How a Letterkenny teenager shone on the small screen as an ‘accidental feminist’

Say what you will about the current political/cultural climate, but at least it has managed to furnish classic books and films with fresh, interesting meaning. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), for instance, with its terrorism, female chattel and eerie theocracy, takes on a whole new rich significance in Trump’s America. Similarly, the titular protagonist of LM Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne Of Green Gables – a tale beloved of generations of young readers – becomes the unlikely female icon we never knew we needed.

Orphaned at three months, 13-year-old Anne Shirley has had to make her own way in the world. Despite years of physical and emotional abuse, she is as irrepressibly outspoken as she is ebullient; at once, it’s her biggest asset and downfall. She arrives into a household in the fictional town of Avonlea, where the ageing Cuthbert siblings expect and hope to adopt a boy. Anne, burning with ambition and smarts, has to prove to her new family that she is better than any boy they could want; that she can work a farm every bit as well as a boy can. With her red hair, she thinks herself to be plain. . . but knows that being “dazzlingly clever or angelically good” are just as desirable qualities.

A 1980s TV adaptation of the novel proved wildly popular in Montgomery’s native Canada, so it was only a matter of time before the franchise got a reboot. Originally broadcast on Canadian network CBC-TV (now acquired by streaming service Netflix), Anne With An E is grittier and darker than its predecessor. In fact, it owes more to the sober tones of Jane Campion’s work than any whimsical children’s series. This is thanks in part to showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett (whose credits include Breaking Bad), but much of the show’s horsepower lies in the performance of Amybeth McNulty in the titular role.

McNulty (15), who was born and raised in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, by her Irish-Canadian mother Siobhan, beat almost 1,900 girls to the role after she submitted an audition tape recorded in her bedroom. The next step? Producers wanted to see how potential Annes interacted with nature.

“I was invited over to Toronto, where we did the usual auditions,” recalls McNulty on a phone-call from New York. “The next day I get an email, ‘do you want to go on an adventure?’ and the next thing I know I’m talking to flowers, talking to trees, making a throne out of twigs, and doing a lot of improvisation in the middle of the garden. It was the most interesting audition. I thought I did a terrible job because I thought, no, I didn’t do as well as I thought I could have, so when I got the part I was shocked.”

Anne With An E is McNulty’s first lead role for TV. She went from ballet recitals and musicals in Letterkenny’s An Grianán theatre to West End parts in Annie, Les Misérables, White Christmas and Oliver!. Minor roles in RTÉ’s mini-series Clean Break, Sky’s Agatha Raisin and CBBC’s The Sparticle Mystery soon followed.

Yet TV series like Anne With An E, with a huge character at its heart, essentially live and die by the casting of their young leads. Did she feel any pressure taking on such an iconic, beloved character in her first main role?

“Not really,” she says. “I was more honoured to be able to play her. I was more nervous about having to live in Canada for six months and be away from my family. But if [people] liked my portrayal, great, and if they don’t, that’s fine too.”

McNulty is preternaturally confident and self-possessed for 15, and certainly not fazed by the idea of press interviews. Whether by accident or design, she has the cool polish of a media-trained pro: polite enough to answer questions sufficiently, but smart enough not to ramble. It’s easy to see how casting directors would admire her.

And sure enough, when it came to a directorial approach to inhabiting Anne, Walley-Beckett instructed McNulty to bring plenty of her own vim to the role.

“For me it was less about playing a character and being an actor than bringing my side out in Anne,” says McNulty. “It was a case of making her interesting and new, but I also related to her a lot and had to explore what I had in common with her.”

McNulty enthuses that she “devoured” Montgomery’s books as a nine-year-old, and acknowledges that for younger readers, Anne Shirley’s survivalist streak could well take on a different significance than for generations past. In fact, McNulty refers to her as an accidental feminist.

“I kind of liked her spirit,” McNulty recalls. “She is one of the few feisty female characters from that time, and I love that she questioned things. She was a feminist before the word even existed. Back then, she knew if she encountered sexism in her life, that something wasn’t quite right. I thought that was really exciting and incredible.

“I think it’s really important, the message that Anne gives to people, just to really stand up to prejudice and sexism. . . these are things that Anne came up against 150 years ago, and they are prejudices we still suffer today. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s the reality of it.”

In one scene in the opening episode, Mrs Lynd points out Anne’s plainness, and Anne isn’t backward in calling her elder out on such a crass, superficial judgment. It’s a potent message for young viewers in today’s selfie-soaked culture.

“I guess [the message] is to not take anything that someone says like that to heart,” notes McNulty. “If you’re not happy, call them out on it. They don’t have a right to say those things about you.”

A second season of Anne With An E has yet to be commissioned, and McNulty is pondering her next career move. For now, there is the not-insignificant task of getting used to being occasionally recognised on the street as Anne Shirley (“it’s definitely astonishing for me when that happens”). After a brief stint in New York, where she will celebrate her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary with family, McNulty will return home to Letterkenny, where her home-schooling continues apace.

“Luckily, being home-schooled has been very useful [for auditions and work]. I’m at the ‘un-schooling’ end of the spectrum where I don’t have to do exams. With un-schooling, you learn things through living them, as opposed to learning in a school setting.

“I’d maybe like to go to university. . . they keep places for home educated children,” she says.

“I’ve been having thoughts about what I want to do, and I have a couple of options open to me – archery, writing, dancing and even coding – but acting is definitely the main one for me.

“I guess for me it’s more, I’m enjoying this, and if this is where it ends, that’s grand. For now, I’m just happy to be sleeping in my own bed.”

  Anne With An E is currently streaming on Netflix