‘Sweetbitter’s Ella Purnell Breaks Down Tess’ Evolution In Season 2 & More: She’s ‘Finding Her Voice’

'Sweetbitter' is back and Tess' journey has only just begun. HL spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Ella Purnell about Tess's evolution, Tess and Simone's complicated relationship, and the rest of season 2.

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Image Credit: Paige Kindlick

Tess is no longer the new girl in the restaurant when Sweetbitter, based on Stephanie Danler’s best-selling novel, picks up for its second season, which premieres July 14 at 9 p.m. on Starz. Tess is all in but she soon realizes that she’s got to stay on her toes around everyone. If you let people walk all over you, they will. Tess is finally finding her voice in season 2 and she’s not going to be afraid to use it.

HollywoodLife sat down with Ella Purnell to talk about Tess’s journey in season 2. Ella opens up about how Tess’s experiences mirror her own and how the role of Tess made her fall in love with acting again. She also talks about the fascinating relationship between Tess and Simone, which becomes even more complicated in season 2. Plus, we get some scoop on what’s going on between Tess and Jake this season.

What’s it been like for you to grow up along with Tess on this journey?
Ella Purnell:
It’s crazy, actually. It’s so funny how this always seems to happen on every job for every actor, that life really does end up imitating art. When I got the job last year for season 1, I just really didn’t want to act anymore and I was just at a standstill. And I talked about it openly. This job came along, and I fell in love with acting again because of it. Everything that she was experiencing for the first time, I was experiencing for the first time, so. I’d never really been to New York. I’d been for work, but it was like car, hotel, back home, and I didn’t get to explore it. So, I never even left my hotel. But then I moved to New York. I got the job on Monday, I moved to New York on Wednesday, and I started on Friday. It was so fast. I was thrown into this world. I’ve never done TV before. I’d never done to New York, so I was experiencing New York for the first time along with Tess. I was experiencing being thrown head first into this industry. TV is totally different from film. I felt like I was paddling to stay afloat the same way that Tess was thrown into this restaurant thing that she kind of underestimates and doesn’t really understand.

In season 2, the whole storyline is kind of about power and Tess finding her voice. The question is: what comes after being new? It’s about once you get comfortable in that. You have a job and you’re comfortable in that. But how do you then become a person and develop a character beyond just security? So, it’s about figuring out what you like and asking for what you want, asking for what you deserve, and knowing that. I think for women that’s really important. There’s a moment in everyone’s life when they give themselves permission to occupy space and take up room and actually say, “You know what? I deserve that promotion, I deserve that pay raise, I deserve equal pay, I deserve these things and I’m going to ask you.” And to be allowed to do that, I feel like we so often shrink ourselves and don’t ask for what we want. You don’t put a timeline on these things and it’s also something that you rediscover with age, I find. I remember at 16 realizing that I didn’t want to dress the way I was dressing. I didn’t want to listen to pop music and I was just doing it. I was like, “No, I’m going to give myself permission to be myself.” And then you do it again at 22 and then at whatever age when you’re like, “I deserve this promotion, I’ve been working for 10 years, and I’ve done all this work.” You kind of have to constantly redefine who you are. And I was definitely figuring that out as we were filming, actually.

What’s it like for you to experience New York along with Tess? As she’s trying to find out more about herself, she’s trying to find out more about New York. I love how New York is such a character in this story.
Ella Purnell:  Oh, completely. Absolutely. And what I like as well is, I didn’t see this so much when we were filming, but when I watched it and having lived there and realized what it was like, a lot of shows or movies glamorize it. And it is glamorous. If you’re living on Upper West side and you’re Carrie Bradshaw. But it’s also like dark and dirty and lonely and painful… You have to be so strong to live here, and it will chew you up and spit you out. It’s a monster. It’s an absolute test of character. It’s not even that you make it and become a star, but you get through it and beat the city. You know what I mean? Either it eats you or you eat it.

From season 1 to season 2, Tess goes from having no voice to actually finding it. So what can you say about Tess’s evolution? 
Ella Purnell: I’m not going to say that she’s necessarily likable this season, and I think that’s okay. I think we all go through phases, right? And especially for women. I’m very feminist. But I think we are so taught that we have to be nice all the time. I think part of what I love about Tess this season is that she’s like, “I don’t give a f*ck what you think about me.” She goes from being so innocent and then there’s this huge betrayal. One of my favorite things about the show is her and Simone’s relationship. I’m fascinated by female friendships and mentorships. I think it’s slightly complex in the sense that it’s partly a maternal figure, and she has a very complicated relationship with her own mother, which we find out what it’s about in episode two. But it’s partly maternal and it’s partly that she idolizes her and she wants to be her. I think in every relationship with anyone, there’s an undercurrent of jealousy and an undercurrent of protectiveness within the restaurant. With Tess, she’s really good at her job, and she has an affiliation for the art of food and the art of wine and the art of the dining experience. But Simone finds it mentally threatening.

Tess is still a bit of a mystery. Are we going to get more of her backstory in season 2?
Ella Purnell: Oh, yeah. I loved that you start with a blank slate. The only thing you really have going is that you know nothing about her but the fact that she moved to New York. So you know that she’s brave. And with that bravery you’ve got to go, why was she brave? Who raised her? How does she raise herself? What happened? In episode two, you kind of look a little at the relationship that she had with her mother, which I think explains a lot about her and Simone. It’s really sad.

I love that about Simone and Tess. I feel like Simone wants to hug her but also wants to stab her in the back at the same time.
Ella Purnell: Oh, 100 percent. Hug her with a dagger in her hand.

I love seeing that explored because it’s such a fascinating, complex relationship, and they’re in close quarters with each other, so they can’t escape it.
Ella Purnell: That’s the other thing. I love the backdrop of it being a restaurant because it’s a family. And like a family, you fight and you have to stay there. You can’t run. It’s your life. So you have to figure out how to do it, and with the way that the writing is, it’s so subtle and nuanced. It’s all about who knows what and who has told who what. It’s very complex, almost incestuous within that restaurant family. Everyone knows everything, but no one’s talking about it. Everyone has a secret. It’s kind of like the fall of this great, powerful woman and it’s heartbreaking.

The first season didn’t get into the Jake/Tess relationship, so what can you say about where that’s going to go? Does it differ from the book at all? I feel like every woman has a Jake.
Ella Purnell: Oh, every woman has a Jake and a Will. Everyone has one, right? It’s like the guy you should bring home to meet your parents and the guy you should absolutely shouldn’t. But you do anyway. It doesn’t go well. So, with Jake, what I like about it is you really get to see… he has a fantastic storyline because you really get to delve into a more vulnerable and emotional side of him that we don’t really see. What I love about them [Jake and Tess] is that I think she sees in him a darkness and a pain that she recognizes in herself but does not know how to access. She goes through this journey from being curious about life to gracious about experiences. It’s this weird push-pull thing. And through Jake, she learns how to stand up and go, “I deserve better.” She learns how to say, “This is what I want.” In a way that he can’t. Towards the end the journey she’s like, “You’re all really f**ked up. I’m a blank slate and I’m in this and I’m new and I’m young, but I have my sh*t together in a way that all of you don’t. I think this season is a lot about Tess observing and going, “I see you, and I see through you.”

Will there be major changes from the book in season 2? 
Ella Purnell: It’s pretty similar. It doesn’t finish the book. I’d say there are no major changes from the book, but we add details and storylines that aren’t in there. In season 1, you know how it all follows Tess? The whole thing is through Tess’s eyes. Season 2 is about everyone and it definitely brings in the cast as an ensemble. You go through a really huge variety of things and issues. You go from, like you said, the emotional manipulation that happens to Jake, and we talk about men in power with Howard and his abuse of power. You go through Sasha and his immigration status and his mental health, you go through Heather being the only women of color in front of house.

Ella Purnell
Ella Purnell stars as Tess on the Starz series ‘Sweetbitter.’ (Photo: Paige Kindlick)
Ella Purnell
Ella Purnell stops by HollywoodLife’s NYC studios for exclusive portraits. (Photo: Paige Kindlick)

What’s it like for you to explore this really complicated relationship with Caitlin Fitzgerald, who plays Simone?
Ella Purnell:
She’s a wonderful woman. I miss her. It’s been forever. She’s a joy to work with because we have very similar styles in the way that we work and the way we communicate and talk about scenes. She has amazing tension in the way she speaks and the way she holds herself as Simone. It’s really scary. Caitlin and I spoke to Stephanie quite a lot about the complexities of that and how you don’t fight with people that you don’t love, and the hatred and the fury that comes from that. The rage is not — like I said — is not about shame. It’s about their love affair and the betrayal and realizing that Tess thinks that she’s everything. Also, Simone has this amazing storyline where you go into her history and her background with her ex-husband. You get to see this broken down, emotional, vulnerable, open side of her which is heartbreaking. It’s like watching this tower, this beautiful statue, this thing that you’ve idolized and want to be, fall and you’re like, “Oh, you’re just pathetic.” It’s a horrific feeling.

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