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Bel Powley avoided period pieces, but ‘A Small Light’ was no ‘dusty historical drama’

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Bel Powley.
Bel Powley in New York in April. The actor stars in “A Small Light” as Miep Gies, one of the people who helped eight Jews, including Anne Frank, hide in a secret annex in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
(Lila Barth / For The Times)

Bel Powley isn’t one of those English actors who is forever starring in period pieces and stuffy literary adaptations.

Despite features that practically scream “Brontë heroine” — pale skin, sorrowful blue eyes, dark hair — the 31-year-old has earned a reputation for playing opinionated, fast-talking young women figuring out their path in the world — characters brimming with wit and frantic energy who feel instantly familiar to a modern viewer.

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There was Minnie, the hormonally supercharged 15-year-old she played in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”; Claire, a sexually assertive production assistant in “The Morning Show”; Kelsey, Pete Davidson’s spray-tanned friend with benefits in “The King of Staten Island”; and Birdy, a garrulous twentysomething Londoner in “Everything I Know About Love.”

“I’ve always really shied away from period stuff. I often find myself feeling really distanced from it,” she said between gulps of iced coffee on a recent morning in Manhattan, still adjusting to the time change after arriving from London a day earlier.

Her resistance to historical material was challenged when she was approached about playing the lead role in “A Small Light,” a limited series about Miep Gies — one of the brave civilians who helped eight Jews, including Anne Frank, hide in a secret annex for two years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, and she saved Anne’s diary after her arrest in August 1944. Powley was worried it would be “another dusty historical drama,” full of “ ‘Downton Abbey’ language,” as she put it.

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Then she read the script. “I was blown away by how contemporary it felt,” Powley said. “This is a story that has been told again and again. So it was really important to me that it was done in a fresh way.”

The series, which concludes its run on NatGeo on Monday (and is available to stream on Disney+ and Hulu), follows Miep beginning in 1933, when Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) hires her to work at his pectin company. She’s headstrong and impulsive, but also open-minded and compassionate — qualities that developed during her difficult childhood: because of food shortages in Austria, her home country, after World War I, she was sent to live with a Dutch foster family.

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After the Nazis occupy the Netherlands and begin deporting Jews, Miep, newly married to Jan Gies (Joe Cole), helps the Franks and four others go into hiding in the annex, risking her life to bring them food and supplies.

Even though it’s revisiting a well-known tragic story, “A Small Light” feels urgent — and not just because we live in a time when tech billionaires, elected politicians and rap stars traffic openly in antisemitic tropes. Powley’s humanizing performance as Miep — who’s vivacious and irreverent, not saintly — also lends extra power to this tale of everyday heroism.

Powley said she was particularly drawn to the surprising moments of humor that creators Tony Phelan and Joan Rater wove into the narrative. “Tragedy can’t really exist without comedy. We all know [from] living through the pandemic, which was a really stressful time for the entire world, but I’m sure everyone can admit that they laughed about the adversity of the situation. That’s human nature.”

In a scene from "A Small Light," Jan and Miep Gies are at a table surrounded by people.
Jan and Miep Gies (Joe Cole and Bel Powley, back row) join the Frank family for a Hanukkah celebration in “A Small Light.”
(Dusan Martincek/National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

Powley seems to take the same approach in conversation, pivoting nimbly between the heavy themes of “A Small Light” to lighter subjects: getting starstruck over the cast of “Friends” or her obsession with the latest season of “Love Is Blind.” (“Pure entertainment,” she calls it.)

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For Powley, who is Jewish, “A Small Light” was also personal. Her family’s origin story is both funny and poignant: her maternal great-grandparents fled their home, near the border of Russia and Lithuania, during the pogroms of the early 20th century. Bound for New York, they landed in Dublin.

“They accidentally got off during the fueling stop in Ireland, and the boat left,” she said. “They thought they were in New York.” Her grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish in an Irish accent, and was safe in Dublin throughout World War II, “But you grow up with that weight of that part of history running through your family,” she said.

Powley’s parents had an interfaith marriage and she didn’t grow up very religious, but at a young age she embraced her Jewish heritage, sensing that it was something to be defended. When she was 7, a classmate told her they could no longer be partners on the walk to swim lessons because her mother didn’t want her holding hands with a Jewish person. ”Experiences like that made me more proud to be Jewish,” she said.

Both of her parents worked in the industry. Her father, Mark Powley, was a TV actor best known for starring in the police procedural “The Bill.” Her mother, Janis Jaffa, worked in casting — commercials, mostly.

Margot Frank and Miep Gies with bicycles in a scene from the movie "A Small Light."
Margot Frank (Ashley Brooke), left, and Miep Gies (Bel Powley) arrive at a government checkpoint in “A Small Light.”
(Dusan Martincek/National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek)

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“It was not like this glamorous, showbiz, Hollywood family,” she said. Besides, Powley was never very interested in acting as a child. She had other ambitions, like being prime minister or a professional pianist. Then her parents signed her up for a Saturday drama class with a nearby theater company — mostly, she said, to get her out of the house.

A casting director came to the class one day, looking for kids to star in a show about teen spies called “M.I. High,” and she was selected. Much to the dismay of her parents, she did “M.I. High” for a few years, then scrapped her plans to pursue a college degree in history.

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“I’ve always been very independent from a very young age, probably to do with my parents’ divorce,” she said. “I was about 15 when it finally went to s—. My way of dealing with that was being like, ‘OK, I’m gonna do my thing,’ by extraditing myself from the family.”

By the time she turned 19, she was starring on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and enjoying the thrill of living in New York, even if the material was a bit incomprehensible to her. (“I still to this day don’t understand that play,” she said, with typical self-deprecating candor.)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” released in 2015, became her breakout film role: In the coming-of-age-tale, she starred as a 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist caught up in an ill-advised affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgård). Set in freewheeling ‘70s San Francisco, the film operated from a then-radical assumption: that teenage girls could be just as horny — and reckless — as their male counterparts. Powley was widely praised for her performance, which blended youthful bravado with adolescent confusion.

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“It was the first character that I read a script that I had to play. There were so many things that I related to about that story,” she said, catching herself before revealing too much. “Tale for another time.”

Bel Powley in a lace top and black leggings is sitting on a carpeted floor with her legs to the side.
For Powley, who is Jewish, ‘A Small Light’ was personal. Though she didn’t grow up in a religious household, she embraced her heritage at a young age.
(Lila Barth / For The Times)

The part required Powley to film numerous sex scenes with a much older actor and scrutinize her naked body in the mirror. But she felt safe under the guidance of director Marielle Heller, who acted as a de facto intimacy coordinator years before the job became standard on film sets post-#MeToo.

She wasn’t as lucky on some of the jobs that followed. “I had bad experiences with male directors who were probably just too embarrassed to communicate what they want,” she said. “Can you imagine being like, ‘OK, it’s a scene where you have sex so, like, have sex?’ It’s horrific.”

“Jobs where everything falls into place only happen every few years, if ever, in an actor’s career,” Powley said. “For me, the two times that has happened was ‘Diary,’ where I felt fully connected to the character and fulfilled by the job. Every box was ticked. I’d so been searching for it since. I’ve had many incredible experiences, but not one that’s, like, fully formed, until I did ‘A Small Light.’ But oh, my God, I got it again.”

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Powley never auditioned to play Miep: Director Susanna Fogel had suggested her to Phelan and Rater. After a preliminary meeting over Zoom, Powley was formally offered the role. It was Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Miep is all about being this really ordinary person who does this extraordinary thing. So we wanted somebody who could be relatable,” said Rater. “Bel is extraordinary, but she has this very human down-to-earth-ness.”

Their goal with the series was to “wipe the cobwebs off history, and take away anything that would make an audience feel removed from the material,” said Rater. The creators discussed casting other actresses known for historical pieces, but worried they would make the material less relatable.

Phelan and Rater, who spent seven years researching the series, had stacks of material to share with Powley.

Powley read Gies’ book, “Anne Frank Remembered,” and spent time in Amsterdam, riding a bike along canals and narrow streets that looked much as they did 80 years ago. She also took a private tour of the Anne Frank House. It was “an incredibly eerie, weird experience because we went in Otto Frank’s office, which is directly below the annex. You can hear like all of the tourists walking around [overhead] very clearly,” she said. “It really brings home how quiet they had to be up there.”

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She was particularly struck by a 250-page transcript of an interview with Miep and Jan when they were in their 80s, which gave her a sense of the couple’s playful banter.

But Powley, an instinctive performer who also doesn’t like to watch herself on screen, lest she become too self-aware, was also determined not to become too bogged down in the details. “This sounds so cringe, but, like, good acting is just presence,” she said. “You should know all the things that make you feel like you’re not a fraud. But beyond that, it’s about reacting to the other actor in front of you.”

Bel Powley.
(Lila Barth / For The Times)

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Circumstances in the outside world also drove home the importance of the story they were telling. While Kanye West was going on antisemitic tirades and dining with Holocaust deniers last year, Powley and the cast were filming scenes of liberation. “I’d been living with Hitler’s rhetoric through the show for five months, and then it was actually happening. It was really unsettling.”

The real Miep Gies, who died in 2010 at the age of 100, set an example to follow, regardless of the time period, said Powley.

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“She believed that you do not have to be special to help others. Unless you’re, like, a psychopath and there’s something wrong with your brain, we are all hardwired to do the right thing. It’s just about if you execute that choice.”

‘A Small Light’



Where: Disney+ and Hulu

When: Any time

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)












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