Netflix exposure is the sort of thing that can transform a person’s life. The streaming giant has hit a purple patch when it comes to teen dramas – plunging the young stars of shows like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why into super-fame overnight. And now, with its new supernatural thriller The Innocents, two relative unknowns might be about to take the same leap.
The Innocents is a romantic runaway story about two teenagers, June and Harry, fleeing their Yorkshire town and their repressive families for the bright lights of London to start a new life together. The plan goes awry, however, when June discovers she has shapeshifting powers – meaning she can inhabit the body of anyone she touches.
June is played by 20-year-old Sorcha Groundsell who grew up in the Outer Hebrides, in a setting about as far from red carpet mania as you can imagine. She’s had no formal acting training and has so far learned on the job, with a role in the 2015 low-budget indie Iona and a part in BBC3’s Clique. And there’s no doubt she’s a fast learner: her portrayal of a frightened yet optimistic 16-year-old girl is completely convincing.
Harry, meanwhile, is brought to life by Percelle Ascott with impressive intensity – this young actor is definitely one to watch. At the age of 25, Ascott has appeared in the series Doctors, Wizards vs. Aliens and Youngers but, like Groundsell, The Innocents marks his first lead role.
The writers of The Innocents – Hania Elkington and Simon Duric – describe the casting process as “exhaustive”. Because the show “lives and dies on Harry and June” and they didn’t have an aesthetic in mind for the characters, they explain, their casting director undertook an “insane” search up and down the country for the perfect leads, seeing literally thousands of young actors at youth theatres and drama groups in the UK. Producer Elaine Pyke says Groundsell was the last but one girl they auditioned.
Groundsell remembers her first audition being slightly traumatic, having had hardly any time to prepare off the back of another project and spending most of her performance struggling to suppress a fit of the giggles as Miss Saigon auditions were taking place in the room next door.
Despite the hollering on the other side of the wall, Groundsell got the part after a chemistry test with Ascott showed that the pair were able to act totally smitten within minutes of meeting. Guy Pearce of Memento and LA Confidential fame, who plays a mysterious doctor named Halvorson in the series, clearly has a soft spot for the young actress, marvelling at her intelligence and maturity.
“All of us older actors were like, ‘Oh wow, she’s really smart isn’t she?’” he says. “And you sit and do an interview with her and she’s so articulate and really lovely, like really grown up, really mature and Percy’s great too he’s a really lovely kid… I would have completely and utterly believed those two were in love with each other.”
So how are Groundsell and Ascott coping with the potential super-fame that could come from leading a Netflix drama? “By completely ignoring it,” Groundsell laughs nervously, clearly unsettled by the prospect. When producer Pyke, who seems almost maternal towards the pair, chips in to emphasise that their lives are going to change forever after people in almost 200 countries will be able to see their faces on Netflix, Groundsell groans: “That is not helping with the panic!”
Ascott appears to have given the shift, as it were, some thought. “It’s difficult to comprehend what that is going to be like until the show premieres and until it’s out,” he says. “I guess for me personally nothing changes, we’ve been talking about how we’re going to still have the same routines and keep grounded and keep that aspect of normal, everyday life.”
When the duo were in Rome promoting The Innocents, they met the 13 Reasons Why cast, who Groundsell says “took us under their wing”. She admits it was encouraging to see how they had managed to stay “very much like normal human beings”. “I guess they were in such a similar position,” she says. “All of them were relatively unknown and suddenly overnight they’re some of the biggest stars around.”
Ascott agrees: “Just hanging out with those guys was refreshing because they’ve gone through that whole journey and it’s nice to know they’ve been able to deal with that.”
Groundsell says the experience taught her the genuine value of the “Netflix family” that execs kept on referencing. “It sounds like it would be nonsense,” she smiles, “but it actually feels like a thing, it feels like there is a connection between all of these shows. There is a shared something that makes it feel like a big group of people that all know each other a bit.”
All in all, it sounds like a warm and fuzzy way to enter the industry, cocooned in the bosom of the Netflix family, especially in such complex times for women in show business. On the position of actresses in the #MeToo era Groundsell is, as Pearce points out, strikingly articulate.
“I feel that there is a new feeling of hopefulness and optimism at the moment,” she says, “because these kinds of conversations are happening, questions like these are coming up.
“It means that people are sharing experiences which makes it easier for someone like me who’s coming into it now, post #MeToo. For me now, there’s a format out there because these women have been telling their stories so brilliantly and eloquently and bravely.
“There’s now a format for me to know how to handle things, should they arise. There are conversations about pay equality, there are conversations about how important it is not to accept bad behaviour, whereas 15, 20 years ago there would be no examples for you to follow as a young woman coming into the industry. So that, I think, is a really positive thing.”
With answers like that, it sounds to me as if Sorcha Groundsell and Percelle Ascott – like June and Harry – are ready for a major shift.