With major award nominations under her belt and a key role in Finding Alice, Isabella Pappas talks acting, writing and the best of times at school

Where did you go to school and when?

I went to primary school in Italy. Then when I came to London I went to Sylvia Young and on to ArtsEd for A levels.

What was school like and did you love it or hate it?

It was amazing. I loved it – the best years! It was very loud and I was a really big part of that noise. At both Sylvia Young and ArtsEd everyone was completely comfortable with speaking their mind and being really free and open to listening to others. This is something I’ve carried with me and I’m really grateful for.

What were your favourite subjects / activities?

My favourite subjects were English Literature and Drama. With Drama, I really didn’t mind what role I played as long as I got to be a part of it.

Who were your favourite teachers?

At ArtsEd it was Russell Clark and Lizzie Bellamy and at Sylvia Young Besfort Williams and Sonny Ward. Russell, in particular, was the driving force in helping me discover my love of writing, while Sonny Ward made me fall in love with dancing ­– he gave me so much confidence.

Appropriate Mark Brenner Copy
Isabella Pappas (right) in Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse, for which she earned a WhatsOnStage Best Supporting Actress Award. Photo: Mark Brenner

What was your favourite place at school?

At primary school, it was definitely the playground. In secondary school, it was the rehearsal studios because you could rent the spaces out and we’d do that at lunchtime and make up dance routines.

What beliefs did your time at school instil in you?

You have to abandon others’ perceptions of you to be able to truthfully tell the story on stage. You have to accept yourself and push your boundaries – in any walk of life but especially in acting. It’s important not to have others’ perceptions of you lingering in the background.

What was your proudest school moment?

At ArtsEd I did a drama devising piece. This was my first experience with scriptwriting and working in a group setting on a creative project and It made me realise that as well as wanting to be an actress I really want to write. When we performed the piece, it went really well. We got a lot of positive feedback and our teachers were nudging us to take it to Edinburgh. We might actually do that in years to come!

What was the most trouble you got into at school?

I was a really big rule follower. The only thing that would make me break the rules is that I’m also a really big foodie. I would skip to the front of the line at lunch because I was always so hungry and then get caught doing it!

Were you ever too cool for school?

Oh no, the opposite! I have never been overly confident but I think I learned to deal with that through performing. 

“In Italy, every night after dinner my aunts and uncles would let me put on a play – I’d make them dress up, direct them and then act”

What is your most vivid school memory, looking back now?

Last year we were putting on plays and my group got The Pillowman, which is a really challenging piece. I was cast as Michael but I was out filming for the majority of the time we were rehearsing. On one of my first days back my teacher asked the group if they were still OK with me in the role because of all the time I’d missed. The group all came together in a group hug and said of course they still wanted me to be in the piece – I was part of their family. That’s a very vivid memory as it was just so sweet. 

When and how did your interest in acting begin?

It was my passion from a really young age. I grew up on a farm in Italy in the middle of nowhere with a huge extended family. Every night after dinner they would let me put on a play. I would make my aunts and uncles dress up and I’d put wigs on them, direct them and then act. I grew up speaking Italian, except with my mother, but all the community theatre projects were in English. The way I knew my family really believed in me was that they would come to watch me perform every single time, even though they needed a translation! They still fly over to see anything I’m in – and get very emotional about it. It would be lovely to play a part in Italian for them.

Which actors did you admire and how did they influence you?

We didn’t have a TV growing up so we watched old films on VHS. I loved Audrey Hepburn, especially in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Another favourite was Some Like it Hot – I was really interested in musicals and that seemed to have everything, so it was one of the films that really made me want to act.

What other key influences have shaped you?

Growing up, I loved being outdoors and spent the majority of time running around barefoot. It’s funny because then when I got to drama school and we had all these performance exercises where you had to run around being this animal or that animal it felt as if I was being transported right back to childhood!

Further reading: Actor Danny Mac on schooldays in Bognor and Chichester