Reinventing Anne of Green Gables

Donegal native Amybeth McNulty stars as Anne Shirley in Anne With an E, now available on Netflix.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2017

The Donegal actress at the heart of a new series ­­­about Canada’s most famous orphan talks to Irish America.

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Fifteen-year-old Irish actress Amybeth McNulty has spent her entire life in Donegal and even proudly refers to herself as “a proper country bumpkin.” This would not seem to be the ideal background for someone looking to break into the hyper-competitive world of child acting and show business.

Yet after the producers of the new Netflix series Anne With an E spanned the globe auditioning nearly 2,000 girls for the coveted lead role, it was McNulty who got the part.

It turns out McNulty had gotten all the training she needed right there in the country.

“I did some of my very first theater productions here in Donegal, at An Grianan theater, so it was the beginning of everything. It definitely built my passion for acting and helped me realize that this is what I wanted to do,” McNulty tells Irish America.

Anne With an E is the latest reimagining of the classic L.M. Montgomery novel Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, there have been many radio, film, TV and stage adaptations of this coming-of-age story set on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

Most recently, in 1985, a generation of fans fell in love with Anne Shirley Cuthbert all over again, thanks to a particularly popular TV production starring Colleen Dewhurst as well as Megan Follows as the title character.

The new version, first shown on CBC and now available on Netflix, retains much of the original charm, but also explores and expands on darker issues only hinted at in previous versions.

This is not surprising, given the creative team assembling Anne With an E.

The show was written and overseen by Canadian-born TV veteran Moira Walley-Beckett, who won an Emmy as one of the writers for the groundbreaking AMC series Breaking Bad.

On the surface, it may not seem as if Breaking Bad’s murderous meth dealer Walter White and an orphaned 13-year-old have much in common.

However, Anne With an E expands upon the abuse, alienation, and other more traumatic experiences in the Anne of Green Gables stories.

(Montgomery ended up writing a series of books which followed Anne into her 40s. The first season of Netflix’s Anne With an E, set in the late 1890s, focuses on the character at the age of 13. If the show is a success, producers say they have planned out a total of five seasons.)

The show’s creators have even talked about Anne as an “accidental feminist,” but McNulty cites a more personal connection to the character.

“My great grandmother Martha, was hired out (to work) at 11 years old, here in Ireland. I can imagine that she went through some of the same things as Anne did, so it was a beautiful opportunity to honor her and show even just a piece of Martha’s life while playing Anne.”

McNulty adds: “Of course I love to play different characters and explore how different they are to myself, but I loved playing Anne because she was very similar to me. We both love books and we talk far too much!”

McNulty already has an impressive series of credits.

She played the young version of the title character in director Luke Scott’s film Morgan, which was shot in Northern Ireland, and was also in Sky TV’s production of Agatha Raisin: The Quiche Of Death.

On stage, she has appeared in The Sound of Music, Annie, Les Miserables, and Oliver.

While Anne With an E was filmed in several Canadian locations, and McNulty has appeared in London theater productions, she has, thus far, only been to America once.

“I have been to New York once before when I was five years old. I will always remember the big lights and all the tall buildings and how many people there were. I couldn’t believe it. Oh, and of course I spent an awful lot of my time in the American Girl store!”

Perhaps refreshingly for such a young performer, McNulty is not rushing into her next project. She is promoting Anne With an E but also doing her schoolwork and enjoying her time back home. If her performance in Anne With an E is any indication, Amybeth McNulty has many years of star-turning performances ahead of her. ♦

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