Not many 12-year-olds can count Steven Spielberg and an Oscar-winning actor among their close friends, however since being cast as Sophie in Disney’s The BFG, Ruby Barnhill’s life has become rather ‘whoopsy-splunkers’ or in human beans’ speak – fantastic.
2016 celebrated the one hundred year anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest children’s storytellers of all time, Roald Dahl. To mark the occasion, one of his best-loved characters received a full Hollywood makeover bringing the adventure, and some big gruesome giants, alive for children on the big screen.
The lead role of Sophie was coveted by thousands, but eventually claimed by ten-year-old Ruby Barnhill from Cheshire, who confesses had never even read the book until preparing for her first audition.
Inspired by her dad Paul to become an actor, she believes it was a bigger shock to her parents than her when she got the life-changing news. Ruby reveals, ‘I really don’t think they thought I would get it, but they were really encouraging the entire time, and excited for me because I was so excited. My dad’s concern was that he didn’t want me to go to have to learn about rejection, but he supported my decision because I wanted to go.
‘My dad and I are the only actors in our family and he did inspire me as I used to watch him in shows and think how fantastic he was. I guess I’m kind of an actress but my dad’s done so many more things than me. I did go to a drama class in a small village near my school, but other than that I hadn’t done much acting at all.
‘When I got the phone call from the casting director Nina Gold and she said ‘How old are you?’ I was really confused as to why she was asking me that, but then she said, ‘That’s a shame because you won’t be able to have a glass of champagne when everyone’s celebrating that you got the part.’ She was right but I was so happy. My mum bought me flowers and I got a big bunch of balloons instead.’
Ruby had to keep her big secret from her school friends for over two months, an almighty challenge for any ten-year-old. She laughs, ‘My friends kept asking and I had to keep saying ‘I don’t know yet!’
Although a confirmed Roald Dahl fan – Matilda is her favourite, followed by George’s Marvellous Medicine and Fantastic Mr Fox – she hadn’t read the BFG. She admits, ‘I tried reading it before but it hadn’t hooked me. I was only eight then but when I did read it, preparing for my first audition, I really got into it and enjoyed it. I wanted to get into the character of Sophie as much as I could.’
In 2016 The BFG was voted by parents as one the best books for teaching children about empathy. Does Ruby agree with them? She responds, ‘There have been a lot of books written about feeling alone, dealing with problems and finding a special friendship but these are usually themes aimed at teenagers. It’s really nice to have a story like The BFG aimed at a younger age that also explores those emotions.’
But as anyone who has read the book, or watched the movie, will know along with sympathy for the Big Friendly Giant is the laugh-out-loud feel good factor, especially trying to understand the protagonist of the tale. Ruby admits, ‘It’s very hard to choose just one but my favourite word from the BFG’s language (Gobblefunk) is ‘frobscottle’ (lemonade). Roald Dahl wrote his words in such a clever way. He revealed in his journal that it took him an incredibly long time to find just the right words to fit objects and people. If I had to choose just one I’m a big fan of ‘frobscottle’.’
But was making a movie all just great fun and a huge adventure? ‘When I was off set I had to continue my schoolwork with my tutor Jenny. I did do more interesting fun things towards the end of filming but making any film, even a short film is very hard. With the BFG there was so much new and improved technology, it made the matter of making the movie even more complicated. It was really hard work but an amazing experience.
‘I get asked constantly by my friends about acting with a green screen and it’s all very strange. If you imagine being in a room painted entirely in green and then you have to use your imagination that the room is wonderfully decorated. It’s weird to describe acting with green screen because you have to use your imagination constantly but it’s still really interesting.’
And what about a favourite scene? ‘I have said this to everyone but my favourite scenes are the ones where Sophie and the BFG connect the most, because they are the scenes which have the most beautiful, touching moments throughout the film. The story is strung together through the moments they share. Me and Mark (Ryland who plays the BFG) had to work so hard to create that emotion constantly, but we became great friends and were both so happy with the end result.’
Steven Spielberg stated that they “Have discovered a wonderful Sophie in Ruby Barnhill”. But what did Ruby make of him? ‘Firstly he is an amazing director. It was such a pleasure working with him. He made me feel so comfortable and calm from the minute I met him and we just clicked because I’m obsessed with making movies too. I’m always pestering my mum and dad to watch them. He’s a really lovely person and I really do love him so much. We keep in touch and I see him when he comes to London.’
But if he offered her a lead role again tomorrow would she accept? Her response is surprising. ‘I’m not sure. If Steven did offer me another role I think this year he would be fine if I said no. This year and next I just want to focus on school as I missed a lot of year six and year seven which are important school years.’
So despite her new movie career Ruby hasn’t let the bright lights of stardom dazzle her completely and just like her character Sophie, seems to have a very sensible head on those young shoulders.
And her dreams for the future? ‘I would love to become an acting director which are the two things I love doing. When I make my own movies at home I always act in them as well. I don’t think I will necessarily be doing any more films unless a really great opportunity comes along. I have a lot of catching up to do with my friends and school.’
The BFG is out on Digital Download now and on Blu-ray & DVD on November 21.