Meet Emma Appleton, AKA The Face Of Summer 2022 TV

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Photo credit: Joe Maher - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joe Maher - Getty Images

The first time Emma Appleton appears in Danny Boyle’s upcoming series Pistol – documenting the rise of the iconic punk band the Sex Pistols – she is determinedly marching through a moshing crowd.

Electric with peroxide-blonde hair, smudged kohl eyeliner and ripped clothing, her arrival marks the start of an all-consuming, intoxicating, legacy-defining – and ultimately fatal – attraction between her character Nancy Spungen and the band’s bass player, Sid Vicious. But it’s also the launch of a meteoric year for Appleton on our television screens.

When we meet at Dover Street Market’s London café, Appleton is a world away from Nancy Spungen, soft-spoken in sensible brown tailoring with muted make-up. After reading for an ‘untitled Danny Boyle TV project’ months earlier, she received a call from her agent to say that she had to go back to audition in front of Boyle with just two days to prepare. ‘I spent the morning deliberating whether I should go full punk. I put on a fur coat and loads of black eyeshadow, and just threw everything at the wall,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, This could go one of two ways. But you know what? You can’t knock someone for commitment!’

Spungen’s life – and death – is well-documented. In 1978, she was found dead in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel with a stab wound to her stomach, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. Four months later, Vicious died from an overdose while awaiting trial for Spungen’s murder. The couple’s heroin addiction is graphically depicted in Pistol, with hard-to-watch physical and mental side-effects shown (perhaps no surprise, given that Boyle is also the director of Trainspotting).

Photo credit: miya mizunofx - Disney+
Photo credit: miya mizunofx - Disney+

‘After a day of filming, I would go home and bake a cake or paint, something that was completely opposite to the character. Me and Louis [Partridge, who plays Vicious] had some tough scenes but always checked in on each other, like, “You OK? Great. Let’s go have a cup of tea and a biscuit.”’

The show’s cast reads like a who’s-who of hot British actors. Maisie Williams portrays punk icon Jordan, Tallulah Riley is Vivienne Westwood and Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays the architect of the Pistols, Malcolm McClaren. ‘When I was sitting at the first read-through, I thought, It’s like being with the cool gang at school. Finally!’ she laughs. ‘It only took 15 years.’

Photo credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis - Getty Images

School was not Appleton’s bag, she says, except for theatre classes. Despite a clear talent for acting, drama school didn’t seem viable. Instead, Appleton approached a modelling agency and was signed, moving to London from the Cotswolds aged 19. During her 10-year career, Appleton modelled for Victoria Beckham, The Kooples, Margaret Howell and Daks, before deciding to leave the runway in 2015. ‘I was at the point where it was not fulfilling me creatively, and I wanted more,’ she says. ‘I worked with some wonderful people, but the negative times did taint it for me. I wasn’t very happy; it wasn’t good for my soul,’ she adds. ‘I just wanted to act.’

Appleton nailed her first-ever audition that year, a part in the Cannes-nominated short Dreamlands. Then came the BBC Three drama Clique, Channel 4’s Cold War spy thriller Traitors and a recurring role in Netflix’s The Witcher.

Just one week after wrapping on Pistol, Appleton started filming another lead part in Everything I Know About Love, based on Dolly Alderton’s bestselling memoir. She headed to Manchester, transforming from Spungen into Maggie, the character based on Alderton, for the seven-part BBC series.

Photo credit: Matthew Squire - BBC
Photo credit: Matthew Squire - BBC

‘Meeting Dolly was the key to getting to grips with the role,’ says Appleton. ‘I thought Nancy was going to be more difficult, because on paper she’s so different to me. But it turns out, Maggie was much harder as we’re so similar. She’s in her mid-twenties navigating life, love and what her place is in the world. I think we can all say, “Yeah, I’ve been that person.”’

It wasn’t just the life experiences Appleton could relate to, but also the costumes. ‘I’m in outfits that I was wearing when I was 17 or 18. The Topshop hoodies, tights under denim shorts – I was like, “This is a bit too perfect.” It was the most nostalgic time I’ve ever had.’ The four lead actors – including Bel Powley, who plays Maggie’s best friend Birdy – became like a ‘girl band’ and still have a buzzing WhatsApp group. 'We gelled so easily and we all loved the project, we were just so excited.'

As we finish our tea, Appleton is off to meet a potential stylist as she gears up for two big press tours. Is she prepared for the increased attention coming her way? She squeals, putting her hands up to her face, before saying, ‘I’m that person who just wants to run away. But if something happens, I’ll deal with it. It’s amazing if your show does well enough to mean you’re getting recognised. And I’ll have an amazing array of disguises.’

‘Pistol’ premieres on Disney+ on May 31. ‘Everything I Know About Love’ is coming soon to BBC One and iPlayer.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of ELLE UK, out now.

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