Two Canadian women set out to tackle the rising tide of xenophobia, racism and intolerance in American public life and they chose the hundred-year-old much-loved children’s book Anne of Green Gables and a teenage Donegal actress to do it…
Sixteen-year old Amy Beth McNulty was chosen out of thousands of actors for the lead part in ‘Anne With An ‘E’. The show’s producers were determined to get the casting of this central role right and prepared to defer production until they found their ‘Anne’. As it turned out, they didn’t have to delay production.
This teenager is courteous, well-mannered level-headed, sensible, grounded, bubbly and enthusiastic with a transparent love of everything associated with theatre, television and film. She does not come across as precocious and actually seems her age, possibly even less ostentatiously worldly than many of her teenage peers. She may even have synthesised in real life some of the endearing mannerisms of the character she plays.
The daughter of an Irish father and Canadian mother, from Alberta, she grew up in Letterkenny in Donegal, involved in local theatre, progressing into radio roles and TV dramas on RTE and Sky.
Anne with an E airs on Netflix from Friday 6th July 2018
A lot is riding on how Anne audiences – it will be seen in 190 countries worldwide – respond to this second series.
How does she feel about it?
“I feel like I’m growing up with her so that’s kind of nice, to be of a similar age to Anne. Yeah, I guess we’re kind of growing up together or growing through the same or similar things.
Have you read the books?
I did. My mum gave it to me when I was nine years old and I am currently reading Anne of Avonlea now, it’s such a nice book so far.
Does having lived in rural Donegal help you identify with life a hundred years ago on Prince Edward Island?
“I was born and bred in Donegal, in Letterkenny and lived there my whole life. It’s interesting. I mean Letterkenny is itself kind of like, sort of olden day, it’s a small area, it’s a community more than a town because everybody knows everybody, I would say. Everybody’s related to everybody, everybody knows who you are and I think that’s lovely.
“It was a really nice place to grow up and have my first experiences with theatre, with An Grianán Theatre, there. That was lovely.
“I spent my whole childhood at An Grianán. We always had a joke that I slept under the stage instead of going home. I just stayed there because I had so many shows, so many drama things there. I’m very grateful that was my first transition into acting, I guess.
“But in comparison to that and Anne: it’s really interesting having topical conversations put into an older piece and I love doing that and I think it shows people that not much has changed, really – being a teenager is being a teenager no matter what year you were brought up in, really.
“The issues were there and alluded to in the text but it’s been given a little more room to be talked about in an open, relatable way, I would say.
“I think Anne’s views are really beautiful and to see that she’s so young and just has these views and she’s not afraid to state them they’re just facts in her little mind and it opens up Matthew and Marilla to these things, especially in Season 2, as well.”
What are the similarities between Donegal, or Ireland, and Canada and Prince Edward Island (PEI) for you?
“Immediately, on my first day of shooting on Prince Edward Island, it felt like Ireland, it felt like home, the hills, the ocean and cliffs and being surrounded by nature in general.
“I live in the countryside, really, in Ireland. We drive past Mount Errigal all the time. There’s definitely similarities there, the whole kind of small town vibes, completely different areas, very far apart, but it’s funny the similarities and how so many people there are related to Irish people because Irish people emigrated to PEI, so it’s very intriguing.”
The character of the spinster Marilla, who with her bachelor brother Matthew, takes in the orphan Anne is played by the very accomplished English stage and screen Geraldine James, 68. For someone so enthralled by acting it must be something of a treat to have so many scenes with her?
“I adore Geraldine James, she’s my second mum. I started in theatre and then went to radio drama and now I’m in TV and – she’s my mentor – whether she even knows that or not is something I don’t know – but working with her on set I just learned so much from just being in her presence.
“We went out to lunch today and I learned three more things about her that I never knew. Geraldine has lived such an incredible life and you can see that she’s grateful for it but it’s almost normal for her. I just respect her so much as a human being, never mind as act actor, I’m just grateful I get to know her.”
One of the two women behind the series, Miranda de Pencier, actually played Anne’s nemesis Josie Pye in the muchloved 1985 Canadian TV adaptation and went on to become a very successful film and TV producer. While it might be unfair to ask a teenager where they see themselves in thirty years time, given your self-evident love of the industry, might you see yourself doing something similar in the decades to come?
“Well, I’m very intrigued by camera and I’m very intrigued by the props department and I think being on set has given me another opportunity, I mean they both offered me little jobs here and there and said ‘You know, if you’re in Canada and we’re working on another production, just come and you can be an intern.’
“Of course, it’s when we have time during the production (and I’m not doing my scenes), that I get this opportunity to learn. I am definitely thinking of going to a camera school to learn about that.
“I got to work on the Dolly of the camera and I got to do a bit of the Steadicam and they would just say to me, ‘Ok, do this take for me’ and they would genuinely let me mess around with the camera and I really appreciated that because I learned so much more than I ever would have at a college and doing it is what has taught me.”
In that case what is the next educational stage for you?
“It’s kind of dependent on how lucky I am with work right now. Obviously, it depends, if I go to college when I’m 30 I have no shame about that at all. If I’m lucky enough (to keep getting acting work) or if this is the last thing I do I’m okay with that and I will find my way throughout.
“I have another project coming up in September which I can’t say too much about yet but I’m very excited that Anne is seemingly continuing. I hope it continues.”
Living in Donegal, acting in Canada, does the world seem small to you?
No. It’s huge. There’s so much more to explore and I’m so young as well, I’ve so much time to do that so I can’t wait to have an opportunity to explore it to its full extent.
What would you like to play?
“I’m open to a lot of genres, I haven’t done many things yet, I like to think I have a good horror movie actor’s scream inside me somewhere. I’d love to do a horror movie and also an original, I’d love to film or help direct something from behind the scenes as well while maybe still acting in it at the same time.
“There’s so many things but I feel they’ve been created like To Kill A Mockingbird is something that’s very close to my heart but obviously that was beautifully done.
Did you know the actor who played Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) was Irish?
“Yes, my nan told me he was an Irishman when we watched it and I was shocked.
“I read a lot of books but, again, a lot of them have been made into films but I’m a very political person. I come from a political family, I don’t think I’m fully educated in everything around the world, but I like to believe I have strong views on things and I stick by them.”
In that case is there anything that particularly fires you up in politics at the moment?
We’re discussing them in Anne, the three main topics would be racism, which for me is just despicable and inhumane, really, The LGBTQ+ community that I am a huge ally for as I know many people affected by those issues, it’s a huge, huge problem and along with that, just bullying in general, the mistreatment of fellow human beings that is so unnecessary and it’s not doing anything any good. I simply don’t see the point in it, honestly.”
The prevailing sentiment one would associate with Anne and the people around her is ‘kindness’ but that might be quite an unfashionable term or notion?
“Yes, it’s something people would say might be cheesy or childish, I have heard, but it’s kindness and equality and love and admiration for one another are things that every human should be putting into their daily lives, I mean everyone.
“I have a goal every day to genuinely, not just like a thing to do, but to genuinely try to compliment one person a day and if I leave a restaurant I like to write on a napkin a thank you or leave a drawing, very small acts of kindness every day can change someone’s whole day. They could be having the most horrible day and that little note on a napkin can just change their mood for a split second and if that’s the impact I leave on the world I’m okay with that.”
Is there something you don’t get asked but have something to say about?
“Yes, I love talking about children in television. You know how we say if boys can do anything, girls can do it and more.
“Well, children can do anything adults can do and more – and we have a voice. Just because our brains aren’t fully developed doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion on things, we can’t speak out about the things we’re passionate about.
“The political side of me comes out in that, and I feel disrespected quite a bit because I’m only 16, every day really, it happens so often, and I just want children and young adults to be appreciated for their voice and for their existence in the world because if they aren’t they will feel that for the rest of their lives and if they feel heard – and respected – they can bring that with them and really ramp it up.”