Anne Shirley – that beloved Canadian orphan with the red plaits and the tendency to daydream – comes from another era, having reached the grand old age of 109. But even over a century after Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her into existence in the novel Anne of Green Gables, little Anne still captures the imagination.
Anne of Green Gables has been adapted a ton of times and made her first film appearance in 1919. Now Netflix and Canadian network CBC have had a go at the story, which sees an orphan arrive to live with an ageing brother and sister at their farm at Green Gables. Unfortunately they had been expecting a boy – and they’re not very pleased when an outspoken little girl arrives instead.
Who plays Anne Shirley in Netflix’s Anne With an E?
Beating 1,800 other prospective Annes to the part was young actor Amybeth McNulty, an Irish-Canadian 15-year-old.
Other shows on her CV include a part in Agatha Raisin back in 2014 and the role of Jenny Rane in Clean Break, while on stage she played as Martha in The Sound of Music at London’s Regents Park Theatre. But the role of Anne Shirley will propel her to another level of fame.
How did she get the part?
By talking to trees.
Some casting directors insist on ‘chemistry reads’ as part of the audition, to see if actors work well together. But for Anne With an E, they were interested to see how she interacted with nature.
“Basically I got sent the test script for the self-tape over by my agent, and I did the self-tape, I sent it over, I got some notes back, and then before I knew it I was being invited over to Toronto which was insane for me because I’d never been to Canada or anything,” Amybeth, who lives in Ireland, tells RadioTimes.com.
“So we go over, I do two auditions in a kind of I’d say normal audition room, and then they email me saying, ‘Hey, we want to take you on an adventure.’ And I’m going, okay! That’s strange but alright.
“And we go to this huge mansion with a pool and a kind of forest area, and there is a lot of flowers, and it’s so beautiful and sunny, so they have me talk to flowers, talk to trees, build homes out of twigs, and just improvise a couple of things from the actual series. It was incredible.”
What can we expect from this version of Anne of Green Gables?
Anne of Green Gables has become Anne With an E, a reference to Anne’s insistence that her name never be spelled “Ann” because it looks ugly.
This version has been adapted by Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett. So as you might imagine, it’s not all sunshine and buttercups (or, in Anne’s world, raspberry cordial and “romantical” birch trees).
We know from the book that Anne has had an extremely difficult childhood: orphaned as a baby, she bounced from house to house doing drudge work for poor families before ending up rejected in an orphanage. This provides fertile ground for Moira and Amybeth to explore the darker side of the tale, with Anne experiencing harrowing flashbacks of her abuse and suffering the trauma of always have been an unwanted child.
“I think LM Montgomery definitely brought kind of tinges of it into the books, but we really drew it out and we really made them graphic perhaps, some people would say,” Amybeth says. “But it was honest, if brutally so. It was honest in what it would have been like back then, and I think it was just time to show that, full-fledged.”
What else to expect? Anne is – and always has been – a kid who knows her own mind, and speaks it. She has an independent spirit and a healthy distain for boys whose idea of flirting is to insult the girls they like. She’s clever, imaginative, loving and devoted to her female friends.
So is she a little bit of a feminist icon?
“Oh yeah, absolutely!” Amybeth tells us. “Sadly feminism – the word, I mean – didn’t quite exist back then, in its full form as it is now. But I think – in Moira’s words – she was an ‘accidental feminist’. Which I think is an interesting take on it, and I think it describes her very well.”
She adds: “We have kind of brought that a little bit more to the surface. Read between the lines.”
Is Amybeth McNulty a natural red-head?
No. But Anne’s red hair is a huge part of her identity (she hates being called “carrots” and declares being ginger a “lifelong sorrow”), so there was no way around it: Amybeth would have to take a trip to the hairdressers.
“I kept saying, ‘What kind of orangey-red are we doing?'” she says.
“And they were like, ‘Oh not sure yet. We’ll see.’ And I was scared that it was going to be a literal carrot-orange, but it wasn’t, it was a beautiful blonde-y kind of red, and I adored it, I still do.”
Anne of Green Gables launches internationally on Netflix on Friday 12th May, and airs in Canada on CBC