In Elizabeth Harvest, Abbey Lee plays a naive ingenue who’s continually cloned and brought back to life by her nefarious, abusive scientist-husband. It’s a fitting role for the 31-year-old, who in the space of just a few years has made a name for herself as one of the most versatile, and adaptable, young actors on the scene: as comfortable in big budget action-adventures (Mad Max) as she is acting opposite tennis balls in CGI extravaganzas (Gods of Egypt) or critically acclaimed art house thrillers (The Neon Demon). Because if there’s one thing Abbey Lee is good at doing, it’s reinventing herself anew with each role. Ahead of the release of Elizabeth Harvest on digital download, AnOther caught up with the former model.
Sirin Kale: Hi Abbey, thanks for talking with us. I hear you’re living in London now – how are you finding it?
Abbey Lee: I love the theatre here, and I’m in this amazing acting study group with really like-minded people, so I’ve definitely got a good reason to be here.
SK: You really nailed the British accent in Elizabeth Harvest.
AL: The amount of times I slipped up and would say something wrong, you wouldn’t believe! Ciarán Hinds [Lee’s co-star, who plays her husband Henry] would save my arse. Like, I’d say ‘privacy’, but in an English accent, they say ‘privacy’, so Ciarán would say it the same way as me, to help me out. With accents, I think it’s like a muscle you have to work at. I worked on it every day. I’d listen to British radio and watch YouTube videos of Emma Thompson interviews, or listen to Claire Foy speaking.
SK: Elizabeth Harvest must have been a difficult role to get right, because you’re playing so many different versions of the same woman [every time Elizabeth is cloned, she comes back slightly changed from the version before].
AL: Because I’m playing more than one version of myself, I really had to go back to the beginning and choose a clear back story for the character, that would inform the clones I play. So I worked really hard on building up the original Elizabeth’s character, trying to imagine what sort of upbringing she had, and her relationship to Henry when she was young. I kept thinking about the idea of osmosis; the sense that our ancestors before us pass on experiences they’ve had, without us even knowing. Some of that history lives inside us, and every Elizabeth has the memory of the one before her, so she’s a little wiser, strong, and tougher each time.
SK: You’re a bit of a polymath: modelling, acting, music, art [Lee paints abstract art, and was also in the Brooklyn-based band Our Mountain]. Have you always had a need to express yourself creatively?
AL: My whole life I’ve explored different ways to express whatever it is that I need to express. I’ve dabbled in music, in modelling, in art, in writing – in all of those things. With everything, I’d get to a certain place and I’d always feel like something was missing. But when I discovered acting, I was like, ‘Fuck! This is what I’ve been looking for’. I just feel like I can put everything, every little bit of my being into it. It feels like I have to do it. It’s completely changed my life.
SK: You sound like you’re really creatively fulfilled at the moment.
AL: Oh my god, completely. I thought I was going to keel over and die of boredom when I was a model. It’s just enriched my brain so much. I love the research that goes into roles and doing auditions... and reading! I never thought I loved reading so much. My mind’s constantly on fire. I don’t think I sleep as much as I used to, but overall, I love it.
SK: How does it compare to modelling?
AL: They don’t compare. I know it’s going to be hard for me to get away from this question, because I modelled in a big way for a long time, so it’s always going to be a part of who I am. But it’s not like I moved from modelling to acting: there’s no relation between them. They are just completely different things. In modelling, it’s someone’s art being placed on top of you. You just become the mannequin. There’s a craft and an art to modelling, of course. You have to know how to dress, how to move, how to communicate with your body. But with acting, I get to communicate and share someone else’s experience with my voice and my body. There’s no communication with modelling; there’s something mute about being a model. I found that really stifling. I think I’ve just got too much to say.
SK: When you took the part in Mad Max, you’d never had any acting training at all, but you’ve been pretty open about wanting to develop and hone your craft as an actor. Have you had to do any weird shit in any of your acting classes?
AL: I’ve done some fucking weird shit. People tell me about some bizarre therapy they’re going to, and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s nothing compared to some of the shit I’ve done in acting classes’. It’s all the stuff you typically read about, like, ‘act like a monkey’. It’s worth getting involved just to get scared, be afraid and self-conscious and nervous, and then shake that off and be daring and willing and shameless. Because as an actor, you have to be totally shameless.
SK: Your work ethic is famously hardcore: in 2018 alone you were in four films and you also starred in Uncle Vanya, at the Hampstead Theatre. What do you do on your days off?
AL: That depends where I am, man. I love to read, I love to drink coffee. I’m really trying to give it up but I just love to smoke cigarettes. I like being with friends, I love to talk. And I love the ocean. If I’m ever near the ocean, I have to have time off to go to the ocean.
SK: Unlike a lot of your peers, you’re very low key on social media. Why is this?
AL: I don’t think social media feels good and I don’t think it makes anyone who uses it feel good. I am yet to witness someone scroll through their Instagram and have some warm fucking fuzzy feeling. I think most people feel like shit when they look at it. For a moment there I thought it was a really great way of sharing, but I don’t think it appears like that anymore... Sometimes I feel like I’m a conservative dinosaur or something when I talk about this stuff. But I just feel like we all need to reach out to each other more. I’m so fucking sick of people pulling out their phones all the time. Even if they’re not looking at their phones, it feels like everyone has this energetic pull towards their fucking device. You can feel their body wanting to look at their phone, even when they’re not. I hope there’s a rebellion. I hope the generation after us throws away their phones and starts, I dunno, writing calligraphy again.
Elizabeth Harvest is available now for digital download.
Hair: Mark Hampton at Julian Watson Agency. Make-up: Bea Sweet using NARS. Makeup assistant: Sophie Moore.