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How newcomer Marisa Abela landed the role of a lifetime as Amy Winehouse

 (Dean Rogers)
(Dean Rogers)

Amy Winehouse famously said: “My hair is always on point, even if the rest of me is really naff.” In fact, during this same 2007 interview, when quizzed on her hair, she simply leaned her beehive into the microphone as if it was going to answer the question itself.

It’s this attitude, and this hair, which makes playing Amy Winehouse so difficult. She was one of a kind, an icon in the truest terms, and a cautionary tale of fame all in one.

So when 26-year-old Brighton-born actress Marisa Abela was announced as the star set to play Amy in Back to Black, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new biopic covering the singer’s life, career, and rise to superstardom, people had a lot to say about it — and not all of it kind.

But who is the relative newcomer Marisa Abela, and how did she come to ‘blow away’ the execs casting for one of the most volatile, sensitive roles of recent years? We take a look at the up and coming actor’s supercharged rise to fame.

Born to an actor and born to be an actor

Marisa Abela at the Stella McCartney Womenswear Spring/Summer 2024 show this October (Getty Images)
Marisa Abela at the Stella McCartney Womenswear Spring/Summer 2024 show this October (Getty Images)

One hasty Google search might lead you to believe that Marisa Abela is a fabled nepo baby. She was born in East Sussex to Caroline Gruber and Angelo Abela, who both work in the film and TV industry — Gruber as an actress, and Abela a director. Angelo Abela has an array of cult British children’s TV shows under his belt too, having directed episodes for shows like Jinx, The Mysti Show and even one episode of My Parents Are Aliens, but if you assumed Abela got her start through a bit part in these kids’ series, you’d be wrong.

Though Abela's mum did give her a window into the showbiz world from an early age. “My mum is an actress and she raised me and my brother as a single mother,” she said in a 2021 interview, "so we spent a lot of time in the dressing rooms of theatres and in the lighting box watching her perform, so it just kind of seeped in.”

Abela wasn’t much of a child actor — she appeared in one low-budget Brighton based horror film in 2008, when she would have been 11. But she did star in school plays, which made her parents’ hearts swell with pride, hoping she would follow their footsteps. Abela had different ideas, though — she thought she was headed for law school.

“I think being a lawyer would be me rebelling,” she told W Magazine last year. “I told them growing up that that’s what I wanted to do because every time I was in a school play or a show, they were both like over the moon and like, ‘She’s going to do it!’ They were sort of nudging each other. So, I think my way of rebelling was just pretending I was going to be a lawyer.”

An exponential rise to fame

Eventually, by the age of 18, Marisa Abela changed her mind. She rekindled her love for acting while starring in school plays at the Roedean School in Brighton, and applied to RADA once she left, securing a place when she was 19-years-old and graduating in 2019. She began getting parts before she had even graduated — firstly in 2020 thriller series Cobra, which centred around a nationwide powercut, then in interactive feature film “Five Dates”, and then the big break: Industry.

The HBO series, which is focused around a group of graduates grappling with their new jobs at ultra-elite, ultra-stressful firm Pierpoint & Co, was an instant hit, and Abela’s performance received widespread praise. It all came pretty quickly — a fact she’s not unaware of. “If you’d have told me that by the time I was 25 I’d have worked with Lena Dunham [...] I’d have geeked out,” she told W Magazine.

But as for her decision to play her Industry character Yasmin? On that she was entirely certain. “I was in my final year of drama school at the time when I got the script,” she says in a 2021 interview, “it was maybe three episodes, and I was just overwhelmed with excitement at the idea of playing a character like this,” adding, “Her tagline was ‘vulnerability disguised by Prada’, and I was like… ‘God this is going to be so fun.’”

Marisa Abela as her character Yasmin in Industry (BBC / Bad Wolf / HBO)
Marisa Abela as her character Yasmin in Industry (BBC / Bad Wolf / HBO)

Industry was renewed for a second season, and Abela’s second serving of acting chops earned her even more attention. It wasn’t long until it was revealed she had been cast in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) — perhaps the most hyped film of the year — alongside Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Ncuti Gatwa, though this ended up being a very minor role.

Luckily, a much more major role was around the corner.

Becoming Amy

Amy Winehouse in 2007 (Getty Images)
Amy Winehouse in 2007 (Getty Images)

British director Sam Taylor-Johnson (who directed Nowhere Boy, the first Fifty Shades Film, and is married to actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson) was desperately trying to place a biopic about Amy Winehouse over the summer of 2022, and it eventually landed at Focus Features and Monumental Pictures, in partnership with Studiocanal. The next step was to find their lead.

Taylor-Johnson, it turns out, is a huge Amy Winehouse fan. “My connection to Amy began when I left college and was hanging out in the creatively diverse London borough of Camden,” she told Deadline. “I got a job at the legendary Koko Club, and I can still breathe every market stall, vintage shop and street… A few years later Amy wrote her searingly honest songs whilst living in Camden. Like with me, it became part of her DNA. I first saw her perform at a talent show at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho and it was immediately obvious she wasn’t just ’talent’… she was genius.”

 (Studiocanal)
(Studiocanal)

Enter: Marisa Abela. The English actress apparently “blew away” execs, despite them having met multiple actresses for the part. Abela, who like Winehouse is Jewish, kept quiet about the role until she knew for sure. When prodded about it in her W Magazine interview, she refused to reveal details, but said she had her fingers crossed.

Filming for the biopic started in February, and paparazzi pictures of Abela in full costume alongside co-star Eddie Marsan have proved divisive already. People are protective over Amy — naturally so, but it seems Abela cares just as much. In an Instagram post of her in full Amy costume, beehive and all, she quoted the singer’s 2008 Grammy acceptance speech: “And for London. This is for London. ‘Cause Camden Town ain’t burnin’ down,” adding finally, “I love you Amy.”

 (Dean Rogers)
(Dean Rogers)

A much warmer response has been garnered from the newer still from Back to Black, released today, which shows Abela partially shrouded in darkness. There's hope yet for the biopic, so let's get ready for it's April 2024 release.