Smashing performance

Smashing performance

By Michael Pickard
December 6, 2023


Irish star Ella Lily Hyland reflects on her breakout role in Prime Video’s Fifteen-Love, discusses how to build character and reveals what she’s doing next.

From starting the year promoting her first leading television role to ending it working alongside Stephen Graham and Keira Knightley, it’s fair to say 2023 has been a breakout year for Ella Lily Hyland.

The Irish actor, a recent graduate from Dublin’s Lir Academy, had appeared in a pair of short films and miniseries Intruder before this year. Now the last 12 months have seen her on screen in RTÉ’s single drama Wrapped, part of its Storyland strand, as well as features Silent Roar, Songs of Blood & Destiny and Five & a Half Love Stories in an Apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania.

But it’s her performance in Prime Video’s Fifteen-Love that stands above the rest, taking the lead in a series that tells a story about historic sexual abuse, set against the backdrop of the world of elite tennis.

“This year has been kind of mad because the first few months was about Fifteen-Love coming out, so it was a lot of press and stuff like that. It was a whole new experience,” Hyland tells DQ.

In the series, Hyland plays Justine Pearce, a dynamic young tennis prodigy who enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport’s Grand Slams thanks to her partnership with her maverick coach, Glenn Lapthorne (Aidan Turner). Together they reached the semi-final of the French Open, but when tragedy struck on court and Justine’s dreams were cut short by a devastating injury, it spelled the end of her professional career.

Five years on, now 22, Justine is a therapist at her old tennis academy, Longwood, when she makes an explosive allegation against Glenn, forcing everyone to reconsider what they thought they knew about their past success in a story that explores trust, power and obsession.

Hyland describes auditioning for the series as “surreal,” recalling how a previous audition with casting director Lauren Evans for a role she didn’t get gave her an advantage when Evans came to cast Justine.

“I felt like we got on really well – it was a really fun audition process,” she says. “Having that much experience with Lauren, getting on so well, she got to see lots of different aspects of me as an actor and then she really had my back because she had me in mind for Fifteen-Love. I taped [an audition] at first, but when I started auditioning [in person] it was straight into chemistry reads. But even though it felt like it was going my way, you think in your head, ‘It’s not going to happen. It’s too big a thing.’ And then I got the call. My agent rang me and I was just like, ‘Thank you.’”

Hyland was cast before co-star Turner joined the project, and they didn’t meet until filming began. By that time, the actor had come to care for a script that she says has a notable “sense of justice.”

“The really heartbreaking thing was how much the characters were taking action and trying to fight for their themselves,” she explains. “That is really good tension and drama, but also it resonates with people because it encourages us to do that. Also, it’s just really beautiful when we watch people in drama try, no matter how dark life gets – and Justine was in an incredibly dark position. But despite what people are going through, they make an attempt to survive and to live. That’s something I felt really resonant to in Fifteen-Love when I read it.”

Ella Lily Hyland with Aidan Turner in Fifteen-Love, which debuted on Prime Video in the summer

The actor says she was “in awe” of and inspired by Justine’s spirit and fight in her attempt to confront her past – and Glenn. “It’s such a thing in her situation when people have been abused or manipulated and have to speak up for themselves,” she continues. “There will always be controversy. But it’s even down to a lot of social norms that we have, who we choose to believe or what behaviour or personality is less voluble than another personality. It just made me think how much it exists, all the time in life. It might be a power thing. It might be like a misogynistic thing. I just think it exists in all industries and I was more just like, ‘Oh, gosh, this is such a thing.’”

Playing a character going through such a difficult moment can also be challenging for the actor in question, but Hyland says she used that discomfort to her advantage when filming scenes for the six-part World Productions series, which debuted in July.

“When I feel uncomfortable, it sometimes leads to really surprising things, and then if you have achieved what the scene is meant to achieve, often there is a lot of catharsis afterwards,” she says. “So it’s mostly about being uncomfortable and getting to that place. Then in some way, by really sticking there and being there, you liberate something. That’s what you want.”

Of course, there was another side to playing Justine, which meant Hyland faced the challenge of convincing as a star tennis player, despite her own admission that she had “never played tennis in my life.”

Much of the on-screen, on-court action utilised visual effects, so the tennis ball was often superimposed in post-production. Despite that, Hyland trained for three months while she was also appearing on stage in Ireland before production began, while British former tennis player Naomi Cavaday provided expert guidance.

Hyland plays a former tennis prodigy who accuses her ex-coach (Turner) of abuse

“I did say to Naomi, ‘I want to be doing it like every day and as much as possible.’ I was trying to do an hour a day with different coaches in Ireland because I couldn’t be with her at that point. Then the more we got into it, the more we realised, ‘Oh, it’s just a dance,’ but they were very specific about angles and stuff,” she says.

“I don’t have that keen eye towards tennis so I don’t know if we really achieved it or not. Hopefully we did, but Naomi was very specific, even about how you’d carry things, how you’d react or how a shot would feel. It was quite detailed. But I’m very glad they CGI’d the tennis ball in, because my balls were going everywhere.”

On set, Hyland would text series creator and writer Hania Elkington with any questions, while she was also always in discussion with directors Eva Riley and Toby MacDonald. And while she was number one on the call sheet, her solo scenes meant she was sometimes the only actor on set.

“Having that as my first TV experience, afterwards I realised how lucky I am, because I don’t think that is common,” she acknowledges. “If you’re only in for a little, if you’re doing bits and bobs, you’re not going to have that dialogue with a director and a writer except for very particular projects. But I was so lucky to have that. I also had a movement director, Louise Kempton, who was also our intimacy director, and she was amazing as well. We were together once a week but, again, we’d be chatting every few days so it was great to have all the support.”

Hyland is now looking forward to making more feature films, though she’ll likely be seen next in two more small-screen projects. She recently completed filming for A Thousand Blows, a Disney+ series set in the perilous world of illegal boxing in 1880s Victorian London. Written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), it is executive produced by star Graham, with whom Hyland shares all her scenes.

After landing her first lead role in Fifteen-Love, Hyland will soon be seen in A Thousand Blows

“I’m in two episodes of that. It’s an incredible cast,” she says. “It was just great. There was a really good feeling on that set, it was really collaborative, and Stephen Graham has been my favourite actor for years. Just getting to work with him, I would have taken any role if I got to watch him working. It was just really surreal and cool. It was great.”

Hyland has also started shooting her role as an assassin in Black Doves, a Netflix series from Joe Barton (The Lazarus Project) that boasts a cast led by Knightley, Ben Whishaw and Sarah Lancashire.

“It definitely feels like everything happened really fast and I just feel like I’ve been so lucky,” she says. “I graduated in Covid times, so there was nothing happening for about a year, and then you’d be doing something and it would get cancelled. Once things started opening up and I got to work, it was such a joy to do every single job. I’ve been so blessed.”

Hyland also spent some of the pandemic writing. And now, as well as acting, she is following an instinct to tell stories about where she’s from. But on the back of Fifteen-Love, Hyland says she now has a better understanding of how the whole team behind a series can help build the characters viewers see on screen.

“I definitely used to think it was completely my responsibility to bring a character to life, and that pressure can sometimes cause a lot of restrictions in what you have to offer,” she says. “But with Justine, everyone was so passionate about this character. Every department had a view of her and who she was. That was something I really leaned into, letting her be built by everyone and letting it be a team effort, and that allowed me space. That was something I really learned, and now when I go into a job I’m like, ‘What do you think?’”

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