27 April 2022

    Ella Balinska on her love of gaming, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and representation

    “I’m not saying Chekhov didn’t do it for me, but I would have loved to have experienced a curriculum where you see your culture," says HUNGER's cover star.

    Ella Balinska can’t fly without her PlayStation 4 console, a controller and an adapter suitable for the destination. “I just built a PC from scratch so I could play with better visuals,” she tells me over Zoom, scrolling through her phone for a photo of it. “I had been playing on TVs in hotel rooms.” It’s an elegant piece of hardware with a transparent case that will inspire some nostalgia in those who were privy to the cult of the iMac G3 in 1998 (when Balinska was just two). “It’s very dorky but I love it,” the 25-year-old actor, an ambassador for Cartier and Clé de Peau Beauté, says.  

    My mum used to get her hair done by this amazing woman who had a son of a similar age. He had all the consoles,” she recalls of her introduction to gaming proper – playing Snake on her parents’ Nokias doesn’t count, she says. “I got more and more invested [in playing games] and then I was going over [to see him] without my mum. I was a huge gamer and a lot of the characters really inspired me, especially for Charlie’s Angels.” A personal game-changer, Elizabeth Banks’s 2019 vehicle – a feminist-leaning revision of the iconic franchise – placed Balinska firmly in the public eye. Playing Jane Kano, the pragmatic former MI6 agent to Kristen Stewart’s party girl Sabina Wilson and Naomi Scott’s engineer-turned-Angel Elena Houghlin, Balinska had landed the part with just a few TV roles to her name.

    Currently based in Los Angeles, Balinska grew up in southwest London and was initially drawn to theatre, an arena she remains fond of. “I’ve always been a performer – I did performance sports at school – and I guess I really enjoyed that sort of pressure, with a deadline,” she says. Later attending Guildford School of Acting (she got a first), Balinska found her niche in stage combat. “You had people who wanted to do period dramas or who were dead set on doing Shakespeare at the RSC. The stage combat unit came along and I did quite well. It has that performance aspect and physical element, and I could draw from that athleticism.”

    She trained in 12 types of combat, so it’s not a stretch to say the practice is shaping her career: Jane was the most physically demanding role of the Angels – she takes two guys out in her first few seconds on screen. “It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to do, like when you close your eyes and visualise something… kicking ass in really dope movies,” Balinska says. “Now I’m just running with it. I’ve got other exciting things in the pipeline – more emotionally based, character-driven stories – but it’s exciting to know that’s how I’m perceived. There are some amazing action women and it’s an honour to be part of that legacy.” 

    Later this year she will join another famous franchise, when a Resident Evil live-action series drops on Netflix. Announced in 2020 and shot in South Africa last summer, it also stars Lance Reddick and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina actor Adeline Rudolph. “I’ve seen, like, two scenes,” she teases (when we speak the only promo available is a pair of press shots). “It was one of the wildest filming experiences ever,” she continues, alluding to the strange nature of shooting a story about a pandemic during a pandemic. Then there’s also the release of her first Blumhouse picture, Run Sweetheart Run, which had its premiere at Sundance in January 2020 (before Covid disrupted everything) and she’s soon to begin filming The Occupant, a sci-fi thriller written and directed by Hugo Keijzer. 

    Perhaps most pressing however – for both the eight-year-old gamer Balinska was and the 25-year-old actor now on my screen – is Forspoken, her project with Square Enix for PlayStation. “It’s stunning, it’s art in gameplay,” she enthuses. Voicing the protagonist Frey Holland, a young New Yorker who’s transported to the fantasy land of Athia, Balinska has been vocal about her elation since the news came out, taking to Instagram last summer to share a BTS picture of herself in full motion-capture garb. As the face of a prominent new video game, is she feeling any version of pressure? “I’m just excited, to be honest. The gaming community obviously has lots of expectations of Square Enix because of their incredible legacy, but no one really knows what to expect. Whereas Resident Evil has such a huge fan base, this is a very different beast.”

    The game, which drops in May and featured in Time’s 40 Most Anticipated Video Games of 2022, puts Balinska in a unique space: ever since Frey’s image was released, the project has been subject to close examination by fans online. For context, a report put out by the gaming website DiamondLobby last year found that, after analysing more than 100 mainstream games released between 2017 and 2021, only 8.3% of them had a non-white female main character. Balinska is proud to be part of this transformative period: “It’s a really exciting space and I’ve learnt so much about the community. It’s incredibly creative and it’s growing. I’m seeing more and more inclusivity – me being cast, for example – and I’ve also just partnered with a couple of charities to incorporate women in coding in the gaming industry.” 

    Aligning herself with charitable causes feels obvious for Balinska, who speaks openly about carving her own path. Having been warmly embraced by the fashion industry (she has already attended the Met Gala), she is a founding patron of the BFC Foundation charity, while in 2020 she collaborated with her old drama school to establish the Ella Balinska Scholarship 2021, supporting a first-year student from the global majority. “It was one way [I thought] would be helpful to steer the industry in a direction so that you can see people who look like me cast in video games,” she says. Balinska was also adamant that, in addition to offering financial support, the scholarship should provide a broader idea of relevant resources. “I’m not saying Chekhov didn’t do it for me, but I would have loved to have experienced a curriculum where you see your culture. There’s a big shift in the industry now – the world, culturally – and I’m excited, personally, to be doing something new and different. I hope the choices I’m making are in the right direction.”