Bel Powley on how ‘A Small Light’ shows a new way to look at the Holocaust and heroism

Bel Powley
Bel Powley stars as Miep Gies in ‘A Small Light’.
National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

Actress Bel Powley delves into ‘A Small LightNat Geo and Disney +’s new mini series that covers the Holocaust through a new lens. The show follows Miep Gies (Powley) who played a critical role in helping her boss and friend Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) and his family, including Anne, hide from the Nazis.

Powley was drawn to the show and the role because of how relatable it felt, even in today’s world. And audiences can see for themselves how the power of helping others is shown through an “everyday” woman like Gies, rather than a superhero focus like some may think.

Bel Powley
Bel Powley as Miep Gies in ‘A Small Light’.National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

What stood out and drew you in to this project?

When I first was pitched the show by my agents, the offer came to me on Holocaust Memorial Day…I’m Jewish, so it immediately felt special to me before I even read it because of my family history. But I did read it with some caution because I’ve kind of shied away from period projects in the past—I often feel quite disconnected from them. The thing that made me feel like I have to be a part of this was the tone that our showrunners were going for.

The fact that I read the pilot and immediately felt like I was there with these characters, these real people, it felt incredibly contemporary even though it’s the retelling of a story that we all know. 

I very strongly think that we need to keep relaying these stories as there are less and less living Holocaust survivors. People need to remember what happened. But I do think that in the retelling of those stories, it has to be in a way that makes people connect to it and relate to it, rather than just feeling like you’re kind of being bashed over the head by the same facts we all know. And that’s what I felt like this take was doing and Miep is an incredible way into that. 

The show felt contemporary to me, even down to the way Miep would go out with her friends and the way people communicated versus the typical prim and proper re-telling. 

Yes, that’s the tone that our showrunners Tony Phelan and Joan Rater were going for—we speak in kind of modern-day language and it’s shown through this modern day-to-day lens. What Tony, Joan and our director always reminded us of is that for these people, these characters, it was the present for them. I’m making a show about the past, but it was their present. They couldn’t believe in their modern times that a fascist like Hitler would be occupying their neutral country that they lived in. 

This [show] is really going to make people stop and think about today and make it feel like it’s now, there are many parallels with today. If you’re gonna go there, I think it’s important to make people relate and connect it to the world right now. 

Bel Powley
Jan Gies, played by Joe Cole, and Miep Gies, played by Bel Powley, on their wedding day in ‘A Small Light’.National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

After you found out you had the role, what did you do research-wise? 

I’ve played a couple of real people before, but not that there was this much information on. Obviously Tony and Joan, they’d been researching and prepping for this project for about seven years. So they came armed with a plethora of stuff that I could have drawn from—I found that a little overwhelming, I have to say, at the beginning. So, I really just handpicked a couple of things that I thought would be useful to me.

The first thing I did was go to Amsterdam and also, we were filming in Prague, so it was really important for me to just spend some time and immerse myself in the city—especially Amsterdam since its such an iconic place that like operates in a very specific way. I visited the Anne Frank House of course and I just kind of cycled around. I visited Miep’s old apartment that she lived in with her husband, and I cycled her route to work and I cycled the route she took Margo through at the checkpoint. Miep also wrote her own book in the ’80s, ‘Anne Frank Remembered’.

I read that cover to cover a few times just to kind of get a sense of her voice. The other piece of research that I found useful that Tony gave me was a transcript of an interview that Miep did in the ’90s when they were much older, but it went back over everything from the very beginning. But beyond that, for me, it really is about being present in the scene on top of the research.

How would you describe Miep?

What was really useful and also probably what attracted me to the project in the first place is that Miep really was an every woman. She had a mantra until the day she died: I’m not special, don’t put me on a pedestal, I’m not a hero and no one should think they have to be a special person in order to help others. There are a lot of relatable aspects to her, and that is all lifted from her book. 

She talks about fashion and going out dancing and music and how she was a bit directionless and didn’t have a job. All of these things that  any woman in their 20’s or has been in their 20’s can relate to. I had to remind myself that she never wanted to be called a hero and she was just like any of us, you know? 

Bel Powley
Pictured are (from left) Nicholas Burns as Mr. Kugler, Sally Messham as Bep, Ian McElhinney as Mr. Kleiman, and Bel Powley as Miep Gies.National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

Does anything stand out to you that you learned from being part of the series?

There were so many things that happened in the show that just blew my mind, and everything that happens in the show is true. Something that stuck out to me—I didn’t really know anything about the Dutch resistance. I’ve studied the Holocaust in school as everyone had and knew the overarching facts, but I’d never really focused on what was going on in the Netherlands. 

With two episodes left of ‘A Small Light’, what would you tell people to expect and what do you hope they take away from the series?

Anyone who knows the story of Anne Frank knows what will end up happening in this show—so that tough part of our tale is coming up in the next two episodes. But there’s also a surprising amount of hope in episode eight, which people might not expect. 

[Overall] I really want people to connect to this woman and reconnect to this part of history in maybe a new way. There are so many parallels with what’s going on in the world right now. I think we can all learn from [Miep] and see ourselves in her and see that we are all kind of hardwired to do the right thing. I think hopefully this show can remind people of that. 

Bel Powley
Miep, played by Bel Powley, and Tess, played by Eleanor Tomlinson, attend a party in ‘A Small Light’.National Geographic for Disney/Dusan Martincek

Catch the final two episodes of A Small Light on Nat Geo and Disney+ on Monday, May 22.