Bel Powley recently steeled herself for the challenge of portraying Miep Gies in National Geographic’s limited series A Small Light. Gies was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Anne Frank Remembered, in the mid-90s, and while most content about Anne Frank focuses on her family, this series puts its focus on Gies and her husband, Jan, who were a part of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam.
Gies may have fluked her way into working for Otto Frank at Opekta but she would prove to be key to the Frank family’s survival after they went into hiding in the annex above Otto’s office. If not for Miep Gies going back into the attic and saving Anne Frank’s diary, the girl’s story may never have been told, and A Small Light would never have existed.
Above the Line recently spoke to Powley about the research she did before the series went into production, including riding the same bicycle routes that Gies once did. During her visit to the Anne Frank House, she was ushered into places where tourists aren’t even allowed to visit. Our conversation really stressed the importance of having to stay quiet in the annex, where Powley said she could hear the chatter of tourists visiting Otto Frank’s office.
Interestingly enough, A Small Light arrived in the month of May, which was Jewish American Heritage Month in the U.S. Gies wasn’t Jewish herself but Powley is Jewish, and the actress discussed the rise of antisemitic rhetoric while they were filming the series, as well as the story’s scary parallels to today when the series remains as important as ever.
Above the Line: How did you first hear about A Small Light?
Bel Powley: I was actually offered the job by Susanna [Fogel], Tony [Phelan], and Joan [Rater]. I had met with Susanna a few years ago about a different project and we stayed in touch. I had really wanted to work with her for a long time so I was very excited when they offered me the job.
ATL: What do you typically look for in a character when you’re reading a script?
Powley: First, I look for variety. It has to be something that’s different from the last thing in order for me to be continued to feel stimulated. I hate to say it, but as a woman — of course, it’s obviously getting better and better — but you look for a well-rounded, 3D person. It is getting better, but people didn’t use to make shows about people like Miep. It’s something that just grabs me when it grabs me. I’m not, like, the kind of person [who’s] like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to play Lady Macbeth or something.” I’m just, like, a story can grab me or a character can grab me anytime. It’s really just variety for me.
ATL: A lot of people generally know about Anne Frank because of her diary, so what did you know about Miep Gies going into the series?
Powley: Really nothing. I’d obviously read Anne Frank’s diary, as all kids do when I was kind of young. In school, I studied it. I obviously know a lot about this part of history, but I really didn’t know anything about Miep. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember her that much from the diary because I read it so long ago. I was completely astounded and amazed to learn about this incredible, unlikely hero who, for me, has kind of come out of the woodwork. I think for a lot of people, too. I think post-#MeToo, there are a lot of incredible female heroes who suddenly people want to make TV shows and movies about, and we’re like, “Oh, my G-d, I didn’t know that person existed.”
ATL: What sort of research did you do in order to prep for the role?
Powley: The first thing I did was go to Amsterdam. I wanted to just go there and immerse myself in that city. It’s such a specific place that operates in a very specific way in that everyone cycles everywhere. [So] I went to Amsterdam and I got on a bike and started cycling around. I cycled a few of Miep’s bike routes, went to visit her old apartment, and cycled her route to work. I visited the Franks’ original apartment. And then, of course, the most important thing was going to the Anne Frank House, which I’d never been to before.
Miep obviously wrote a book, Anne Frank Remembered, which was later made into a documentary. I read that book cover to cover because it’s her firsthand account of the events and you do really get a sense of her voice and her sensibilities. There were a few transcripts of a few interviews as well that I used. But with a show like this, there is such a plethora of research out there.
Our showrunners had been prepping this show and researching it for about seven years. There were stacks and stacks of stuff that I could have drawn from, but I chose to focus on just a couple of things because you don’t really want to get overwhelmed. [There] does have to be a moment where you step away from the research and step into the character. You’ve got to be present in the scene and work with the narrative that you’re given and the script that you’re given. I think that it really is about [striking a] balance between research and just [being] present.
ATL: When you were at the Anne Frank House, what went through your mind as you walked inside?
Powley: Oh, my gosh — so many things. For me, it was quite an eerie place to be because obviously, you walk through the basement of the house, the bottom where the warehouse was, [which] is where they have the artifacts and the pictures of Anne when she was young, and the museum part of it. And then you walk upstairs and you’re suddenly in — I can literally sit where Miep would have sat at her desk and look out the exact window she would have looked out of, which was a mad experience.
But then also, I was very lucky in that the people who ran the house took me into some places that tourists aren’t usually allowed to go. They took me into Otto’s office and that was the eeriest part of it because his office is directly below in the annex. And obviously, there are loads of tourists up in the annex and you can literally hear people’s conversation, so it really did bring home just how quiet they had to be up there, how claustrophobic it must have been, and also, how many close calls and how scary it must have been for the people hiding them up there — because one wrong step, one accidental flush of a toilet or something, and you’d know there were people up there.
ATL: Having toured the house, what was it like when you walked on set for the first time?
Powley: Oh my G-d, it was just an experience that I will never forget. Our production designer, Marc Homes, literally rebuilt the secret annex from bottom to top, from the warehouse to Opekta, all the way back to the stairs of the annex. It was a three-story set on the soundstages in Prague and it’s a direct replica of the annex. His work is just incredible and so remarkable. We were so lucky that we had someone that talented. Obviously, we have moving walls and some of the rooms are slightly bigger, maybe by a few centimeters, to allow for the cameras and the dolly to move. But apart from that, it really is exactly the same and I think that was totally invaluable to us.
ATL: Given the heavy themes of the material, how did you manage to lighten the mood when you were not on set?
Powley: I think Liev has actually just said this a lot — we’ve been doing a lot of interviews in Berlin. He has said something that, really, I think it’s so true, which is that when you’re doing heavy material like this, it does bring a cast and a crew closer together. I think you do just inherently grow closer as a team and a family because everyone’s emotionally responsible for each other and emotionally looking after each other. We were on location in Prague — everyone was away from home, so we did really manage to let off steam and lighten the mood on the weekend.
Otherwise, especially for me, who’s in every scene of this show, we’re filming for five months — if you’re living in that for five months and you don’t take yourself out of it on your time off, I imagine it could be more than emotionally draining. So yeah, we organized lots of dinners. We had a couple of fun karaoke nights and we made sure that we really looked after each other and had a good time in our downtime. Otherwise, I think we would have driven ourselves into the ground.
ATL: I will say that I binged the entire series in one day.
Powley: Oh, wow. Thank you. That’s heavy.
ATL: It was emotionally tough.
Powley: Yeah, I can only imagine. I watched it in chunks. I feel like that’s why being released two a week, I think, is a good idea — to give people a little bit of a break because it is very emotionally tough.
ATL: Yeah. I’ve been telling people that I highly recommend it, but maybe watch two episodes at a time just because that one-day binge is a lot.
ATL: Even though the series focuses on Miep and Jan Gies, I can’t help but feel that it is still timely and relevant with the current levels of antisemitism.
Powley: Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. The Kanye West Twitter feed, when he was on a podcast — all of that stuff was happening at the time that we were filming. It was so unsettling to see the rhetoric that we’ve been seeing — obviously, in our script, because it’s a show about a city that’s under Nazi occupation, we’re making a period show about something that happened 80 years ago — but the same rhetoric being used by a very powerful, culturally influential figure in our lives today, was very unsettling. I actually found that particular day, around the Adidas stuff, really upsetting. I’m Jewish myself so yeah, that really brought it home for me. I think, unfortunately, it’s obviously a sad thing, but [there] couldn’t be [a] more timely time to make this show.
ATL: Yeah, I’m also a member of the tribe and lost family during the Holocaust.
Powley: Wow. Where is your family from?
ATL: Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Latvia — that area of Eastern Europe.
Powley: Yeah. My ancestors were from the border of Lithuania and Russia but they fled during the pogroms of the early 20th century. My grandmother was in Ireland during the second World War. But yeah, I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m sure that made it all the more harrowing for you to watch this show.
ATL: Yeah. Thank G-d that my great-grandfather and his siblings got out in the early 1900s, but some didn’t leave. Anyway, before I let you go, what do you hope people take away from watching A Small Light?
Powley: Lots of things. One, I hope that it makes people kind of reconnect to this part of history. I think that it’s a part of history that we all know about so well from learning about it in school. There are so many World War II movies. Everyone reads Anne Frank’s diary, as they should, of course. I think that part of history has been crystallized as this thing that happened in the ’40s, [and] I think it’s really important for us to remember that 80 years isn’t that long ago. And [second], there are many parallels [between] what was going on then [and] what’s going on now. It was so important to me, in making the show, that we do it in a way that is relatable and makes people connect.
That’s why through this — I’m hoping, well, the idea is that showing it through this modern day-to-day lens and through the lens of Miep and Jan [and] the everyday person, it will make people connect and truly think about it on an emotional and a human level because antisemitism is on the rise. We are living through the world’s biggest refugee crisis we’ve ever seen. We’ve got a ground war in Europe and Ukraine. There are so many parallels, so I think rather than just bash people over the head with the same facts that we already know, it was so important to me that we try and make something that people will understand and connect to, and just really feel viscerally on [a] human level. That’s really what I hope it does.
ATL: Thank you so much, and congrats again on the series.
Powley: Thank you. Cheers.
After airing on National Geographi, A Small Light is now streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.