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Sophia's Choice

14 April 2001   |   Written by David Allsop

WHEN I FIRST met Sophia Myles there was an uncomfortable possibility that I had spent the previous two hours dribbling on her shoulder during a flight to Prague.

Just before takeoff, I stepped into the isle to allow a young woman in jeans and a baseball cap to move into the window seat next to me. As is invariably the way with strangers on a plane, we politely ignored each other – she clamping on a pair of headphones and leafing idly through a magazine, me fighting a losing battle to remain conscious until the drinks trolley came round.

When I awoke, my head was lolling invasively over the armrest demarcation zone and the plane was in its final stages of descent. My fellow passenger had somehow managed to shrink into the furthest half of her economy-class seat. Later, as we waited for our luggage, she generously dismissed my concerns about being used as a pillow.

She went on to reveal that she was an actress, on location in Prague to shoot a short scene for ‘From Hell‘, the latest film version of the Jack the Ripper story. Using the winding alleys and cobbled
streets of the historic Bohemian capital as a backdrop, I presumed. “Well, not exactly,” she answered. “I’ll be spending all the time in bed with Johnny Depp. I play his wife, and it’s a flashback sequence”. Tough job, then. “Right,” she laughed, “that’s what I’ve been telling all my friends.”

Three months later, we meet again in Soho to talk about her latest TV role, as Kate in the new ITV costume drama, ‘Nicholas Nickleby‘. “That was probably the most surreal experience of my life!” she exclaims, recalling her weekend in the sack with the man once voted as the sexiest in the world.

One minute she was filming ‘Nicholas Nickleby‘, she tells me, and the next minute she was on a plane to the Czech Republic to film a bed scene with Depp. “Sometimes I’m just sitting at a bus stop or on a tube and I just want to jump up and shout about it. To be honest, I hadn’t had time to think about it, and it didn’t hit me until I saw him getting out of a car on the film set, and I was almost sick. I spent about three hours in bed with him, and we’d only just met! But he was sensitive, compassionate and just charming.” Poor Johnny, it must be a tough job for him as well to have to meet beautiful young Englishwomen in such trying circumstances.

The story of how this 20-year-old vicar’s daughter from Isleworth in West London progressed from the lead part in a school play to Depp’s screen lover in the space of four years is arguably the stuff of every teenage girl’s fantasy. But she insists she never wanted to become an actress. “This was never my ambition, and I still can’t quite believe I’m here now. I was furiously academic and was going to do a degree at Cambridge. I was a terrible swot: I adored school.”

This is not the presentation of a young woman who feels that she could have fulfilled her academic potential had she tried; Sophia actually did it at her West London comprehensive, gaining straight A grades at A-level, and a place at Cambridge to read philosophy. But from the moment a BBC casting director happened to see her inaugural acting performance when she was 16, her immediate future was mapped out. She was asked to audition for the part of Lady Jane Grey in the BBC TV costume drama ‘The Prince and the Pauper‘. “I went, they cast me, I filmed it, and I had the time of my life. It was like going into the dressing-up box and putting on fantastic clothes. But I thought it was a one-off, and I’d go back to school and then to Cambridge.”

Fate, however, has conspired to thwart Sophia’s intended career path. An agent telephoned her on the night that her first TV role was screened and asked if she was interested in doing more of the same. “I said all right, but only in the holidays because I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise my studies.” The proviso was respected, but within a year she had been cast again in a Fay Weldon-scripted Channel 4 drama ‘Big Women’. “Then I did my final A-level year, got my results, and it just went pear-shaped.”

One of her set texts had been ‘Mansfield Park‘ by Jane Austen, and another was a Harold Pinter play. By strange coincidence, the day after her last exam she was phoned by her agent and asked to audition for the BBC adaptation of ‘Mansfield Park‘. “My initial reaction was ‘aaaargh, no!’ because I detested the novel, and I assumed the script would stick close to the book’s text, a bog-standard treacly adaptation – but she sent me the script and it was fantastic.”

Sophia learned how to speak in an authentic Portsmouth accent (circa 1806) in the space of one day, and was promptly cast as Fanny’s younger sister. By even stranger coincidence, she discovered that Harold Pinter would be playing the part of her uncle. “I think at that point I had decided that I had really fallen in love with the job. I was thinking, ‘why sit in a classroom studying Pinter plays and ‘Mansfield Park‘ when I can be bringing them to life?’ It’s not that I am against university, but I can go at any point in my life. I can’t decide when I’m going to work in this business. So I just think that while I’m on the wave I’m going to ride it until it breaks.”

There is little sign of it breaking just yet; Sophia seems to have cornered a market in playing corset-strapped, angst-ridden distressed damsels. As Agnes in the recent TV adaptation of ‘Oliver Twist‘, and now as Kate in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ she is, by her own acknowledgment, a natural at playing “innocent mistreated virgins”. (“I like Dickens, but his women get a bloody hard time,” she says wryly).

Recently, she has stepped tentatively outside character to play “a feisty little monster, a 17-year-old spoilt brat – it’s great”, co-starring with Alice Evans in the soon-to-be-released period romp ‘The Abduction Club‘.

She confirms that she has often been compared to Kate Winslet and, confronted by her particular brand of luminous radiance, I find it easy to understand why. What is more unexpected is why she has been described as bearing a close resemblance to the actor Leonardo Di Caprio (currently vying with Brad Pitt as the world’s sexiest man – with Johnny Depp relegated to number three).

Maybe it’s the exaggerated arch of the eyebrows, the opalescent complexion or the widely set blue eyes. Or perhaps they’re both related to ex-chancellor Norman Lamont (who has also had comparisons drawn with Leo). But Sophia is, to my surprise, flattered by a comparison first made by the American press when she appeared in ‘Mansfield Park‘.

“Kate Winslet and then Leonardo Di Caprio? I thought they were having a laugh – that, or the journalists were very tired. But then the other magazines said that I looked like his younger sister. So maybe when they make Titanic 2, I could be their lovechild.”

Sophia Myles shows a refreshing degree of perspective and maturity about her choice of profession. “It’s bizarre and sometimes I think it’s quite unhealthy because it’s not normal. You’ve got to remember also that it’s ‘pretend’, it’s not real, and you’ve just got to stay grounded. Otherwise I’d go insane. But it’s fun and, if I could afford to, I would pay to do what I do. That’s how much I love it.”

Her parents have given her their unstinting support, and, revealing that her younger brother, Oliver, is a compulsive surfer living in a caravan in Cornwall, she says: “We have found our passion. That’s all they’re worried about – as long as we’re happy.” And she still lives at home in the vicarage, although she no longer attends church. “It’s not because I’m not religious, but I wouldn’t want to be in a classroom where one of my parents was the teacher. Anyway, it’s odd going into church having had a big bust-up with your dad in the morning and he’s saying ‘I forgive you for all your sins’ – and you’re going, ‘Yeah right, Dad.’

She admits that she still worries that someone will come up to her in an audition or on a film set and tap her on the shoulder saying ‘What are you doing here? Please leave – without the script’.

“I read once that the two worst things that can happen in your life are: achieving your dreams, and not achieving your dreams,” she says. “I’m living living my dream and I’m scared. I think that it can’t go on like this because it’s too perfect. I can’t plan my life because at this stage in my career I’m not in control of it. I believe in fate; after all, it happened to me.”