To hear Suki Waterhouse tell it, there are restrictions to the kinds of film open to fashion models making the transition to acting. And from what we’ve gathered over the years, these typically involve explosions, car chases, robots, mass destruction, damsels in distress and/or the word “Transformers.”
“I remember the head of the modeling agency, he basically told me I’ll do way better if I stick to dumb roles and don’t try to do anything hard. He literally said that to me,” the 25-year-old Londoner told Yahoo Movies over afternoon coffee and tea at a swanky Beverly Hills eatery. “And you’re just like, ‘OK, dude, fine.'”
Let’s just say Waterhouse didn’t listen. Her first starring role comes in Ana Lily Amirpour’s shocking dystopian cannibal-romance Western (you read that right), The Bad Batch. Waterhouse plays Arlen, a Texas twentysomething dumped in a desert wasteland that imprisons society’s criminals and outcasts, and within the first 15 minutes her character has two limbs sawed off by flesh-eaters who look straight out of Muscle Beach.
The disturbing events of the first act eventually give way to a gentler, easier to digest story of resilience and romance as Arlen escapes (after smearing her own feces all over her face). She finds cozier accommodations in the Burning Man-esque enclave called Comfort and strikes up an unlikely relationship with one of her previous captors (Jason Momoa). The scenes are also much easier to watch given the visually stunning cinematography and the soulful, revelatory lead performance of the gorgeous Waterhouse, who at various points goes for long stretches of wordlessness.
The film opened last weekend against Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of Michael Bay’s Clash of the Robots franchise that has helped introduce the likes of Megan Fox, Isabel Lucas, Nicola Peltz, and model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who all played the type of roles Waterhouse’s agency head would have probably endorsed.
Waterhouse does not see herself as your typical model, though. “I have to say, I am not that good looking,” she said in all seriousness. “It’s just true. If you saw me on the street, you [wouldn’t notice me]. I’m like two stones heavier than all of them, and two inches shorter than all of them. I have an OK face. But I promise you, I’m not like them, those fashion models. I think that works in my favor, actually. Because you don’t want to look too extra-extraordinary as an actress. You want to look like a real person.”
Contrary to an apocryphal internet claim, Waterhouse was not discovered in a pub at the age of 16 (“I don’t know where that comes from. It’s so weird. It’s always there. It’s quite funny, though. It’s quite an English story, isn’t it?”). She did start modeling as a teen, landed lingerie ads for Marks and Spencer by 19, and became the face of Burberry and Redken soon after. She grew up spending her weekends doing theater and music, though, and her passion for the arts never waned. (She also has a brown belt in karate.)
“I wanted to act because I knew modeling wasn’t [always going to be for me],” she said. “I’m not a 6-foot-tall giraffe who just wakes up like, ‘I’m God’s gift. I need to be a model for the rest of my life.’ I’ve just never really had that experience.
“I got really lucky. I had an agent that kind of recognized that who was like, ‘You talk way too much, you’re too way peppy.” And he was like, ‘Can I send you to this casting director for a movie called Love, Rosie?”
A modest role in that 2014 rom-com starring Sam Claflin and Lily Collins officially launched Waterhouse’s film career. She has since appeared in similar supporting turns in studio entries Insurgent (2015) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), but it’s her fearless work in The Bad Batch that should bring her good notice.
She was intrigued from the second she heard about the project. “I saw the email with the audition and it said ‘This role is incredible physically exerting… So don’t audition if you don’t like difficult.’ And that really drew me to it,” she said. “I want to go to bed feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus. For me, it’s calming.”
Waterhouse bonded immediately with Amirpour, the writer-director whose black-and-white vampire drama A Girl Walks Home at Night earned her raves on the festival circuit in 2014. After her initial audition, the actress was invited to a callback at Amirpour’s Los Angeles house — and then to dinner at Mexican restaurant immediately after, where she was offered the part.
“She said, ‘I want you to do this role, but it’s going to be really hard, and I’m going to take over your life. Do you give me permission to do that?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.'”
To capture the multitude of scenes portraying Arlen as double amputee, Waterhouse worked with Tony Gardner, the makeup effects artist who pulled off movie magic with James Franco in 127 Hours. She had to wear a green sleeves on his arm and leg, and fainted twice getting a cast on (“I’d just faint and then get back up again. And they’d say, ‘Just eat some more muffins and bananas.'”)
Amirpour wanted to capture as many moments practically as possible, which meant digging holes in the California desert ground where Waterhouse’s leg would be buried. She spent hours with one arm behind her back and trudging alarm with a limp. The chiropractor adjustments after production moved her to tears.
“I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience quite the same again,” said Waterhouse with a reflective smile. But sounds like she’s game for anything as long as it’s not easy.
The Bad Batch is now in select theaters and on video on demand. Watch the trailer:
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