Emma Appleton had only made a handful of red carpet appearances before nights like a recent Monday, which saw her attending not one, but two premieres. She barely got to reunite with Bel Powley, her costar in the upcoming BBC series Everything I Know About Love, before it was time to swap out one black Saint Laurent gown for another and join Maisie Williams and Louis Partridge at the premiere of Pistol, a new FX series that culminates with Appleton’s character, Nancy Spungen, causing an ill-fated rift among the members of the Sex Pistols. “I think if I had just done one [premiere], I would’ve gotten a bit nervous,” Appleton says from her southeast London apartment—which she somehow moved into amid both press tours—less than 24 hours later. “But I had so much going on, there was no time for that.”
Born in a small town in Oxfordshire, England, Appleton is technically a model-turned-actor. But don’t let that cliché give you the wrong idea; for starters, the 30-year-old wasn’t your typical model. “My agency was like, ‘Do you want to go to Milan, Paris, and New York and do fashion week?,’” Appleton recalls. Her answer to what would be a dream question for many was a definitive no. She only pursued modeling beyond what her friend framed as “getting a haircut for free” because she wasn’t keen on continuing her education post-graduation. High fashion was an option, but Appleton was making good money posing for mainstream brands like Converse. But when her agent mentioned a potential audition for a short film, then, a 19-year-old Appleton seized her chance. “Acting was something I knew I wanted—I just had no idea how to go about it,” she recalls.
All it took was that single role for her to find out. The short, Sara Dunlop’s Dreamlands, ended up going to the Cannes Film Festival, and piqued enough interest among agents that Appleton was able to quit modeling almost immediately. She booked her next role, on the BBC show Clique shortly thereafter. “My gut was telling me this was the time to leave modeling and throw myself into [acting],” she says. Next came another TV show, Traitors, and then another that marked her big break: The Witcher. Her character, Princess Renfri, was small, but a clear fan favorite. (Particularly on Reddit, where a whole host of posts like “Anyone else fall absolutely in love with Emma Appleton?” popped up when her season of the show hit Netflix in 2019.)
“I knew [The Witcher] was going to be a big thing because it had a big fanbase,” she says, “but it really just exploded.” The experience of playing Renfri presented more than her first real brush with fame. Pulling off learning rigorous stunts at the very last minute and having believable chemistry with Henry Cavill led to a surge of self-confidence in her acting abilities. Still, Appleton couldn’t quite believe it when she learned that she was up for the role of someone so iconic as Nancy Spungen. She was well aware that Pistol’s director, Danny Boyle, was a big deal: She read the opening monologue of his 1996 cult classic Trainspotting for her drama class A levels. As a result, she spent the whole night prior practicing Nancy’s extremely distinctive accent and makeup—and since she had a hunch Boyle would appreciate her dressing the part, she spiked her hair and styled herself in a mesh vest and fake fur coat.
“Within 10 minutes of getting the role, I was writing notes about Nancy, all of her history,” Appleton says. The show’s writer, Craig Pierce, made it clear that the Pistol version of Nancy should be Appleton’s own interpretation. (“I would’ve cast someone who looks exactly like Nancy if I wanted an imitation,” she recalls him saying.) But in order to do that, Appleton had to get to know Nancy first. Of course, she couldn’t do so literally: As anyone remotely familiar with the Sex Pistols will tell you, Nancy was found stabbed to death at the Chelsea Hotel, where she was staying with her boyfriend, the bassist Sid Vicious, at the age of 20 in 1978. He was charged with her murder, and in the decades since, he died of a heroin overdose before the case went to trial. The mystery of what really happened has been the stuff of punk rock lore.
Appleton didn’t waste her time delving into the many theories. “We’re storytellers, not detectives,” she says, clearly approving of Pistol’s ambiguity about the cause of Nancy’s death. But she knew she had to dispel the sentiment that Nancy was the punk equivalent of Yoko Ono tearing apart the Beatles, another misogynistic myth that persists. “It was so easy to vilify Nancy at the time,” Appleton continues. “People loved the Sex Pistols so much, so anything that may have been a threat to them was fair game.” She discovered the most about Nancy not through the lens of the Sex Pistols, but through that of other Spungens. She immersed herself in Nancy’s mother’s 1996 memoir And I Don't Want to Live This Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder, which also details Nancy’s struggles with schizophrenia and addiction.
Just two weeks after Appleton wrapped Pistol, she headed off to Manchester for the Everything I Know About Love rehearsals. It was quite the sea change: The BBC’s adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s acclaimed 2018 memoir stars Appleton and Powley as two best friends navigating the trials and tribulations of dating and being in your early twenties. Nancy died at age 20, whereas Appleton’s latest character, Maggie, is clearly just beginning. In the case of the latter, the same goes for Appleton—even though she spent a decade in fashion before playing both. “In model years,” she says with a laugh, “that’s basically a lifetime.”