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Where to next, m'lady?

17 - 23 July 2004   |   Written by John Millar

from Daily Express Saturday UK, July 17 – 23, 2004 / by John Millar

Bringing Lady Penelope to life in the eagerly awaited Thunderbirds movie gave Sophia Myles the big break she thought would never come. Life’s looking F.A.B., she tells John Millar

Life is sweet for Sophia Myles right now. Tipped for Hollywood stardom after landing the part of Lady Penelope in the highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of classic 60s puppet show Thunderbirds, she has earned rave reviews that have caused the movie offers to flood in.

But only four years ago, the 24 year old’s prospects weren’t looking nearly so rosy. Like many aspiring actors, Sophia, a vicar’s daughter, had endured a long period on the dole and was at her wits’ end.

“I was unemployed for 18 months. It was very, very hard,” recalls Sophia, who, after studying drama at Richmond College in south west London, turned down a place at Cambridge to study philosophy. “I chose not go university, but instead to pursue a career in an incredibly competitive business and I was living on my own in London.

“I lost count of the auditions and castings that I went on and, at one point, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I watched a lot of morning TV and got very depressed. It was agonising that everything wasn’t going my way. In the end, I joined a gym to keep myself active. I got through it in the end.”

This spell of unemployment was harder to take because Sophia suffered another blow. She was elated after being cast opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in Hollywood film The Snow Queen and had spent eight months Iearning to ice skate before the production was called off due to lack of finances. While some girls would’ve crawled into a corner feeling defeated, determined Sophia quickly bounced back.

“I decided to see if I could get a job in Los Angeles,” she says. “So I talked to my bank manager to get a credit card and, even though I was skint, I managed to blag one and bought the cheapest ticket to LA.”

The gamble paid off, and Sophia’s first meeting in Hollywood was for Underworld, the hit vampire and werewolf movie that starred fellow brit Kate Beckinsale.

“I got that job – which was my salvation,” she says, smiling broadly. “I played a vampire called Erika who was a feisty little minx. The good thing about these experiences is that I really appreciate what’s happening to me because it hasn’t been an easy ride.”

Now she’s the talk of Tinseltown, thanks to her iconic part in the big-budget production of Thunderbirds, that cast her alongside Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays bad guy The Hood, ER star Anthony Edwards as Brains, the boffin of the International Rescue team, and Ron Cook, who plays Lady P’s loyal chaffeur, Parker. She also gets to cruise around in the head-turning pink car FAB 1.

When we meet, Sophia is holding court at Cliveden, the former Berkshire home of Lady Astor, the setting for the Thunderbirds press launch and the backdrop for scenes in the film. Dressed in jeans and a black Alice Temperley top, Sophia relaxes in Nancy Astor’s bedroom. “It’s bigger than the flat I’ve just bought,” she giggles.

A painting of Nancy gazes down upon the four-poster bed and the actress admits that her temporary quarters are a touch spooky.

“I wear contact lenses and last night I was jet-lagged after coming in from Los Angeles. I woke at 3.30am, when it was still dark, and I thought there was a ghost. But it was just the painting,” jokes Sophia.

Apart from that haunting encounter, the only other bad experience Sophia faced on set was filming a bath sequence when she was up to her neck in bubbles.

“It took two days and I think it must have been cheap bubble bath because my skin started to itch and I had a rash all over my body. It was horrible,” she grimaces.

Disaster also struck on the set of her next project, Tristan & Isolde, co-starring Spider-Man‘s James Franco, when her hairpiece caught fire. “I was talking with the director Kevin Reynolds at the end of the day,” recalls Sophia.”I sat down and heard people shouting my name. Then I realised they were saying ‘It’s a fire!’ I’d leaned back and my long wig caught alight on a candle. I had so much hairspray on that I thought this was it. I grabbed the wig and put it out!”

Fate seemed to be on Sophia’s side on that occasion, just as it was when she was spotted in a school play at the age of 16 and cast in a BBC version of The Prince And The Pauper. Despite her spell of unemployment, she steadily built on her reputation with roles in TV period dramas Mansfield Park, Foyle’s War and Nicholas Nickleby, not to mention Oliver Twist and films like From Hell. Playing Johnny Depp’s wife, she got to live out millions of females fantasies – when she shared a bed with him!

Born in Notting Hill, west London, Sophia admits her parents – father Peter, a reverend, and mum Jane, who works in publishing – were initially dubious about her career choice because no one else in the family was in showbiz.

“There was a while when my parents must have been worried about what was happening to me – especially when I couldn’t find work,” reveals Sophia. “Although now, they are really proud of me and equally so of my brother who is a lifeguard in Cornwall.”

Her rising star status means that Sophia has been able to treat her mum, Jane, and she took her to a Thunderbirds screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. “She was able to go first class for the first time and met Robert De Niro and Ben Kingsley, which she thought was great. We had a real laugh,” recalls Sophia, whose best friend is Keira Knightley. She and Keira became mates after working together on the TV version of Oliver Twist and they shared a flat.

Sophia will be rubbing shoulders with more big-name stars in the foreseeable future. The TV series Colditz, which is still in production, finds her alongside James Fox and Damian Lewis, and in the movie Art School Confidential, which she’s just started filming, she’ll share the screen with Hollywood heavyweights like John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston and Jim Broadbent. That means plenty more glitzy premieres and parties, and, of course, the necessary donning of designer dresses – something that doesn’t come naturally to the former tomboy.

“Although I love elegant clothes, I’m happiest in a pair of jeans,” confesses Sophia. “Heels are such a killer. That’s the downside about going to showbiz events. I always end up taking my shoes off and padding around in bare feet!”

However, transforming into pretty-inpink Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward helped Sophia to discover her glamorous side.

“I am not a fashion person, but playing Lady Penelope opened my eyes. I wear some lovely things in the film – like her pink suit. The most I’ve ever spent on clothes was when I paid £900 – which was insane – for a pink and white pinstripe Moschino coat to wear at the Johnny English premiere. “I still wear it, but I’d never spend that much again. I’m not a shopper. I only really go out shopping when I need something.”

Her biggest extravagance has been buying her first property; a two bedroom flat in north London. “I have just completed! It was the most exciting day of my life and the biggest cheque I have ever written for the deposit,” she says. “But it’s very liberating and my biggest achievement because I’ve always wanted to have a home of my own – although now I have a huge mortgage!”

She has already moved in, but will have to resort to some long-distance decorating because of her mounting film commitments. Sophia will be seen next in ITV’s big-budget World War Two drama Colditz, out early next year, when she falls in love with a soldier, played by Damien Lewis. In the meantime, LA beckons. “A very dear friend is helping me decorate,” says Sophia. “While I’m in LA, I’m going to be sent fabric samples. I saw a beautiful sofa but it was too expensive. So I am having one like it made with slightly cheaper fabric. I want the flat to look sort of like those New England minimalist homes, with wooden floors, and be homely at the same time.

As if to complete this picture of domestic bliss, Sophia also intends to improve her culinary skills, when her schedule allows it. “I am crap at cooking, but I’m making a concerted effort to improve,” says Sophia laughing. “I can make a mean spaghetti with garlic, chilli and olive oil … OK, that’s easy, but I’d love to be able to make Thai food.”

At the moment there is no man in her life to share the new flat or Sophia’s home-cooked food. Careful of her privacy, she has resisted talking about former boyfriends but admits that she’s only been in love once. “There is no one just now and that is actually quite nice,” she says. “I’ve been in relationships and this is a great time for me. I just want to get all this right. Unless I meet Mr Right, I would rather be on my own than in the wrong relationship.”

That said, Sophia is confident she’ll find the kind of lasting happiness that has blessed her family. “My parents have been married for almost 30 years and my dear grandmother, who passed away last year, was married for 60 years. That gives me hope.”

When the time comes, how would she feel about her father conducting her wedding ceremony? “It would be weird,” she ponders. “I would want my dad to walk down the aisle with me. It would be a little strange for him to do that and then make a U-turn to conduct the ceremony. I’ve always had fantasies of getting married on a beach in the middle of nowhere. I don’t really want a big wedding. I just want something simple. In fact, when we filmed Thunderbirds in the Seychelles I found this beach that would be absolutely perfect.”

So now all the confident and happy Sophia needs is a man. Something tells us it won’t be long. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …