Empire Spotlight: Nell Tiger Free Is Coming Out Of The Shadows

Nell Tiger Free

by Katie Goh |
Published on

The actor on her path to her debut starring movie role in The First Omen.

Nell Tiger Free became an actor to exorcise her energy. “I was driving my mother insane,” the English actor explains from her flat in South London. “I had way too much energy as an 11-year- old. So she took me to a Saturday club where I could run around and sing and dance and act.”

Empire Spotlight – Nell Tiger Free
©Marco Vittur

Twenty-four-year-old Free has directed all that energy into dark-natured, suspenseful projects, from working with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn on Too Old To Die Young and M. Night Shyamalan on Servant to her first starring film role in The First Omen, the prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 classic. “There’s the wiggle room to have the most fun on projects like that,” she says of her tense, terrifying body of work. “You really send yourself into ridiculous situations; situations you’d never be in in day-to-day life. It’s really rewarding.”

"There was a time when women were used in horror films as bait; that feels so dated now"

Free’s love of all things scary began early — as a child she watched horror movies in 18-part YouTube clips — and her passion for what she saw encouraged her to pursue acting. Aged 14, Free signed with an agency and went along to her first audition. She nailed it, and was cast as Myrcella Baratheon in Game Of Thrones. “[That began] the trajectory,” Free explains. A domino effect ensued, as her performance in the show led to her being snapped up for Refn’s moody noir. “I couldn’t have played Leanne in Servant if I hadn’t done Too Old To Die Young, and I couldn’t have played Margaret in The First Omen if I hadn’t played Leanne before that.”

©Marco Vittur

Servant proved a major breakthrough for Free, who starred in the show’s four seasons as a creepy live-in nanny with a shady cult background. It was a learning-on-the-job experience for the actor. “Servant felt like uni to me,” she reflects. “I didn’t go to drama school, so working on sets, under the watchful eye of these fantastic creatives, was a masterclass.”

Those lessons have led to The First Omen, which travels back to Rome in the ’70s, before the events of the original film. Free plays an American woman who arrives in the city to become a nun, and whose faith is tested as she begins to unravel dark conspiracies in the church. She revisited both The Omen and its sequel as preparation. “I was really focused on the mythology of it when we started shooting and then as the shoot progressed,” she explains. “I think what’s cool about this movie is that it could be a stand-alone film, but it does slot nicely into the lore of The Omen.”

The First Omen

The tale, directed by a female filmmaker, Arkasha Stevenson, gave Free a fresh perspective. She’s happy to be part of a new wave of scary movies giving female characters more agency. “There was a time when women were used in horror films as bait; that feels so dated now,” she observes. “Now it feels like women tend to be at the epicentre of these tales, and they’re not just experiencing peril and fear but also combating it and overcoming it and solving the case 99 per cent of the time, which is very satisfying to see.”

Free is in no rush to leave horror behind anytime soon; her next project, Fall Into Darkness, is set to be a cave-set survivalist movie about backpackers in the Dominican Republic. Yet she’s excited to direct her abundance of energy to new projects and she’s open to new acting ventures — even romcoms. “I’ll give it my best shot to not be terrifying.”


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This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Empire. Photography by Marco Vittur, shot exclusively for Empire in London.

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