‘Anne of Green Gables’ the all-Canadian story returns to CBC
The new version Anne's adventures was filmed in old Toronto gum factory
Amybeth McNulty and R.H. Thomson in ‘Anne’
I meet Amybeth McNulty in Anne Shirley’s sparse bedroom, located up a set of rickety wooden stairs in an old bubble gum factory on Leslie Street in Toronto.
The young redhead, nicknamed Carrots by her castmates, plays Lucy Maud Montgomery’s iconic character in Anne, a new CBC/Netflix series. She radiates energy and enthusiasm, and it takes just moments to see what the show’s creator, Moira Walley-Beckett, must have seen after she found the teenager from a small town in County Donegal, Ireland.
“Let us begin,” McNulty states, straightening her back in mock seriousness as the newfangled recording machine whirs to life.
Anne of Green Gables, about a plucky and imaginative orphan who finds a new life in the home of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert on Prince Edward Island, is, for many, the quintessential Canadian story. And, despite numerous adaptations, it never seems to go out of style.
Each year for decades, tens of thousands flock to the Prince Edward Island home that inspired the book, to tour the grounds and purchase raspberry cordial and little dolls with old-timey dresses and bright red pigtails. They even flock to a ramshackled old house in Bala, Muskoka Lakes, to tour the home Montgomery lived in for a short time writing a completely different book. Such is the power of this coming-of-age tale.
McNulty, who was raised by her grandparents in the town of Milford, population 1,530, with almost the same number of sheep roaming the streets, got her first copy of Anne of Green Gables when she was nine.
“I think Anne is such a great character,” says McNulty. “She’s so good at having her own opinions. She’s just who she is and that’s the way it is.”
To say she relates to the young orphan is an understatement. Early on in the story, Anne makes her first appearance at her new school as a new year begins, having relocated to the home of the Cuthberts (played by Canadian actor R. H. Thomson and British actor Geraldine James).
McNulty was home-schooled, so when she stepped into her first actual school and faced the gleeful teens hugging, getting reacquainted and running around as teens do, the anxiety was genuine.
“It was real for me,” she says. “I didn’t have to act through it. It is very real and very honestly written. They are lovely girls in real life, but at the time I didn’t know them,” she says, referring to the characters who bully Anne.
She felt out of place, excluded, a fish out of water, as they say: one of Anne of Green Gables’ many themes — in addition to bullying, prejudice, sexuality and child abuse — that are still very relevant to today’s youth.
It also has a strong message for those of today’s youth stuck in a social media, device-heavy rut that keeps them indoors for far too long.
“I would probably just drag them into the forest, pick a crown and say here, go be a princess,” says McNulty, who can often be found in her own local woods playing with bows and arrows in a game called Land of Dreams with her friends.
“There is pressure to stop imagining and stop being childish and grow up. And I don’t like that and neither do my friends. It’s just fun. You don’t have to be that perfect teenager on their phone all day. You don’t have to be that.”
Geraldine James wishes she’d had a copy of the book to read to her daughter when she was growing up.
“It’s extraordinary,” she says. “It’s absolutely fantastic. The characters are amazing.”
Her first encounter with the book was actually at her daughter’s wedding, where the couple asked for copies of guests’ favourite books as presents.
“She got three copies of it,” says James.
Although James comes largely from a stage background, as do Thomson and McNulty, it should be noted that she did appear in the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One.
“I was in it for an eighth of a second,” she says. “I was Blue Three X-Wing Pilot at the very end of a battle, and it was the best fun I’ve had in my life.”
McNulty appeared in local musicals before moving on to BBC radio dramas and an appearance in The Sound of Music in London’s West End. She submitted two self-tapes for Anne before being invited to Toronto to audition in-person at the CBC building. Although she is a self-described “country bumpkin,” she seems to be adjusting to city life.
“You have Starbucks everywhere,” she says. “But I did try a Beaver Tail, so I’m getting there.”
The first season of Anne, eight episodes in total, begins with a two-hour premiere on March 19 on CBC-TV, followed globally, on Netflix, May 12.