Ella Balinska has a memory that now must feel like a premonition. When she was a kid, she says, she remembers running around a park in her native London with friends as they communicated over imaginary walkie-talkies. They were playing Charlie’s Angels, and since Balinska is 23, it’s safe to assume they were thinking of the mid-aughts movies, starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu, rather than their late-1970s TV predecessor, starring Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, and Kate Jackson. “It’s such an iconic franchise,” she says. “Everyone’s seen it.” And on November 15, Balinska may very well be seen by everyone when she stars in the Elizabeth Banks–directed reboot.
These aren’t your mom’s Angels. For more than 40 years, the franchise has acted as something of a litmus test for how our culture feels about competent women. Sure, it’s about an elite team of badass female agents who solve dangerous, high-level crimes, but that premise still leaves a lot of room for nuance. In 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, for example, it feels like every scene in which a bomb is dismantled or a motorcycle is jumped is countered with a shot of an Angel running in slow motion in a bikini. That’s not a knock on bikinis, but it’s probably safe to assume that an 11-year-old girl might take away some mixed messages. And it’s why this new version—which also stars Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott—feels like genuine progress: It may well be the first installment that doesn’t directly cater to the male gaze. It also helps that it’s the first iteration, including the original show, to be directed by a woman. “There’s nothing in the new film that doesn’t need to be,” says Balinska, who’s talking to me from a car on the way back to her London home. “It just goes to show that in 2019, [the male gaze] isn’t what people want to see anymore!”
The movie is a delicious slice of girl-power fantasy fulfillment—intense friendship, crazy action scenes, excellent outfits, a synchronized dance number—and, in many ways, Balinska embodies the new Angel. In school, she participated in drama mainly because she participated in everything. “My mom would get called into school because I had too much on my plate,” she says. But mostly, she was an athlete, competing in national-level track and field and playing on her school’s netball team. (It’s kind of like basketball.) “I wouldn’t call myself a gym freak, but I love being active,” she says. So when it came time to apply for college, she added a drama-school application into the mix almost as a lark. “It’s quite hard to get into them, so I thought, OK, if I get into drama school, I’ll do that. That’s my calling,” she says with a laugh. You can guess what happened.
Even so, getting into London’s Guildford School of Acting wasn’t an immediate light bulb revealing Balinska’s career path. “Everyone sort of had their thing they were really good at,” she says of her peers. “You know, people who were really good at period-drama-style acting or classical and always doing the Shakespeare stuff. I just couldn’t find it. And then one day we did a unit in stage combat, and that was when it clicked.” Balinska fell in love with stage fighting, which kept her in the sporty lifestyle to which she was accustomed and also involved character building and craft.
Even with Balinska’s immediate affection for fight scenes, her first big role—2018’s British young-adult TV series The Athena—didn’t require much combat. (In fairness, it’s about students at an art school.) When she found out about the Charlie’s Angels reboot through her agency, she knew she’d be perfect for it—and that her self-taped audition was a long shot. “I was like, ‘No one’s even going to see this, so I might as well just have some fun,’” she says. “And the next thing you know, they’re like, ‘The director wants to invite you.’ I was like, ‘What? Say that again?’”
It’s a perfect fit: Balinska’s character, Jane, is a former MI6 agent who serves the no-nonsense, dismantle-a-bomb-on-the-fly, beat-the-crap-out-of-giant-thugs role. She’s a great complement to Stewart’s Sabina, a goofy, queer party girl, and Scott’s Elena, an easily spooked computer whiz new to the espionage game—but it also means Jane has by far the most fight scenes of the three leads, plus some jaw-dropping stunts (most of which Balinska pulled off herself, though she did have two stunt doubles).
Balinska explains that the on-screen chemistry with her two costars—arguably the best part of the movie—is 100 percent real. “We had so much fun. It was just brilliant,” she says. “When Kristen and Naomi and I met, we all ran and gave each other a hug.” As costars, she says, they helped play up one another’s strengths, and then they’d hang out during their free time. “We’re all mates, and we’d go out to dinner or go do random stuff together on our days off, traveling to all those different countries,” she says. (The film covers a lot of geography.) “We just had a laugh.”
Elizabeth Banks plays Bosley this time around, in addition to writing and directing the movie. Having one of the few major women directors in Hollywood behind your first big movie is not something Balinska takes for granted. But she says she admires how the movie doesn’t rest on its feminist laurels either. “It doesn’t feel ‘super empowered with a female director!’” she says in a mock-cheery voice. “It just feels like a fucking awesome movie directed by a fucking awesome woman.”
In a way, the franchise has come full circle for Balinska, who’s a far cry from that little girl playing spies in the park. She understands that being in such a visible movie, especially as a woman of color, could mean a lot to other little girls. “For me personally, I would watch people like Halle Berry and Zoë Saldaña and think, Oh, my God, this is incredible!” she says. “Those are people who particularly inspired me. And how amazing is it that I have potentially an opportunity now to inspire someone else the way they inspired me when I was a kid? It blows my mind.”
Lead photo credits: Versace jacket and pants; Cartier bracelets and rings; Balinska's own shoes.
This article originally appears in the November 2019 issue of Marie Claire.