped the ball once. They didn’t forget one line, one look, one note, like nothing. I was in awe of them from that moment.
MTV News: When you were promoting The Diary of a Teenage Girl, you talked about the importance of having fictional characters you could see yourself in represented in media. That’s why Minnie was so important to you.
Powley: As a teenage girl you’d find parts of male characters in novels or films, whatever, that you related to, but you couldn’t fully because they’re not a woman. And then in films, certainly, it was like you relate to parts of women because they would only show one part of a woman in everything. It’s changing now, but that was when I was growing up.
MTV News: How do you think your experience in theater has impacted your relationship to acting?
Powley: It’s taught me everything. Most British actors will have trained. It’s quite unusual to have not trained, especially if you start your career in theater. I remember when I was younger and I would go into theater readings or auditions, I would always feel really anxious that I was untrained and everyone around me was. I learned pretty much everything from doing plays. I did my first Broadway show [in New York] when I was 18, a Tom Stoppard play that David Leveaux directed, and I learned so much in that process. It was actually with Billy Crudup.
The cast of The Morning Show
MTV News: And now you’re working together on The Morning Show.
Powley: I know, which is crazy because I was a kid then. I think it’s also just the rehearsal process of theater and the amount of time that you get to study text really helps going forth into doing movies and TV.
MTV News: What part of that experience did you bring to The Morning Show?
Powley: Just understanding a backstory because I think with TV, more so than film, you need to create a backstory because a movie is just like one narrative over 90 pages. TV, it’s something that’s ongoing, and it’s going to develop and evolve, but I think it’s important for you as an actor to know who your character is, similarly to plays. When you do a play, you always have to do a lot of filling in the gaps because it will often be set over, I don’t know, one night or one hour. So that’s definitely what I brought to Morning Show. And Kerry Ehrin, the showrunner is really receptive to you kind of coming up with your own ideas of who your character is. It’s cool because we’re going on to do more seasons of this show, and your ideas could get weaved into a future plot lines.
MTV News: Was Claire always British?
Powley: Yes! The brief was “a young Lauren Bacall.” She was always meant to be British, quite wealthy, posh. The brief also mentioned that some sort of nepotism got her onto the show, which I think would be a really cool story line in the future. What if her dad’s like, I don’t know, some big news tycoon or something.
MTV News: Do you watch a lot of TV?
Powley: I do! It’s hard sometimes. When I’m not shooting, I’m reading scripts or learning lines for meetings, so I’m reading a lot of content. If I’ve had a day of learning lines or filming or doing my job, basically, I just go watch The Great British Bake Off. But I do like watching good TV. I’m not a binger, though. I’m really happy that with our show they’re going to roll it out week by week. I think that’s better. Because my mom’s a casting director, and when I was younger, she would have to watch all of the BBC dramas for work. And every Wednesday we would sit down and watch the murder thing that we were watching on BBC, and it would be an event and really exciting. I think it’s sad that we’ve lost that now because everything is there for you immediately. I think that makes me want to watch it less, weirdly.
MTV News: Sometimes it’s helpful when you need to catch up on something quickly.
Powley: I recently started watching Succession because it was all I could hear. So I was like, “Got to watch it.” I’m only on Episode 3. I’m also quite slow because I live with my boyfriend and my flatmate, and we stupidly go, “Let’s watch this together,” so now none of us can watch it on our own because we have to wait until we’re all there to watch it again. So started watching that. I’m really enjoying it, so far. I love Bake Off, and I love Love Island. I watch Friends all the time.
MTV News: Really?
Powley: Yeah. Who doesn’t?
MTV News: The Morning Show must have been a surreal experience then.
Powley: It was. Just working with both of them was surreal, but I’m used to it now. She’s not just Rachel Green. She’s Jennifer Aniston.
MTV News: Did you have a conversation with her about it?
Powley: I did, actually, once. She talked to me and one of the cast about it when we were having dinner, and she was just like, “It was the best time in my life. I miss it. I loved it.” And I was like, “That’s all I wanted to hear.”