Exclusive Interview: Ella-Rae Smith

Ella-Rae Smith explains how the uncertainty of the last year has helped her to feel grounded.

Words by Liz Skone James | Photography by Silvia Draz | Styling by Holly White | Hair by Narad Kutowaroo | Make up by Justine Jenkins

Actor Ella-Rae Smith’s parallel modelling career might have made her comfortable in front of the camera, but it hasn’t yet afforded her a magazine cover. “I’m so excited. It was so much fun! I am really, really, looking forward to seeing the photos…” she tells me, when we speak about the shoot at the interview a week later. “It’s my first cover. Ever! I am over the moon!”

If you watched last year’s Netflix thriller The Stranger, the chances are you’ll recognise Ella-Rae. She played Daisy, the girlfriend of Thomas, whose mother Corrine disappears in the first episode. The rising star has also made notable appearances as Nix in AMC’s Into The Badlands and Phoebe Parker-Fox in BBC’s Clique. Next up is independent film, Sweetheart, which is due to be released in cinemas next month.

Directed by Marley Morrison, it tells the story of a socially awkward, environmentally conscious teenager named AJ (a first lead role for Nell Barlow, another up-and-coming young actor), who is dragged to a coastal holiday park by her painfully ‘normal’ family. Over the course of her stay she becomes unexpectedly captivated by a lifeguard named Isla, played by Ella-Rae.

“I think the first time I read the script it connected with me because it is just a classic teenage love story, that just happens to be between two young women,” she tells me. “So many queer stories are about coming out, but what happens after you come out? What is that next step? I think that is really important – normalising these stories. It is not about the novelty of being gay, it is about the reality. I wish I had had a film like Sweetheart when I was growing up.”

Ella-Rae wears: dress Issey Miyake Pleats Please, sourced from Sign of the Times (wearesott.com), hairpin (sydhayes.com)

Ella-Rae has fond memories of filming, which took place over the course of a few weeks on location at Freshwater Beach Holiday Park on Dorset’s Jurassic coast. “We all basically lived there for the whole shoot,” she recalls. “It really was our playground. That’s quite fun as an actor, because you are living where your character lives, so you are just lost in that world. We had no phone signal, I didn’t have a car, so I was kind of just completely stranded there for three weeks… but it was so much fun. I made one of my best friends on set; we got matching Sweetheart tattoos. We all became like a family of filmmakers. It was very friendly; a small and gentle set.”

It was such a special experience, in fact, that she tells me it is probably, her favourite project to date. “Working on independent films is amazing, because you have such a small crew, such a small cast – it feels a lot more collaborative, and everybody gets stuck in. You don’t have as much money – people are working out of passion and love. Sounds really cheesy, but I think that is one of the main reasons that Sweetheart is so important to me,” she explains. “But also, knowing how important this film is to

so many people – it is an incredibly important film for me, and I wish that it had existed when I was a teenager. So, being able to give that to other teenagers. That’s why I do what I do, so that we can share these stories which are important and have a message, and make people feel seen and heard and understood in ways they haven’t been before.”

Ella-Rae first felt this desire to tell stories when she took her first steps on stage aged 12. “My primary school did Shakespeare plays as our leaving school show, and I was cast as Olivia in Twelfth Night,”

she recalls. “I had never acted before. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just found myself doing the right thing. Responding to the other characters and getting really into it. And a teacher pointed it out, and I realised, oh, I have no idea what I am doing, but I am doing it right. Okay, let’s explore this.”

Ella-Rae wears: maxi dress and trousers (brogger.co)

She describes wanting to learn more about the craft and taking weekend and holiday jobs in order to earn money to pay for courses. It was being scouted by a modelling agency that gave her the opening to pursue her dream further. “I signed with my first modelling agency when I was 16, which completely changed my life, I met some of my closest friends and it was my first time being plunged into London,” she says. “And then I kind of got really lucky, I was looking to create opportunities for myself and it all kind of happened at the same point – so I did my first film, signed with my agent and then did a modelling job that paid me enough to leave home, and off I went – jumped into the working world.”

Ella-Rae still models – now represented by Next Management she has recently featured in campaigns for Hugo Boss and Rimmel. “When I first came to London, modelling is how I financially supported myself – so I could afford to not get any acting jobs,” she explains, when I ask how the two careers work together. “I have always done both. I love fashion and dressing up and being glamorous. Acting is not glamorous, but I like it because of that. People think it is way more glamorous than it is, but in reality, I have got muck under my nails every day, and I have to wake up at stupid o’clock. Modelling feels much more glamorous – dressing up in pretty dresses is always fun. I like having the balance: glamour and sparkles and then muck and being wild!”

If she was forced to choose, she admits that acting would win. “I think acting is where my soul is,” she tells me. “Modelling is fun, but my soul is not in it. If that makes sense. I feel like modelling is the preparation step for acting, but you cannot fully commit and dive off into the character, do you know what I mean? And I like to jump off into the character and not have to care about looking nice. To be sort of wild and malleable.”

As much as she loves the work, there is one part of the job which was difficult to master – the art of auditioning. “One of the biggest parts of being an actor is rejection. And you have to learn that it is not personal; it is not about you. It’s often about a bigger picture. You are a small piece of a bigger puzzle. Sometimes, you might not be the right piece, and that is okay, ultimately it is not to do with your talent. It is not a reflection on you as a person, it is just how it is,” she reasons.

Ella-Rae wears: dress (tove-studio.com), shoes (loefflerrandall.com) and rings (beabongiasca.com)

There have, of course, been audition experiences that she would prefer to forget. “I remember I once got told by a casting director that they couldn’t cast me for a part because it would be too hard to cast me a family – which is very uncomfortable,” she admits. “I think you have to be resilient to be an actor, you have to be able to walk into a room and put up a wall when you come out. But when it crosses over from professional to personal… that is not appropriate for anybody to say something like that. I like to think that the industry is changing though. It is changing a lot. It is becoming a lot more diverse. I don’t feel too worried about it, you know?”

The events of the past 18 months have meant other worries, though. There has been very little going on work-wise for Ella-Rae, though she insists that there are silver linings to this. “I have been at home, which has been nice. 2019 was really busy for me, which was amazing, but I hadn’t really stopped. My feet hadn’t touched the floor. And I hadn’t been at home for more than a month at a time,” she explains. “So, being in my own house for a whole year has been weird, but really nice. Being in one place, I notice the seasons now: you watch the flowers bloom, and then you watch them die. You watch spring turn to summer, and summer turn to winter, and it makes me feel a lot more connected to where I am. And I have normal things now, like I go on a dog walk, and I see the neighbours and we say hello, and I know people in my neighbourhood. I am a bit more grounded now. It’s been hard, but it has been grounding.”

These aren’t theonly seasons she has been watching: “I have binged on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” she admits, smiling guiltily. “You can box set straight from season one, and I did that during lockdown. I think there are 11 seasons, I don’t know how many hours of these women arguing I have watched, but I am invested. I wish I had a classier box set binge. But a binge is meant to be fun and comforting, right? I’m at the point now where episodes are coming out live. It is hard going back to the old-fashioned ways! I am feeling the pain of having to wait for a week. But I do quite like it, because it gives me something to look forward to,” she laughs.

Of course, she has more to look forward to than catching up with the next instalment of the lavish lifestyles of the Beverly Hills set. “Obviously, Sweetheart is coming out in the cinema. And I just worked on a short film called Blood Rites that is based on a short story by Daisy Johnson,” she reveals. “It was so much fun. It was directed by Helena Coan, who just did a documentary called Audrey, about Audrey Hepburn, which I really, really encourage everyone to watch. And then there are a couple of things which are question marks and maybes, which I cannot talk about, but which I am very excited about!”

Ella-Rae wears: knitted vest and skirt (mollygoddard.com)

There were, of course, mixed feelings about going back to work. “I was so nervous beforehand – I was thinking, will I know what to do, will it all come back to me,” she reveals. “But it is like riding a bike, you don’t forget, you just slip back into work mode and hang out with people and have funny conversations and make art. I just really love being on set. I am a big geek. I love going to work.”

As much as she loves working again, Ella-Rae is longing for a proper holiday, though. “I have missed travelling so much,” she confesses. “I used to hop around the globe like it was nobody’s business. I was always at the airport.” So, where’s next on her bucket list when restrictions allow? “I would love to go to Tokyo; I have never been anywhere like it. My partner and I are kind of half joking, half seriously thinking about going to Tokyo Disneyland. Well, why not? It’s meant to be a crazy Disneyland. Obviously, there is loads more to see in Japan, but when we go, that will be on the list. I would also love to go somewhere gorgeous like Bali. Or Sri Lanka. I think I want to go somewhere otherworldly. Or that feels otherworldly in comparison to London.”

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with London, she assures me. “I love London, I do,” she exclaims. “My favourite thing is that there is a place for everyone. A very different, secret spot. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are from, you will find your place here. I’ve had so many times when I have been flying over London, and I look out and I see the Thames and I cry because I am so excited to come home. Ever since I was little, to me, it has been this big sparkly, shiny place. I think that’s because I am not a born and bred Londoner. I didn’t grow up here, so it has still got that sparkly mystique to it. It is a special place.” I couldn’t agree more.

Sweetheart will be released in cinemas on 24 September 2021