from The Observer / by Stuart Husband
Spotted in a school play by an Oscar-winner, tipped for stardom by Vanity Fair, dating Doctor Who… and Sophia Myles insists she’s uncomfortable in the spotlight? But with a new British thriller hitting the big screen, she’s finally ready to step out of the shadows.
Four years ago Sophia Myles received an accolade that every ambitious actor dreams of: she was anointed the Next Big Thing by Vanity Fair. It looked like a shoo-in; she was a Kate Winslet lookalike (so much so that she’d sometimes oblige mistaken autograph-hunters with a forged signature) who projected a similar down-to-earth sensibility in interviews via judicious use of the word ‘arse’. What’s more, she was a friend of Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller and Orlando Bloom who’d worked her crinolined way up the ranks – an Austen adaptation here, a Dickens mini-series there, a cameo as Johnny Depp’s wife in the Ripper film From Hell – and was about to go Premier League playing Lady Penelope in the big-budget, live-action movie version of Thunderbirds.
Except, in Myles’s words, ‘It so didn’t happen.’ Thunderbirds flopped (though Myles’s arch, pink-tinged performance was singled out for praise), and she went back to the jobbing-actress life: a Miss Marple; a supporting role in vampire movie Underworld and its sequel; a TV remake of Colditz. Far from being discouraged, Myles insists she was sanguine about her aborted elevation. ‘I feel very much that I’m a marathon runner in this profession,’ she says, in her cut-glass tones, scrunched into the corner of a sofa in London’s Soho Hotel. ‘I’ve never been a sprinter. There have always been people who’ve darted ahead of me the minute they’ve left the starting line.’ She pauses, perhaps envisioning the Knightleys and Millers disappearing in a cloud of dust. ‘And I didn’t get bitter and twisted,’ she continues. ‘At the time, I don’t think I was at an age or a place within myself where I’d have been able to handle being a Next Big Thing. I think I’d have lost the plot a bit.’
It sounds like a get-out clause, but Myles (her first name is pronounced Soh-fy-ah), now 27, expresses it with total conviction. Perhaps she’s thinking of Winslet – whom, with her unruly blonde hair and keenly intelligent features, she resembles more than ever – and her post-Titanic tussles with mega-fame; or of Keira and Orlando’s unenviable status as gossip-mag staples. Whatever the reason, Myles is an uneasy mix of girl-next-door candour – she’s quick to confirm that she lives in Kilburn, shops at Homebase and travels on the Tube – and a steely defensiveness whenever the subject of her private life in general, and her current relationship with Doctor Who’s David Tennant in particular, is mentioned. ‘The culture of celebrity has become insane,’ she shudders. ‘It’s all based on fantasy and I find it creepy and disturbing. It seems like we’re all encouraged to be voyeurs now.’
Talk of voyeurism leads seamlessly on to Myles’s latest movie. Hallam Foe is a darkly romantic low-budget thriller from Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam), featuring Jamie Bell – in his first leading role since Billy Elliot – as the eponymous title character, a troubled teenager who hides out in a treehouse-cum-shrine to his recently deceased mother, surveying canoodling couples. After a confrontation with his stepmother (an icy Claire Forlani), he runs away to Edinburgh where he first spies on and then strikes up a tentative relationship with Myles’s Kate, a businesswoman who looks strikingly like his mother, and whose own life is something of a mess behind its brittle, professional facade. It’s a heady oedipal stew, with hints of everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, all accessorised with a David Shrigley-animated title sequence and a Domino Records soundtrack (Orange Juice, Franz Ferdinand) that stresses the enterprise’s offhandedly hip Scottish credentials. If Myles really sees herself running the full 26 miles, this could finally be the point at which she moves within striking distance of the leading pack. She grabs the (admittedly juicy) role of Kate like someone borne on a second wind.
‘I think that Sophia really embodies this complex character,’ says Mackenzie. ‘She has to play hard and soft and sexy and damaged, sometimes in the same scene, and she’s able to nail it very efficiently and movingly.’
Myles was so keen to play Kate that she wrote to Mackenzie personally. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ she says, a little sheepishly. ‘But I absolutely loved the script from the word go, which is quite rare for me. I met David, and got on really well with him. Then I didn’t hear from him for a while – I think they were trying to get the financing together – but I was thinking, you can’t let this one go, you really can’t. So I sent him a little follow-up letter.’ She grins. ‘I know the idea of begging for a job is terribly embarrassing, but I just wanted to be a part of it.’
‘I hope that this film will help to change people’s perception of Sophia,’ says Mackenzie. ‘She has a real movie-star face, like Ingrid Bergman. She’s a throwback to that Forties glamour, but she’s grittier and more approachable than a Hitchcock blonde ice-queen. I think people have mistakenly typecast her as a posh bird in the past, but this film should go some way toward demolishing that impression.’
Myles’s loosening up is expedited by her full-on love scenes with Bell and with Jamie Sives, who plays her menacing boss. She’s previously confessed to qualms in this area (insisting, for example, on a no-nudity clause in her contract for the historical epic Tristan & Isolde) and it’s been suggested by previous interviewers, dipping into the pop-psych grab bag, that it’s a consequence of her father, Peter, being an Anglican vicar (her mother, Jane, works in publishing, younger brother, Oliver, is a lifeguard in Cornwall). But Myles demurs. ‘I think people are a little titillated by that “saucy vicar’s daughter” thing,’ she says. ‘But my dad’s not a prude at all, he’s very liberal, and the idea of foisting any kind of doctrine on the family would have been unthinkable to him. It’s probably me that’s more prudish. I just don’t think that nudity is always necessary.’
However, she continues, she was ‘liberated’ by appearing as a nude model in a film called Art School Confidential last year. ‘That broke me in, as it were. And I know it’s a hoary old chestnut, but I really felt that the sex scenes in Hallam – which are really unsexy, by the way – were integral to the story.’
But even amid the abandon, reveals a puckish Jamie Bell, Myles was still thinking tactically: ‘After “action”, Sophia would be, like, can you roll on to me so they don’t catch my nipple? And she got me to position myself in one scene so that the audience has a full-on view of my arse and they see much less of her.’
But according to Myles, the nude scenes were a cinch compared to the moment where she does a drunken, ‘sexy’ dance in front of Bell. ‘That was my biggest fear about this film,’ she says, the dismay still evident in her darting eyes. ‘I have two left feet, and the pressure of having to dance on my own in front of the boy who created Billy Elliot was absolutely terrifying. That was my Paul Burrell, stick-your-hand-in-the-bugs’-nest moment right there.’
It’s a careless, breezy comment, but it seems to go to the heart of a wider, deep-seated fear of exposure. Myles makes great play of her shyness at various points during the interview, and stresses her discomfort at the idea of the invasive trappings of fame. ‘It’s very rarely that I get recognised,’ she says, with some relief. ‘I’ve just done a big Viking movie called Outlander, and I insisted on wearing this shocking red wig, so that if it does happen to become the biggest film of next year, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be mobbed in the street. I try to be a bit of a chameleon,’ she continues. ‘I’m very grateful that I have one of those faces that seems to blend back into the crowd. A lot of people pay lip service to wanting a normal life, but it’s actually very important to me.’
Unfortunately for Myles, her love life has tended to mitigate against her desire for the everyday. There was an affair, a few years ago, with actor Charles Dance, 33 years her senior; then she was ‘linked’ with her Colditz co-star Damian Lewis (a ‘link’ she made a rare on-the-record intervention to deny). She met David Tennant towards the end of 2005 when she played Madame de Pompadour in a Doctor Who episode, and has let slip in previous interviews that she is ‘stupidly in love’ with him and that she brandished a Doctor Who action figure while filming Outlander in Nova Scotia. But doesn’t his high profile attract exactly the kind of unwelcome attention she shrinks from? How does she deal with that?
Myles’s face has assumed a rictus grin; she clutches a cushion to her Armani’d chest as if it were a flak jacket. ‘I…’ she stutters. ‘I don’t… I’ve always been pretty wary of talking about my private life to the press, so…’ She pauses, seemingly adrift, before rallying herself. ‘The thing is, your private life wouldn’t be private if you talked about it, and once you open that door, it’s all fair game, and I’ve got no interest in playing that game. I don’t want to be known for anything other than the fact that I play characters in movies. I’ve never had a problem with paparazzi or anything like that,’ she says, not so much touching the wooden table in front of her as bashing it, ‘and I don’t really think about things like that. I just kind of get on with my life,’ she says, her eyes entreating a change of subject, ‘and I try not to concern myself with what other people are thinking.’
We move on to safer ground: Myles’s childhood. She spent the first 11 years of her life in Notting Hill; her father was the vicar of Campden Hill Church, at the heart of west London’s literary enclave. She’d often pass Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser in the street (and later appeared with Pinter in the film adaptation of Mansfield Park). She points out that vicars are ‘kind of classless’, and that she’s half-Russian on her mother’s side. When she was 11, her father was reassigned to Isleworth, in the west London suburbs, and Myles went to the local comp, where, she says, ‘I didn’t really fit in. It was the shyness thing. I joined a year late, and friendships had already been formed. You know how cliquey girls can be at that age.’
Myles’s response was to concentrate on her studies: ‘I remember thinking quite consciously that I was going to concentrate on getting my qualifications, so that I could let my hair down once it was all under my belt.’ She shrugs. ‘I was quite grown up and focused. My parents were thrilled.’ Even more so when she got 10 GCSEs and three A-levels. It was only when the prospect of a philosophy degree at Cambridge began to loom that she started to question her academic faith. ‘I wasn’t sure if I was doing it simply because I thought it was what I should do,’ she says. ‘I mean, this grandiose scheme to go to Cambridge and study the meaning of life… I was 18, what did I know?’
Luckily, she knew – via a drama teacher with the unlikely name of Mr Broadway, whom she had a ‘huge crush’ on – that she’d developed a late-flowering love of acting, and, in one of those Chorus Line moments, she was spotted by actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes in her school play and plucked out to play Lady Jane Grey in a BBC production of The Prince and the Pauper. ‘To this day, I don’t know what Julian saw in me,’ she says, genuinely dumbfounded. ‘I think they were just looking for a well-spoken girl. But when I arrived on the set,’ her smile assumes beatific proportions, ‘I just loved it, I really felt this was the life. I thought it was the most amazing thing. But at the time, I just thought I’d do the job and go back to my real life. I couldn’t have imagined any of this,’ she waves a hand encompassing the hotel suite, and perhaps all the dreaded celebrity folderol, ‘in a million years.’
Perhaps Myles’s lack of formal training – she’s never taken an acting class – has been a factor in her defensiveness. She can veer dangerously close to luvvie-talk when describing her ‘method’, or lack of one – ‘in Hallam Foe, the way Kate’s flat was decorated gave me a lot of clues as to how I should play her,’ she says; ‘the hair and make-up people and production designers create the character as much as you do’ – but confesses it’s only recently that she’s felt worthy of being in the business at all. ‘It was, like, because I never went to drama school or anything, I felt quite fraudulent, that I didn’t deserve any of it,’ she says. ‘It was like I’d sneaked into the party through the back door and no one had noticed. I was waiting for the tap on the shoulder and the yank back outside. But I started this at 16, and I had my 27th birthday in March, so I’ve managed to make a living out of this for a decade. I finally stood back and said, no, you’re all right. I mean, someone would have told me by now if it really wasn’t working out,’ she laughs. ‘Wouldn’t they?’
Myles is planning to consolidate her new-found mettle by conquering her stage-fright and taking on a play – ‘though,’ she confesses, ‘I get bored quite quickly, so I think it would have to be something funny and not too long a run’ – and, beyond that, waiting for the offers her performance in Hallam Foe is bound to encourage. ‘Sophia can do just about anything, and make it look so natural,’ enthuses Jamie Bell. ‘I think she’s destined for greatness.’
It sounds awfully like the Next Big Thing mantle is about to be proffered again, but the question may be not so much whether Sophia Myles is now ready for it, as whether she couldn’t live quite happily without it.