Emerald Fennell Casts Herself as the Eccentric Next Door

For W’s annual Directors Issue, the Promising Young Woman filmmaker directed, styled and photographed herself in London.

A woman wearing a fur-trimmed robe and long gloves looks through the glass door of a cluttered house. Does she live there? Is she locked out? Or is she some kind of spy? She looks a bit like a demented doll—too much makeup, teased blonde curls—and yet, she’s not quite dressed for the outside world. She could be eccentric or diabolical; it’s impossible to tell.

“She could be eccentric and diabolical,” said Emerald Fennell, who both created and embodied the character in these images. “I wanted her to be simultaneously fascinating and frightening: a desperate housewife with nowhere to go; her whole existence has become an occasion to impress the Amazon deliveryman. Judging from her appearance, assumptions will be made. Is she a perv? Or a voyeur? Or just a person with malevolent intentions? Maybe she’s just a loser. A female loser is still ignored by the world. And that intrigues me.”

Fennell, 35, was calling me from her home outside London, where she had been riding out the latest lockdown with her husband and infant son. The photos Fennell created somewhat mirror the mood of her feature directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, which tells the story of someone named Cassie, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, who seeks to avenge the rape of her best friend. Cassie repeatedly pretends to be very drunk at a bar or nightclub until some guy offers to take her home. Midseduction, she reveals herself to be completely sober. “What’s my name?” she asks one aggressive man. “What are you doing?” Once confronted, Cassie’s “dates” become instantly consumed by fear and hostility.

Rosamosario jacket and pants; Alessandra Rich necklace; Theo Fennell ring and bracelet; Wing & Weft Gloves gloves.

Moschino Couture jacket and pants; Emma Brewin faux fur hat; Theo Fennell pendant necklace and rings; Gucci boots.

“Everybody thinks they’re a good person,” Fennell told me. “My question for Promising Young Woman was, what do you do if normal, ‘good’ people are doing bad things? Most movie villains are sociopaths, and while sociopaths are fascinating outliers, most bad acts are committed by people who truly believe they are good.”

The interesting complication of Promising Young Woman is that Cassie herself might not be as “good” as she thinks. “In her case, it doesn’t help that she’s in the right,” Fennell continued. “In Cassie’s mind, what’s the point of being right if people don’t care?” When Fennell was pitching the film to potential financiers, they consistently saw Cassie as a villain. “They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s the psycho!’ And I’d have to explain that heroes can be complex and flawed. I always described the film as a ‘poison popcorn movie’—captivating, but there’s definitely a twist.”

Erminel robe; Rosamosario robe and pants; Theo Fennell bracelet and ring; Roger Vivier shoes.

Gucci sweatshirt and pants; Theo Fennell rings. TheBlingBabyy custom cup.

Christopher John Rogers caftan; Theo Fennell ring; Roger Vivier shoes.

Fennell has always been intrigued by the darker aspects of human nature. She grew up in a creative world: Her father, Theo Fennell, is a jeweler known for his intricate creations, and her mother, Louise, worked as a photographer’s agent before writing two satirical novels. Emerald studied English at Oxford and originally planned to become an actress. She landed a part on the BBC drama Call the Midwife, and she still acts, most recently playing Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. (“Another misunderstood person,” Fennell said. “Camilla’s real life is at odds with what everyone says about her.”) Between seasons of Call the Midwife, Fennell wrote three books, including Monsters, a novel about two kids who are thrilled to find a corpse on the beach.

Fennell was also the showrunner and head writer of the second season of Killing Eve, the acclaimed series about a charismatic psychopath assassin and the intelligence agent tasked with capturing her. Fennell was nominated for two Emmys for her work on Killing Eve, and the show was up for a Golden Globe award, and by then she had already been thinking about Promising Young Woman. “I was surprised when Promising Young Woman was also nominated for awards,” Fennell told me. “Eve [Polastri, the title character of Killing Eve] is brilliant, but more of what people are accustomed to when it comes to extreme women. Cassie is instantly familiar, and therefore more unsettling.”

Once Fennell secured financing for Promising Young Woman, she shot it in a quick 23 days in Los Angeles. Fennell was seven months pregnant when filming began, and her son was born three weeks after the shoot ended. “I couldn’t travel, and I happened to be in L.A., but we were adamant that the film be universal and look like it could have been shot anywhere. I didn’t want to see any palm trees,” she said. To heighten the conflict between her characters’ image and their intentions, Fennell employed a candy-colored palette. Cassie regularly wears bright floral prints and various shades of pink. All of her targets are played by actors known for their work as nice guys: Adam Brody from The O.C., Max Greenfield of New Girl, and the affable comedian Bo Burnham. It was a sly way to subvert the audience’s expectations.

Louis Vuitton jacket, swimsuit, pants, and boots; Theo Fennell pendant necklace and ring.

Magazines: Adam Kuylenstierna/EyeEm, Stockbyte, kate_sept2004, Christian Thomas, Morsa Images, dageldog, all via Getty Images.

For the W shoot, Fennell’s inspiration was closer to home. “I saw this woman as quite British,” she said. “The idea of haunting your own house is something that I feel we’ve all been doing lately.” Fennell might have also been channeling ideas from her next project, a new musical interpretation of Cinderella. Fennell wrote the original story, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is overseeing the music and production; they hope to premiere the show in London this fall. Needless to say, Fennell’s version is not as straightforward as the original fairy tale. “What if Cinderella was unhappy about being in this new place?” Fennell wondered. “What if she wasn’t sure about becoming a princess?”

The woman Fennell is portraying in these photos has no such qualms. “She thinks she’s quite fabulous,” Fennell said. “She may be a person who never had anywhere to go, so she adds on clothes and makeup, and her feelings get crazier and crazier.” Fennell laughed. “It’s much, much easier to get a special pedicure and look into the neighbor’s windows than to remember the secret that you want to forget. And we all have those secrets.”

Balenciaga jacket, pants, and sandals; Theo Fennell ring.

Lighting director: Will Grundy. Hair by Oskar Pera using Oribe at David Artists; wig by Industry Hair Official; makeup by Francesca Brazzo at the Wall Group; manicure by Michelle Humphrey for Bio Sculpture at LMC Worldwide. Produced by Holmes Production; digital technician: Jonny Rose at DigiBoutique; lighting assistant: Pedro Faria; retouching: DigiBoutique; fashion assistants: Rosie Smythe, Sandra Blazinskaite; production assistant: Jeremy Rwakasiisi.

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