Ella Purnell On ‘Fallout’ And Why She Gravitates Toward Playing Survivors

If Leslie Knope lived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, she might look something like Ella Purnell’s Lucy – the plucky, wide-eyed heroine of Amazon Prime Video’s latest streaming big swing, Fallout.

An adaptation of Bethesda’s massively popular RPG franchise, the show is produced by Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and helmed by Graham Wagner (The Office) and Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Captain Marvel). With those credits in mind, it’s no wonder the series sports a uniquely weird, retro-futuristic, atom-punk aesthetic – filled with enough Easter eggs to make gamers happy, and plenty of fascinating lore to entice newcomers.

Welcoming the uninitiated is where Purnell’s character comes in. A naively optimistic vault dweller sheltered from the consequences of nuclear fallout as part of a privileged few, Lucy is untested and ignorant of the world as it stands now. The bombs may have dropped hundreds of years earlier, but she, like us, is experiencing this lawless land – ravaged by centuries of drought and decay, ruled by ruthless anarchy – for the first time.

As she embarks on a rescue mission across a West Coast desert, she confronts plenty of unknowns – mutated Ghouls played by Walton Goggins, armored knights, strange scientists with killer K9 sidekicks, and an eclectic array of radioactive monsters hoping she doubles as a midday snack. Purnell, fresh off a stint on Showtime’s breakout drama Yellowjackets, is no stranger to survival stories, or IP that comes with big expectations. (She’s played in the Zack Snyder universe before.) But Fallout is a different beast, a decades-spanning gaming franchise with weighty themes disguised beneath offbeat satire and darkly comedic undertones, filled with an intimidating amount of world-building, dozens of iconic storylines, and breathtaking action sequences. Translating that to the small screen took Purnell out of her comfort zone – tasking her to swim with Gulpers, perform decapitation by hacksaw, and travel halfway across the world to film panoramic scenes of 2296-era Los Angeles on long-forgotten stretches of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

UPROXX chatted with Purnell about that once-in-a-lifetime experience, the appeal of survival stories, and why she thought she had botched her audition for the show.=

Lucy is billed as someone who could star in a toothpaste commercial but could also kill you. How do you audition for that?

They described me to her as Leslie Knope meets Ned Flanders and I could just so picture that. Then I read the script and I familiarized myself a little bit with the games and the tone. This was before my audition. I guess I really wanted to play her pulled back. She is very self-assured. Obviously, she’s innocent and she’s naive and she’s privileged, and all of those things we already know about vault dwellers, but there’s more to her than meets the eye. There’s a danger, there’s a toughness, there’s an idea that if she was given the chance, if she was put in a situation, she could be someone else entirely, and that’s exactly what happens when she leaves the vault.

But I actually thought my audition went really badly and then I somehow got the part. I think my first words on the phone were, ‘Are you sure?’

What gave you the impression you weren’t going to get the part?

I mean it was on Zoom and it’s always kind of awkward. Someone’s always on mute and I don’t know, it was just a feeling. But here I am so what do I know?

Did you get a chance to play the game?

I absolutely did. They told me I didn’t have to [but] it was really important to me to respect the source material. I also love prep. I love to research. I guess I’m kind of like Lucy in that way. So I wanted to have more context, more stuff to sink my teeth into. I’m not very good at the actual playing of the game. I have trouble with the controls, so I spend a lot of time watching other people play on Twitch and YouTube and stuff like that.

I mean, the thing about jumping into a franchise, especially something that’s so well-loved and it’s been around for so long is there is so much information online. There is so much lore and at first, that’s obviously very intimidating, but the more you dive in, it’s just intoxicating. There’s just so much to learn and it made it even more powerful when I walked onto the set for the first time or I put the vault suit on for the first time. It’s truly, for lack of a less pretentious word, humbling to realize what you’re getting yourself into. And yeah, I really wanted to do justice to the source material and I wanted the fans of the game to enjoy it, but at the same time, this was my Lucy. She doesn’t exist in the games and I really wanted to play her a certain way.

The tricky thing about a video game adaptation is attracting non-gamers while doing justice to fans of the source material. Is there anything that might surprise audiences in terms of how the show straddles that line?

I think they did an incredible job bringing all of the details that are in the game to life — the vault suits, the Pip-Boys, the Nuka-Cola, the Radroach, there’s so much. Even the sets, they’re meticulously replicated. But also the themes, which is something that must be so, so difficult. One of the themes of the game is choice. The player gets to make all these different choices that directly affect the trajectory of where your character’s going to go, the journey, and they took that and demonstrated it with three separate characters that represent three different places. You are in the game. You start the games as a vault dweller, that’s Lucy, at the very beginning. Maximus is the only character who spent all of his time, his entire life in the Wasteland. [That’s] a very different experience.

Then there’s the ghoul who is a survivor. He has adapted in the way he had to and he’s been doing this a long, long time. You get these three kinds of archetypes that they’ve pulled from the game, and I just think that it’s so smart the way they did it — balancing the tone of drama and action with the comedy. Even the gore, even in moments that seem like they could be pulled out of a horror film, there is some ridiculous, satirical, absurd element that makes it Fallout.

Thinking of the parallels between Lucy and Jackie, your character on Yellowjackets – did working on that survival story prepare you in any way for this one?

I do think that things happen for a reason sometimes and everything that I’ve done, every piece of my work has kind of helped me in the next one, in a way. I’ve been lucky enough to get to explore survival as a theme in my work — and I say lucky because it’s something that fascinates me. It doesn’t always have to be these big-scale life-or-death situations. Even how you survive an emotion, how you survive an experience, a breakup, a divorce, a death. How do you just survive as a person and do you change? Do you lose your way, your morals? I think with Yellowjackets, you take Jackie and you put her in this impossible situation that she never thought she’d be in… she knew exactly who she was and what she was going to get out of her life, and then the plane crashed. It all went bottoms up and she tried to bend to adapt but she couldn’t. She bent so hard that she broke.

Whereas Lucy keeps on bending, and you’ll see when you watch the show, where she ends up at the end of the season is so different. It’s a different character from who she was at the beginning of the season. That fascinates me how you can put one person or a hundred different people in the same situation and every single person is going to react differently.

Is it a good or a bad thing that Lucy starts to bend, to lose some of her do-gooder optimism in the Wasteland?

Does she lose that part of herself? I’m a human spoil machine [so] I’ll try to say, I think almost everyone gets lost along the way and sometimes they come back to themselves and sometimes they do not. I think that Lucy… all the experiences that she has in the Wastelands change her, but I think the challenge for Lucy is how can she survive and still hold onto that moral compass and still believe. Is it possible to believe in the Golden Rule and live in the Wastelands at the same time? Is it possible? I don’t know, but it makes for really good TV.

You filmed in some remote locations – like hyenas living in abandoned mines, remote. What were some of the joys and challenges of that?

We didn’t come across any hyenas or jackals. Maybe some people did. I personally didn’t, but it was an ever-present risk [which] makes life exciting. It might be cheesy, but there weren’t any challenges. We got to film in some of the most beautiful locations in the world and we’re the first and the last people to ever film there – only eight people on a four-hour helicopter ride to get to this abandoned shipwreck That is not lost on me what an insane, lucky experience that is. Who knew the Namibian coastline could replicate the Pacific coast so wonderfully, but it does. I’m really excited for people to see Lucy exiting the vault and bear in mind that is in Africa where we shot that. It’s crazy.

You’ve done plenty of adaptations – whether it’s books or films in the Zack Snyder universe. How do you handle the expectations and the criticisms?

There’s nothing you can do about it. I have adopted the philosophy and mentality that what is not in my control is none of my business. It’s not my job to make people like my work. It’s my job to make work and I hope you like it, and if you don’t, you’re still talking about it.

All episodes of ‘Fallout’ will be available to stream on Amazon Prime on April 10 at 9PM ET