Amybeth McNulty adores the word “intriguing”. The Anne with an E star declares her character’s developing friendship with Gilbert Blythe to be “intriguing”. Series two’s latest additions to the cast are “very intriguing”. Watching a nail-biting storyline unfold is “so intriguing,” and, as we discuss the power of the Netflix show’s all-female screenwriting team, she generously concedes that I make an “intriguing point”. We are five minutes into a very intriguing interview.
Perhaps her fondness for the word is unsurprising, because Amybeth plays Anne Shirley-Cuthbert – the red-headed Canadian orphan with a penchant for adjectives and an irrepressible optimistic streak. The character first appeared in LM Montgomery’s 1908 children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, where she peppered her sentences with the words “delightful” and “splendid”.
- Meet the cast of Anne With an E Season 2 on Netflix
- Anne with an E star Geraldine James: It’s “brave” to depart from the original Anne of Green Gables
- Anne With an E review: This engaging adaptation of Anne of Green Gables will have you laughing – and crying into your pillow
“I’m very Anne, I guess,” Amybeth says, laughing. And although the 16-year-old Irish Canadian actor has ditched the shapeless dresses and straw hats, and has un-plaited her dyed red hair for her visit to 21st century London, there’s no denying the similarities. Both are full of irrepressible enthusiasm – and both care deeply about the world and the people around them.
Of course, that similarity in temperament is partly why she was chosen in the first place; plucked from thousands of hopefuls, she was flown to Canada for an “adventure”, where her audition consisted of talking to trees, chatting with flowers and building thrones out of twigs.
Since then she has filmed two seasons alongside Geraldine James (who plays Marilla Cuthbert) and RH Thomson (who plays Matthew Cuthbert). The longer she spends playing their adopted child Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, the stronger the similarities become. Where does Anne end and Amybeth begin?
“She’s kind of made me take a step back and appreciate the Earth for what it is in all its beauty, which I had done before – but just not to the extent that I should have been doing,” Amybeth says. “Being on set obviously you don’t have your phone with you 12 hours a day, and a lot of the time we’re filming outside. And even though we’re filming, being surrounded by this beautiful nature is amazing, and climbing trees, and doing all those sorts of things, and cliff sides – it’s such a wonderful experience.”
She adds: “I’ve a huge admiration for this character and she speaks a lot to me, and to other people as well, and I’m very humbled to have the voice in this business and in this character. She’s such a good character to have a voice for! And what she talks about is exactly my beliefs, which is lovely.”
Now, as Anne settles in to her life at Avonlea, Amybeth is in no hurry for her character to find love – not even with everyone’s favourite love interest, Gilbert Blythe (Lucas Zumann).
“Anne’s having her own things at home besides Gilbert right now, she has a lot going on,” she says. “So I think obviously the fans will be very eager to get them reunited, but I think we need to focus on that they’re going through different times in their life right now, which are even more intriguing.”
The drama has taken such a different direction from LM Montgomery’s original storylines that it’s anyone guess where things will end up between Gilbert and Anne. But surely these “kindred spirits” have to get together in the end?
“In the books that’s obviously what happens! And I think, in my mind, they’re obviously meant to be,” Amybeth agrees.
Still, she adds, “They’re kids. They’re kids right now. Anne’s only 14, Gilbert’s 16 I think. So they have a while yet.”
Amybeth is, in fact, an advocate for kids – both fictional and non-fictional. When the choice of two young actors for Disney’s Kim Possible live-action series was met with cruel comments and criticisms, she made a heartfelt plea on Twitter: “Please just understand that your words are reaching these kids and they are seeing them and they could be affected so quickly. Sometimes it made me doubt my performance or my abilities as an actor because of my looks and it’s such a scary feeling.”
Opening up about her own experiences, she described “the feeling of being judged when I was cast for Anne, because I did not look how people imagined: for not having red hair, for not being ‘beautiful’. Before people even saw my performance I was being judged.”
It still troubles her.
“Watching very recently a girl in a very similar case to me get scrutinised for being cast is horrifying, and they don’t even know if she’s a good actress. They don’t know anything about her. They’re solely judging her based on her looks and her age, and that’s it,” she tells RadioTimes.com.
“That’s absolutely it and it’s so disgusting to me. I’ve had horrible things said and I don’t respond to them but I can’t say it doesn’t hurt.”
Having grown up as a child actor both on stage (Annie, The Sound of Music, Oliver) and on screen (Agatha Raisin, Clean Break), Amybeth has seen her fair share of hurtful comments.
“It happens, and it’s horrible because we’re kids. We’re just kids, we’re not doing anything wrong. And they’re just people who don’t have anything better to do with their time and I don’t think there’s any point in responding specifically to them.
“But I think making a statement about it is good, and it’s good to talk about it. And the girl who I was speaking about in that tweet, we’ve talked about it afterwards and we’ve kind of become friends through that happening, which I think is a lovely outcome.”
Surely that’s a very Anne thing to do?
“It’s a VERY Anne thing to do.”
While the essence of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert remains the same, Moira Walley-Beckett’s adaptation of the classic children’s novel has taken a very different direction. You might even call it “intriguing”.
She and her production team have teased out some of the book’s existing themes and brought in new storylines which shine a spotlight on issues of race, sexual orientation, social exclusion, bullying, child abuse and gender roles.
“Moira’s kind of taken it and made it into her own,” Amybeth says, adding a typically Anne-style analogy: “we’re not digging up the soil; it’s like we’re planting the seeds in it just to make it grow a little bit more. Which I think is my best way of putting it, and it’s as simple as that.”
Which, in season two, means a whole host of difficult topics to confront: “The things we’re bringing in this season are sexuality, for instance, and racism. I’m so excited to discuss that, because that is something I’m very very passionate and strong about as an ally for those discussions.”
She adds: “I’m very political and I’m not ashamed of it, and I think having the platform I have, I want to take advantage of that.”
Online you’ll find Amybeth using her platform to encourage followers to plant bee-friendly flowers, cut down on plastic and Repeal the 8th in Ireland. She talks about supporting Pride, about mental health, about women’s rights and sexual assault and access for disabled people.
It’s also clear that Amybeth feels things deeply – both joy and sorrow. When I accuse her of making me sob while watching the first series, she giggles with glee: “So not sorry!”
But she’s also prone to tears, crying her way through the season two scripts (“so much dehydration! I had to drink a lot of water”) and becoming deeply affected by filming the scenes of Anne’s childhood in the orphanage. Far more than in the original novel, it’s something the series returns to again and again.
The actor reflects: “It made me cry doing it, it’s horrible! For me to put myself in her shoes is heartbreaking. But it was necessary.”
She adds: “It’s always been in the background, it’s always been a statement that’s there, but I think to see it in its full form is so heartbreaking and heart shattering for your soul.”
Heart shattering for your soul? Sounds like something a certain Anne might say…
Anne with an E seasons 1 and 2 are available on Netflix now