The MVP: Ella Purnell Cements Herself as a True Crossover Talent in Arcane

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The MVP: Ella Purnell Cements Herself as a True Crossover Talent in Arcane

Editor’s Note: Welcome to The MVP, a column where we celebrate the best performances TV has to offer. Whether it be through heart-wrenching outbursts, powerful looks, or perfectly-timed comedy, TV’s most memorable moments are made by the medium’s greatest players—top-billed or otherwise. Join us as we dive deep on our favorite TV performances, past and present:

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: in the world of voice acting, there are two distinct categories usually-onscreen performers fall into. One being “actors who do voice work,” and the other being “actual voice actors.” There’s a huge difference between the two, which mainly comes down to the fact that studios would rather cast a big-name actor for a role they are ill-suited for (who could forget “Mushroom Kingdom, here we come”?) instead of a slightly less-flashy professional voice actor for the job. But sometimes, there are performers that truly can crossover from one medium to another, bringing just as much ferocity to the voice booth that they do to their onscreen outings. Hailee Steinfeld, Ayo Edebri, and Mae Whitman come to mind when thinking of actors who truly can do both, and included in that very short list is Ella Purnell, specifically for her performance as Jinx in Netflix’s animated triumph Arcane

Fallout may have been what gave us all Ella Purnell fever earlier this year, but Arcane, and her stunning work in the series as its tragic victim-turned-villain, is truly one of her greatest achievements as an actor in her relatively short career thus far. And one of the most impressive elements of Purnell’s tenure as Jinx so far is that she was a late entry into the series. When we first meet Vi’s (Hailee Steinfeld) younger sister, she goes by the name Powder and is played for the first three episodes by Mia Sinclair Jenness. We’re introduced to a young girl who is protected by her older sister and their father in this steampunk-apocalyptic world, but endures an unfathomable amount of trauma for someone so young. Jenness delivers on that childlike naïveté and innocence, and then shines during the arc’s most heartbreaking moments. Branded a “jinx” by her own sister after she accidentally causes the deaths of her friends and, ultimately, their father, she’s left in the arms of Silo (Jason Spisak) as the series fades to black on Act 1. 

When we see Powder again after the time jump that kicked off Episode 4, it’s clear that she’s much different from the little girl we just left in Silco’s arms. She saunters out of the smoke from her bombs, long blue hair in a braid down her back, and she feigns innocence with a striking “Hi!” before unleashing hell on those that stand before her. Now going by “Jinx” as a way to reclaim the brand her sister so coldly gave her and living as a pseudo-daughter-slash-walking-weapon to the even more villainous and powerful Silco, she is clearly breaking at the seams. Purnell plays her with a soft rasp and a surprisingly gentle tone, only unleashing a more manic energy as Jinx’s reality begins to crack—even more than usual. She picks up the baton so effortlessly that even hearing Jenness’ incredible performance in flashbacks to that fateful day doesn’t feel like an insert from another actor, but a true stepping stone towards what Purnell ultimately brings to this now teenaged version of the little girl we once saw. 

While Purnell steals the show throughout the entire season, delivering mania and heartbreak and sorrow and anger by turns, it’s one specific scene in the final episode that cements her performance as a true tour de force of voice acting, and as one of the most impressive outings in a series stacked with so much talent in every frame. In Episode 9, titled “The Monster You Created,” Jinx kidnaps Vi so that she won’t get in the way of her grand plan—which we later learn is to blow up the entire Piltover council, resulting in a truly diabolical cliffhanger—and, as we also learn once Jinx illuminates her mad tea party, to loop Vi in on her revenge. Jinx, now knowing that Silco was manipulating her from the start, attempts to get her sister to kill their tormentor, but she refuses. And when Vi’s almost-girlfriend Caitlyn (Katie Leung) is brought into the picture, Jinx lashes out. 

This performance could have so easily devolved into a Joker-lite take on this character, playing into the manic Harley Quinn-energy of someone like Margot Robbie or the cruel unhinged nature of a Heath Ledger-type, but Purnell allows a childlike sorrow to seep into Jinx’s every word, even when she is putting on an unaffected front. When Jinx exclaims, “Sheesh! I’m not that crazy!” as Vi flinches, believing Caitlyn to be Jinx’s most recent victim with her head on a platter, there is a jovial nature to the chortle, but it’s just as haunting as her anguished cries and angered shouts that come later in the same scene. 

When Silco dies, her voice cracks and breaks, but just a few whispered “no’s” make it out, and when Jinx finally sits in the chair labeled “Jinx” rather than “Powder,” she simply says “Here’s to the new us” before setting her final wicked plan in motion. That’s the most incredible aspect of Purnell’s performance, especially in this scene, just how understated it is, and yet still so haunting and impactful. The ways that she doesn’t react to these events—Silco’s death, Vi’s betrayal—is just as meaningful as how she does. Any other actor might have stepped in the booth and shouted and wailed and done anything to get across just how much agony this girl is carrying within her as she watches her pseudo-father figure die at her own hand, but Purnell makes every word, every silent beat, and every shaky breath, count. Yes, Jinx is terrifying when she does lash out, when Purnell can let loose those fiery cries, but she’s even more terrifying in the quiet and silence, and Purnell has absolutely mastered the art of knowing just how much to give to each of these harrowing moments. 

Purnell makes this performance feel effortless, that this raspy, airy, tight-lipped voice is as natural to her as breathing, and the fact that it couldn’t be any more different to her own native British accent makes it all the more impressive. From Yellowjackets to Fallout to Arcane, Purnell has proven herself to be a true crossover talent, one able to fall into these characters and make them feel real and whole and impactful, whether it be through a cut-short stint on one of TV’s favorite survival series to charming us all in Prime’s videogame world to delivering one of the best voice performances in recent memory for Netflix. With Season 2 on the horizon, slated for November of this year, it’s clear that, with how fast her star is rising, Purnell still has so much left to give to this incredible show and this engaging character, and I can’t wait to see what she brings to the booth next time around.

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Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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