Photo:Courtesy of BBC
Marli Siu (L) with Emma Appleton, Bel Powley and Aliyah Odoffin in Everything I Know About Love
You can take your Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda–style friendship group. I'd much rather be part of the girl gang in Everything I Know About Love, the BBC's newly launched adaptation of the smash-hit book by the same name from journalist and author Dolly Alderton. Finally, this seven-part series centered around London house share in the early 2010s provides an on-screen friendship dynamic that comes from an authentic and honest place—wins, misses and all—and it's refreshing, entertaining and sure to be a big reason why this series will undoubtedly be a success. Ahead of the release, I had a chance to speak to Marli Siu (aka Nell) about being on the cusp of the nation discovering her, what it's like to literally be dubbed a "Star of Tomorrow," how her Chinese Scottish heritage brings complexity to her work and why shorts over tights should definitely have been left in 2012…
Marli, what on earth was it like to be named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow? Does something like that help with self-confidence, or is it a bit of a pressure?
When I got that in 2018, it made such a difference because I hadn't gone to drama school. It's hard to get seen for stuff when you've not really gone down a more traditional route into the industry. And I think the people at Screen Daily are brilliant in the way they look out for and find talent everywhere. They're so respected in the industry that being on that list suddenly meant that I got auditions for things I hadn't previously. I met casting directors I hadn't met before. So it was a huge help having other people feel confident in bringing me into a room and a definitely confidence for myself as well. You feel like, "Okay, I must be doing something okay!"
I'd always looked at those lists in the past because I admired loads of the actors that had been on them. So it was both a huge excitement to be on a list with names like that but also, I guess [I felt] a little bit nervous because they all went on to do amazing things. I think that pressure is also relevant. You just have to be like, "Well, everyone's career is different."
There are accolades and awards that have already come your way, so you're definitely doing something right! What does it look like for you to get into character, and what about getting back out again?
I used to read lots of interviews with actors because I was interested in how they did it. Again, they had done drama school, and I wasn't totally sure how you were really meant to do it and if there was a right way and a wrong way. And then, I really got into Carey Mulligan because I really liked her and An Education. And she talked about making books with pictures and notes, filling up notebooks with certain character profiles. If I get a job or even actually at the audition stage, I now use Pinterest for it more, but before, I used to use notebooks. And once I get a job, I fill up a notebook with ideas, depending on the character. Like for Nell, because she's a teacher, I got a little line jotter, and I wrote about her. It wasn't so much like writing about school, but it kind of felt within the style of who she was.
And then getting out… For things like Alex Rider, when there's a character who has an accent and dresses very different to me, then it's quite easy, because it's really just take off a costume and stop doing the accent, and it's very very separate. With Nell in Everything I Know About Love, I'm doing my own accent. And yeah, Dolly was so encouraging of us bringing parts of ourself to the characters, but it wasn't a particularly heavy character. There are times when I think you take a little bit from characters at the end of the job.
Were there were any reference points where you and Nell had anything in common, anything that you were able to pull on directly?
Well, she's from Scotland, and she's mixed-race. So I was like, "That's me!" I did make an active effort to try and imagine her family and their jobs and where they grew up and it being a different town to where I grew up. So I guess a similar upbringing. … Within a friendship group, I don't think we have loads in common. I think Nell's definitely—from the scripts and when I first got the audition in the description that Dolly gave—someone I wish I was like. She's very straight-talking. She's not a people-pleaser. She seems really clear on who she is. So that feels quite different to me. But it's funny. The girls—Emma [Appleton] and Bel [Powley]—would be like, "That's a very Nell thing" if I would be like, "I don't want to do that." Like I hate karaoke. I probably have more in common [with Nell] than I realised. And again, when you're playing a character, you lean into those parts of your own personality.
Emma Appleton, Bel Powley, Dolly Alderton, Marli Siu, Aliyah Odoffin
How did you get this amazing gig?
I put a tape through for it initially, and the audition process was actually really nice. The whole team—like Dolly and China [Moo-Young, the director]—I think they all really knew what they wanted. And that makes a really nice addition process, because sometimes those people, the people at the top, don't really know what they want. So you're going back and forth.
It felt quite quick, to be honest, compared to some audition processes. And I was quite baffled because after one Zoom audition, I was like, "I messed that up so bad." I was so sure that I lost the job. I told my agent I'm not right for it. And even at the tape stage, I was like, "I'm not right for this." So it was so weird that they were so sure!
Why did you think you weren't right for the role?
When I read her, I just felt like I just failed to see those qualities [in myself]. Characters I played in the past maybe hadn't drawn on those qualities, and I knew my comfort zone. And I think Nell … that's a little bit further away. I was also overthinking it because I really liked the book, and I really wanted it, so I was thinking all the ways that it could go wrong, in that I would try to expectation manage so I wouldn't be disappointed when they were like, "You're not right for it."
So what was it like working with Dolly?
It's so lovely. I met her when I got cast, and all my mates straight away were like, "What's she like? What's she like?" She's so exactly like how she comes across in her book and on her podcast. There's no smoke and mirrors. I know her quite well now. I've spent time with her, and she's still the same. She's very, very, very open and very honest, very funny. And it was interesting because when she was on set—she came in all the time and had a little corner where they'd set her up with a little monitor to watch what's happening—crew, cast, anyone would all just migrate towards her. There was always a circle of people around because she's just so interesting.
How does it feel to be in a show that's on the legendary BBC?
When I got this job, I told my grandad. I've done a few jobs now, and my grandad is still like, "Is that a real job?" I've had stuff in the cinema, but he'd never gone, but now that I'm going to be on the BBC, he was like, "Okay, that's a real job you've gone and got!" He's gonna watch it, and he watches everything that comes out on the BBC, but this is the one job where I have sex scenes in it—why is it the one you want to watch? I've not spoken to him about it, but I'd be like, "Please just skip to the start of episode three. Like, can you just miss the first five minutes?" I guess I'll figure out!
You mentioned your mixed Scottish Chinese heritage, and I would love to know whether you feel that brings an extra dimension to your work?
I feel like being mixed-race is like a whole world of different things, isn't it? It's quite a confusing place—you're never sure what people see you as. Like, I'll get in a taxi, and the driver will say, "Oh, you're not Chinese!" They'll argue with me about whether I am, or you'll go into an audition, and they're like, "No, you're not white." I've loved meeting other mixed-race people because it definitely helped me understand more. I'm also happy and proud of it. There are two cultures and perspectives that I can bring to work or to life.
It's important that we move forward by watching stories that everyone is relating to and empathising with and that these stories are being told by people that aren't necessarily white. If you grow up seeing shows with lots of white people in, you empathise with them because that's what's natural, right? So I think it's good that we start doing it the other way around, you know, encouraging audience members to empathise with people of all races because that then … breeds empathy in real life too.
For this role, Dolly asked me if there would be anything that impacted Nell's life. Would being mixed-race change her in any way? It was an open conversation, but I don't think the kind of story that she's going through with love and long-term relationships and friends is really impacted by her race or anything—everyone goes through those things. So there are certain jobs where I think it's really great to bring that, and there are certain things where it's just nice for it not to be commented on.
Something else I'm obsessed with about the show is the early 2010s clothing! I've recognised pieces and looks that were such a moment at the time and I had forgotten about…
I hate that I had so many shorts and tights! I remember wearing this at the time, and then you put it on day after day. I remember why I hated wearing this before—so many wedgies. It's just not a comfy outfit to sit in. So many 2010 fashion looks. I was like why? Why did we rarely like belts and scarves? Yeah, I didn't love that time in fashion, but I loved wearing it for the character of Nell.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Up next: The 9 Most Expensive-Looking Pieces on the High Street