Bella Ramsey on Chicken Run 2, neurodivergence and child acting: ‘The thing I hated most was being patronised’

Bella Ramsey: ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s in Chicken Run with me’ (Getty Images/TIME)
Bella Ramsey: ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s in Chicken Run with me’ (Getty Images/TIME)

I want to play a villain. A real dark, evil, nasty human being. Someone like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs,” says Bella Ramsey in a voice as sweet as piped icing. The ambition may seem incongruous emerging from the mouth of the 20-year-old British actor, but they’ve got the range, I don’t doubt. Ramsey has already shown an aptitude for grit in HBO’s post-apocalyptic The Last of Us and Jimmy McGovern’s BBC One prison drama Time (and was effortlessly funny in The Worst Witch and Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy.) There’s something about their earnestness, though, that makes them seem somehow incapable of actual villainy, when push comes to nefarious shove.

Ramsey (who has expressed a preference for they/them pronouns) is chatting on a video call from the East Midlands, their original stomping ground. Wary, maybe, of exactly how much they want to show, Ramsey has set their Zoom settings to obscure everything behind their face, giving them the occasional impression of a floating, disembodied head. It’s been less than a year since Ramsey was on screen tussling with mushroom-headed mutants as The Last of Us’s knife-wielding teen Ellie; now they’re fleeing farmers in Netflix’s sequel to Chicken Run. Ramsey’s filmography is shaping up to be quite the risotto.

“I’ve got a track record of not seeing any of the iconic movies that I should have,” Ramsey admits. “But Chicken Run I actually knew about.” The word “iconic” may be overused, but you could make a case for it here. The 2000 claymation film remains the highest-grossing stop-motion movie of all time; its sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, has been positioned as one of the crown jewels of Netflix’s 2023 Christmas slate. Ramsey’s character Molly is the daughter of the two feathery leads from the original, Rocky and Ginger. In Chicken Run, the pair were voiced by Mel Gibson and Julia Sawalha; for the follow-up, both actors have flown the coop – or were perhaps flung out of it – with Zachary Levi (Shazam!) and Thandiwe Newton (Westworld) taking over.

The audio for Dawn of the Nugget was recorded over roughly three years, beginning early in the Covid pandemic. A big chunk of the recording sessions took place while Ramsey was in the middle of filming The Last of Us, HBO’s violent video game adaptation. “It was this weird fever dream,” Ramsey recalls. “I’d go from murdering a ‘clicker’” – the fungus-infected humans marauding around a desolate America – “to running around Chicken land the next day. It was bizarre… but shifting between genres like that is the dream.”

The piecemeal approach to recording was probably the only practical way of getting down all the dialogue for a tricky stop-motion undertaking like Dawn of the Nugget. But this slow, patient process – dare we call it rotisserie-style filmmaking – is not without its pitfalls. “The thing about voice acting is that it’s lonely,” Ramsey says. “In that you don’t often get to meet the people you’re in an animation with. Because you record at separate times in separate studios… I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s in Chicken Run with me.”

Dawn of the Nugget does a good job of obscuring this, at least. Ramsey is a consummate spring chicken, providing a warm, believably childlike performance as Molly, arguably the film’s central figure. The storyline gently inverts that of the original, as the flock of now-wild poultry must break into a sadistic farm and save their kin from being pulped into nuggets. It’s a silly, pun-filled and idiosyncratically British affair, but one with a sober underlying moral about animal welfare. For Ramsey – who grew up pescatarian, is now vegan, and has “no idea what a chicken nugget tastes like” – this was one reason they signed on in the first place. “These messages are done in a way that doesn’t feel aggressive, or obvious,” they say. “It’s one of the reasons why little me really loved the first film.”

Free ranger: Molly (Ramsey) storms out in a scene from ‘Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget' (Netflix)
Free ranger: Molly (Ramsey) storms out in a scene from ‘Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget' (Netflix)

Though they turned 20 this September, Ramsey is still often cast as young teenagers – in The Last of Us, for instance, or as the 14-year-old lead of the medieval England-set comedy Catherine Called Birdy. Ramsey has a truly great face: moonish and dark-eyed, somehow both shrewd and unguarded at once, yet unmistakably young-seeming. They’ve already been knocking around the industry for more than six years, since first being cast in Game of Thrones as the spiky Lyanna Mormont. As a child on set, Ramsey was precocious. “Being a kid actor, I didn’t like the separation,” they say. “The thing I hated the most was being patronised. I didn’t like the fact that I could only be on set for a certain amount of time, and had to go and do tutoring. I get why the hours protections for child actors are phenomenally important – but I hated feeling like I was lesser or separate from the adult cast.”

They explain that they always “got along better” with adults as a child. (They left school at 12, taking online classes and being tutored instead.) “I wasn’t intimidated by going onto a set with a load of people twice, three times my age,” Ramsey says. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve learnt that I have autonomy to stand up for myself and for other younger people that I work with now. I want to enable them to advocate for themselves in the way that people older than me taught me to advocate for myself!”

I wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for my neurodivergence

Bella Ramsey

A relevant factor in all this: Ramsey is neurodivergent. (It’s common for neurodivergent children to relate more to adults than their peers.) For Ramsey, it’s something of a two-way street. Firstly, they say, the rigour and structure of a film shoot is “incredibly beneficial for my brain”. This extends to the catering, to knowing they will have the same breakfast each day. “This is exactly what I need, to not really have to make many decisions,” Ramsey explains. “When I’m on set I really thrive. When I leave sets, especially when I’ve been in that bubble for so long… it’s quite an intense pressure, which can be scary.”

But Ramsey says the way their mind works has proved just as advantageous for their acting craft. “I wouldn’t be an actor if it wasn’t for my neurodivergence,” they say. “It’s just a part of me and it’s incredibly helpful in terms of acting. One of my things is that I have insane levels of visual perception compared to all the other things. I’ve been watching people and absorbing everything since I was really young… all these characters that I play, there’s an element of them that’s already inside me because I’ve seen someone be that before.”

Dragon me to hell: Ramsey in the fantasy hit ‘Game of Thrones' (HBO)
Dragon me to hell: Ramsey in the fantasy hit ‘Game of Thrones' (HBO)

One thing that’s impressive about Ramsey is their ability to take charge of their own image. In the past few years, they’ve opened up publicly about different aspects of their personal life – including their struggle with an eating disorder as a teen – and, in January, they came out publicly as non-binary. Today, they seem equally comfortable drawing boundaries and keeping certain elements of their private life to themself: they politely but assuredly brush aside a question about their parents’ backgrounds.

In general, however, Ramsey’s openness has earned them a devoted fan following, one intensified by the role that will likely define this period of their career: Ellie, the bolshy but vulnerable protagonist of The Last of Us, for which Ramsey has recently been nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Ellie is a gay 14-year-old who spends the series traversing the US under the care of jaded father figure Joel (Pedro Pascal). The series has been lauded for its queer storylines, and Ramsey looked up to as something of a spokesperson for young outsiders.

“There was a certain pressure that I think I put on myself, in terms of defining myself,” Ramsey muses. “Someone asked me recently, ‘Do you regret it?’ And I really thought about that – and thought that maybe I did regret it. Until I meet people who say they’ve been impacted by something that I’ve said, feeling seen – if I’ve been open about something like neurodivergence, or gender or whatever – that makes it worth it.”

Lost in the wilderness: Ramsey in ‘The Last of Us' (HBO)
Lost in the wilderness: Ramsey in ‘The Last of Us' (HBO)

Ramsey adds that they never wanted these things “to be a big deal”; given their age and growing prominence in the industry, headlines and noise were inevitable. “I just didn’t want to hide anything,” they continue. “I think that’s the thing – normalising it, it just being something that’s a part of my life but isn’t the main part, and isn’t something I’m thinking about all the time.”

It remains to be seen how the army of Ellie stans will react to The Last of Us’s next season, which is currently in development. It’s already been confirmed that season two will adapt the blistering 2020 video game sequel, set five years after the first; Ramsey will be playing Ellie as an adult closer to their own age. While the widely acclaimed game was subject to a sexist and transphobic backlash from gamers, Ramsey says they are “unbothered” about the prospect of more trolling over the adaptation. “Whatever decision is made by the creators, there’s gonna be opinions,” they say. “It’s quite nice to just have that level of distance from it now.”

It’s the kind of thick skin you might expect from a veteran of Game of Thrones, another HBO drama that more than met its quota of irate viewers. But then again, Ramsey was fortunate enough to exit Game of Thrones before the series was turned-on and devoured by its own fanbase. Their thoughts on the much-criticised finale? “I was pretty insulated… [showrunners Daniel Weiss and David Benioff] did a good job with what they had.”

If it follows the trajectory of the games, The Last of Us season two is set to take Ramsey’s character into some pretty brutal places. Ramsey may get their wish of playing a villain after all. But I think they’ll find it hard to stop people rooting for them all the same.

‘Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget’ is streaming now on Netflix