Ella Lily Hyland
With Amazon Prime’s psychological tennis drama Fifteen-Love, actress Ella Lily Hyland is having her much deserved breakout moment.
It’s a big week for Ella Lily Hyland — she just dyed her eyebrows blonde and her breakout role in a major show was just released. The show in particular? Fifteen-Love, an Amazon Prime miniseries that explores abuse and power dynamics in the intense world of tennis. It’s the exact type of character that Irish actress Ella Lily Hyland was born to play. More importantly, it’s the exact type of story that is in safe hands with its star.
Already receiving critical acclaim for her performance (and keeping tight-lipped about her next role), Hyland is primed to be the next big star out of Ireland. Hailing from Carlow, Hyland is the definition of a storyteller. Critics and viewers alike have spoken at length about her “mesmerizing” and “powerful” debut performance. For Ella Lily Hyland, it all comes back to being a kid truly obsessed with make-believe by trying on her grandfather’s hat and pretending to be someone else just to make him laugh. It’s within that playful childlike wonderment and boundless tenacity that not just forces you to keep your eyes on the screen when she’s present, but demonstrates how easily she morphs into the character she’s portraying.
In Fifteen-Love, Ella Lily Hyland plays 17-year-old tennis protégé Justine Pierce who suffers a severe injury to her wrist that seemingly forces her to end her career. Five years later while working at her previous tennis academy as a sports physiotherapist, she comes face to face with her coach Glenn, played by Poldark’s Aidan Turner, and is confronted with everything she’s been burying for half a decade. Jumping from past to present, juxtaposing Justine’s perception of events and reality, the show is remarkably one of the first to tackle sexual abuse and trauma in elite sports — and does so with the utmost respect to all survivors. Hyland, who worked with past tennis star Naomi Cavaday and conducted extensive research for the role, found more than just a role in the part — she found a greater purpose by shining a light on similar real-life stories.
To discuss the intricacies of playing someone like Justine in Fifteen-Love, 1883 Magazine’s Kelsey Barnes sits down with Ella Lily Hyland to chat about the role, what she hopes viewers take away from the show, and more.
Trigger warning: conversations around sexual abuse and domestic violence. This interview contains spoilers.
To start, because there’s hardly anything about you online, what made you want to pursue a career in acting?
It was always a huge part of my life. I feel like I’ve always been creating, playing pretend, and storytelling… It’s a huge part of who I am and who my family are. I think I felt that [love of performing] from a really young age — I love to pretend and explore different personalities, different voice patterns, and all of that stuff. When I was younger, I used to come into my Granddad’s house and he had all these hats lining the wall with his big jackets. I’d come in, put on all of that stuff, and pretend to be someone coming in up the road! [Laughs] He was a really quiet man, he wouldn’t talk much, but I do remember him loving it and finding joy in my little performance. I would really believe I was that person.
Even back then when I was very young I was very aware of the joy of entertainment and how much happiness it brings to people. It wasn’t that I was very passionately pursuing it at a young age, I just think it was always quite sacred to me. I wasn’t involved in stage school and I didn’t perform a lot as a kid, my drama classes were just us performing for the class. It felt sacred to me, like there wasn’t meant to be an end result. It was just meant to be playful and fun.
I did my first play when I was 16 in Dublin and I think that’s when I started to meet teenagers who were very into acting and were auditioning for drama schools. It made me think that I could do it, too. When I was 17, I auditioned to go to drama school and ended up going to The Lir Academy. I had a good mentality about auditioning there because I hadn’t been in a competitive environment in drama before, so I knew it was going to be difficult to get into but I wasn’t scared of rejection.
I feel like that probably allowed you to still approach acting quite playfully rather than feeling the pressure of getting in.
Oh, totally. I think everything I do now as an actress is trying to get back to that place of play and trying to unravel all of the layers of rejection and stuff because it’s a great place to be.
Do you find it difficult to deal with rejection? I know it can be quite jarring when you feel like you want something so bad and it doesn’t work out.
I think it depends on where you’re at and what the role is. Sometimes it’s really hard and I can’t believe it, but it’s a feeling that passes. It helps to have perspective — you’ll see the project and you will realize that you weren’t ready for that and the person that got the role was way more appropriate to play that part. You realize you couldn’t have done other things that you loved if you would’ve booked that role. I’m much better at it now, but I think when I first started getting told no, it was really hard. I do think what is meant to be for each person is meant to be and the right characters come to the right person at the right time. It sounds so silly but I think it’s true. [Laughs]
It is true! So many actors have told me they feel like the right role found them at the right time. Sometimes you don’t realize you need a certain character to uncover things about yourself until way into filming. With the release of Fifteen-Love, which marks your first major screen role, how has it been to watch you grow since first auditioning to now?
I’ve never taken on a responsibility of playing a character like Justine before, both with the story and with the training involved. What changed the most I think was this [Fifteen-Love] taking me out of my own head and learning how to play again, kind of what we were talking about before. It’s important to have that playful instinct and rely on it, especially if you’ve done your prep and you’ve spent those months before engaging with as much information as you can, in addition to doing all of the training and filling your head with as much information as possible. Once you actually are doing it [acting the scene], you can rely on that playful instinct because you’ve done the work. You can just allow yourself to play and be instinctive. I learned a lot about trusting that instrict because your subconscious does so much of the work when you’re making choices in different scenarios. I think that trust allows you to just be present in the scene which really helped for this part. With the business of the role and how much time that was required for me to be on set, it helped me channel the mind of an athlete and tune into my instinct as an actor.
You touched on the prep you did for this role — I read that you spoke with survivors of abuse in addition to working with tennis pro-Naomi Cavaday. When you’re approaching a character like Justine who is already so well thought-out, what outside research do you conduct? Did you do anything else, in particular, to flesh out her character?
I watched like every tennis movie possible. Some of it is useful and some isn’t because you’re looking at it from a different lens. A lot of the documentary stuff was really helpful, like Naomi Osaka one. It was really useful because it’s real athletes talking about their experience and being brave enough to open up about the vulnerabilities of their situation as well, which I think is a huge turning point in the sport. People look at athletes to be this machine that isn’t really human — just a beacon of strength and stuff.
This story [Fifteen-Love] made me think of the horrendous sexual abuse that was inflicted upon the USA Gymnastics team and how the system perpetuated the abuse.
Yeah, 100%. Justine has a similar story. I think it’s because sport is so physical, there’s potential for it to be quite tactile. The dangerous thing is, that because people are trying to get to a certain goal, they disregard the boundaries of their own physical body. Their sense of boundaries is so skewed from a young age and I think this is what these coaches and people in positions of power are preying on. What I find so upsetting about and what I think continues to be the biggest issue is how difficult it is for victims to recognize what abuse is and whether they’re being coerced. We, as women, question ourselves and our sense of what our boundaries are. All these systems are so patriarchal as well — the man is in charge, he knows best, and he’s the expert. When you’re looking at an age and power disparity, it’s just such dangerous, dangerous territory. I did look at the gymnasts as well and also what athletes put their bodies through.
We celebrate athletes for how much they push themselves and we forget the pain that they endure because of it.
Yeah, I read about the gymnast Samantha Cerio who snapped her legs and never competed again. The sheer of the mind to block out pain is something I researched, too. How repressed trauma and pain and suffering you block out… That was really helpful for me to try to gain an understanding of Justine. It’s just a space where there are no boundaries, and if you’re not going to have boundaries for your own body and your own self, how can you have them with the rest of the world? I can really understand a lot of Justine’s actions throughout the show. I know a lot of people think she’s unlikeable, but she’s not your average victim. I actually completely understand everything she does.
There was no point while watching it where I judged her. It’s impossible to put yourself in her shoes. There’s no perfect victim, you can’t judge someone for the way they respond to trauma and abuse, or dictate what they do to cope. I don’t think she’s unlikable at all, I found her so strong.
I think that’s what Hania [Elkington, creator] does so well. I was so taken with the script and how much a broken instinct can inform behavioural patterns, habits with alcohol, and a lack of awareness in relationships and how you’re being perceived. It’s so brilliantly pitched by her and it makes me think of the decades and years of women being branded mentally unstable or mentally unwell, which completely disregards the strength of the human to carry what they carry in their bodies.
In regards to carrying trauma, I know you trained with a movement coach about moving your body. There were points where I noticed you carrying Justine differently — in the first episode as you are walking out of the academy away from Glenn, you’re incredibly tense, whereas as you’re walking around with Renee post-set there’s so much joy. What was it like working with your movement coach and connecting the way you’re acting to your body so deeply?
A lot of it was because of Louise Kempton, our intimacy coordinator. So much of the story is based on this sexual relationship and blurring of boundaries and how that would show through their dynamic. In order to find that dynamic, we needed to understand where Justine would come from and where Glenn would come from. It started from there and the idea of a coach and a player and the physical landscape of that world. An example would be how you’d be touched on your lower back or how your arms would be adjusted, almost like you’re being micromanaged in a way. You would be allowing yourself to be moved and adjusted by another person.
I also had amazing movement teachers at The Lir who made me have a real affinity to move with my character. Now, after working with Louise, I really understand how integral intimacy coordinators are to creating the character and how I was going to characterize Justine. We spoke every second or third day and we’d talk through the scenes coming up and discuss things like where Justine is holding her breath during certain lines. There is something we learned at The Lir called the Laban Movement which is the eight different ways that people move and it’s all based on time, weight and space. One thing would impact the other and then the other, and how they interact within that space. We discussed this idea of a horse — this powerful, strong animal — not being trained and carrying all of this dead weight of muscle. That helped me think of Justine and how she’d carry herself. Working with Louise… it was just like we spoke the same language and we kind of playfully worked through each scene.
Something that I feel like a lot of women in particular will be able to relate to is Justine wanting to, despite everything, still long to be accepted by those who aren’t there for her. There is a scene where Justine is running out of Glenn’s father’s estate when Polly catches up with her and tells her she believes her and Justine is overcome with emotion. Did filming that scene feel like a cathartic release?
Yeah, it was. I remember the director asked me if I wanted to rehearse it. I knew that a lot of people felt very strongly about this scene before we filmed it and when I read it in the script, I cried. During my journey with it, then playing with it, there was a lot of stuff I was holding.
That scene did feel like she was allowing herself to collapse for the first time.
Yeah, and I was scared that if I rehearsed it I wouldn’t feel it the second time. So, we filmed it, I tapped into what we talked about earlier and trusted Justine and the process.
On the other hand, I found the scenes with Mikki, played by Jessica Darrow, really touching as it’s where Justine feels like she can break down walls at times.
I loved working with Jess so much. It was like existing in a womb together! [Laughs]
It felt like that while watching, that shot of you both under the covers felt so intimate.
Yeah, it was, really, special. It does feel like a love story in the middle of this other plot. Mikki is such a special and integral part of Justine’s life as soon as she meets her because, for the whole journey that we see Justine on, she’s the only person that believes her. That is so incredibly powerful even though it’s really sad because she doesn’t always trust that.
She doesn’t trust her because no one has believed her for so long and the fact someone wants to help her is scary and almost suspicious.
Absolutely, and it’s so sad. It was also hard to do scenes with Jess and reject her because Jess has such a love for Justine the character and Mikki. I felt like every time we were working together, I was being completely understood. I had to remember that when people would question Justine behaving badly, she was still figuring things out. I felt like in the lighter scenes between Justine and Mikki, it was like we were sharing the story in a way. Mikki has been through a trauma and opens up about that as well. It just felt like we were in a really safe space together and like I just love and adore their dynamic.
I watched all six episodes in one sitting and the way one of the final scenes in the first episodes ends — with everyone at the gala watching Glenn and Justine play — and the final episode, with everyone Justine is coaching watching her play — is quite powerful. Is there a specific scene that sticks out to you when you look back?
The scene Harmony Rose-Bremner [who plays the character Renee Okoye] and I filmed in episode six in the B&B when she speaks to her about her relationship with Glenn. I just remember feeling so moved by how she was able to carry that strength. There’s so much strength in coming forward but it doesn’t mean that there’s no strength in not coming forward. There’s strength in all of it. There’s strength in just carrying on living, having gone through abuse. I think for me, I was trying to remain brave and on this quest for truth. With her, doing the scene with Harmony, I just clocked into this other version of what it means when you come forward. I just found that day really powerful and I think I learned a lot from it. I had spent so much time empathizing and being in Justine’s world — a person who just happened to come forward and speak out which is incredibly brave — and then Renee’s story was in front of me and I felt so much compassion for them.
The scenes where I was playing the tournament in Paris were incredible to film, too. Having the entire crowd around me cheering… It just felt so real. At that point I had been watching athletes on the court for months so being able to do it myself — the entire backstory for Justine — was so liberating.
Knowing what you know of her arc, if you could give Justine a piece of advice what would it be?
God, you know what — I’m in awe of her. I’m in awe of what she does and how brave she is despite what she’s gone through. The beauty of her is that she goes through a lot but she still finds love, joy, and justice for herself. I think, if anything, I’d love some advice from her! [Laughs]
I think that’s beautiful. I love when actors have that kind of relationship with their characters. I just think it’s so nice that you know you hold her in such high regard. At the end of the series, there’s a call to encourage young girls to get into tennis which I really loved. Do you hope this show not only inspires girls to get into sports but also provides them with the signs of power dynamics and abuse in these situations?
Yeah, I hope so. I think the big journey for the characters in Fifteen-Love is finding a sense of unity and coming together at the end. One of the biggest fears I imagine would be the isolation and loneliness that comes from coming forward or speaking out for yourself or creating boundaries. Seeing Justine come forward, she’s just so brave with it. She accepts her entire life falling apart because her sense of justice and instinct are both so strong. I think anyone who does it is so incredibly brave and I hope everyone that comes forward knows that.
I think that, even on a smaller scale, creating boundaries for yourself can be isolating and really scary to do because people think women need to say yes to everything and they need to be okay with everything in order to be accepted. I would just hope that the show reminds people that they won’t be alone. For the people experiencing something similar, I want them to know they aren’t alone and seeing the show gives them solace or makes them feel more heard. I think that’s what stories can do and I can only hope that this show does that.
jacket, skirt + shoes. Lanvin gloves Stylist’s studio
Fifteen-Love is streaming now on Amazon Prime UK.
This shoot and interview were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Interview Kelsey Barnes
Photography Lily Craigen
Hair Elvire Roux
MUA Neil Young
Special thanks Multitude Media
Header image: jacket, skirt + shoes. Lanvin gloves Stylist’s studio