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M'Lady in Waiting

August 2004   |   Written by James Medd

An unknown 24-year-old vicar’s daughter from West London was recently voted the eighth most powerful actress on the planet. Sophia Myles’s well-mannered seduction of the world starts now

“FUCK OFF,” SHE SAYS, NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME. BUT DON’T WORRY – THIS ISN’T A MOODY-STARLET THING. IT’S ALL PART OF WHAT YOUR LEAST FAVOURITE UNCLE MIGHT CALL HER “YOUTHFUL FRESHNESS”. And, to put it in some kind of context, it was actually her mother who said it and what she actually said is: “When you’ve got to live up to an institution that’s so loved and so famous and especially that character, Lady P, there’s a lot of pressure and I didn’t realise because it wasn’t on TV when I was a kid because I’m 24 now and just to get a job when you’re an actress is an achievement in itself and I really had no idea, I knew, everyone knows Thunderbirds, but I really had no idea, I said to my mum, `I’ve got a job’ and she said, `What in?’ and I said, `Thunderbirds‘ and she said, `Who are you playing?’ and I said, `Lady Penelope’ and she said, `Fuck off!”‘

Meet Sophia Myles, West London vicar’s daughter, future screen superstar, sparky, down-toearth, forthright, talkative (as you can see), easy on the eye (as you can also see) and, yes indeed, Lady Penelope in the mega-budget new movie version of Thunderbirds. Sophia (rhymes with “fire”) has been acting since she was 16 – though she still doesn’t believe she is an actress. “I never had any ambition to be one,” she says. “I was spotted in a school play by Julian Fellowes – you know, wrote Gosford Park – so it’s very surreal to be sitting here doing this now. There’s something not right. I think: `Isn’t someone going to find me out soon?”‘

But you don’t have to have written Gosford Park to see that she’s a natural. Her conversation is littered with impressions – Ben Kingsley in SexyBeast, Julia Davis in Nighty Night, Japanese photographers (“Smire prease, smire prease”), British paparazzi (“Oi! Sophie! Sophia! This way!”), her foulmouthed mother… This raw talent first found an outlet in TV costume drama- including a role as Keira Knightley’s sister in Oliver Twist – and big-screen costume dramas TheAbduction Club (a very cheeky performance as an 18-year-old firebrand) and From Hell (a very brief performance as Johnny Depp’s wife). Vampire movie Underworld saved her from the “corset trip”, as she calls it: “Doing that, in leather trousers and a tank top, was like working in my pyjamas. I did about four costume dramas on the trot. It’s such a strain on the back. Listen” – she wriggles and produces a series of disturbing cracks from her back.

More comfortable it may have been, but Underworld still wasn’t a lead role. “I didn’t even know hat my character was doing there, to be honest,” she says. There is, however, no doubting what Lady Penelope will be doing in Thunderbirds: being pretty, pink and posh. Devotees of the original television series may well be dismayed by the introduction of some pesky Yank kids – “You think they’re pesky, I don’t. They were sweethearts, all of them,” she reprimands – but Myles is pleased with the results: “It’s very fast, very vibrant colours, a lot of fun.”

And she had a lot of fun making it. She bonded with actor Ron Cook, who plays Lady Penelope’s hauffeur Parker (“Yes, m’lady” etc) and director Jonathan Frakes (wooden hunk “Number One” from Star Trek: The Next Generation), who is “just one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. He gets so over-excited: he’d always say, Again, with alacrity’ At the end of the shoot, I asked him, Jonathan, what does alacrity actually mean?’ and he couldn’t actually explain.”

Sophia probably knew exactly what it meant, having turned down a place to study philosophy at Cambridge University to continue with her acting. At one point, it looked like it might have been good to have something (ahem) practical to fall back on: despite her tender age, Myles has experienced the infinite precariousness of “this profession”, as she tends to call it. When a leading film role fell through after From Hell, she found herself unemployed for 18 months. But she picked herself up, dusted herself down and dragged herself off to Hollywood, where she got the part in Underworld. “I was determined to make it work,” she says, “because I felt such a twat.”

All that’s well in the past now. In fact, one film magazine recently declared her the eighth most powerful actress in the world, though this seems to have passed her by: “What? Shit! How many were here? Rachel Weisz was tenth? That’s ridiculous!” Myles is reassuringly sensible about her rising tardom: “With my friends, it’s just the same. On outer circles, people take you more seriously, they’re much more interested than they ever were before – and very nice, and very polite. It’s been fascinating.”

That’s not what it’s about for Sophia: “No! I make films because I love being on a film set, not because I envision myself walking down a red carpet.” Adjusting to the dressing up, in particular, has not been easy. “I don’t even wear heels in real life. I’m not a girly girl, I’m jeans and T-shirt.” (Which is exactly what she’s wearing for this interview, along with a pair of Ugg boots.)

But it’s not all bad. There’s her actress pals: “Keira and I are just getting on the property ladder now. She’s in LA and rang me to say she’d found the perfect house. Sienna Miller, Jude Law’s girlfriend, we get on with really well, too – she’s great – and Romola Garai… There’s lots of really great girls now in the profession.” And she could get used to the perks. “It sounds really awful to say it, but once you’ve turned left on a plane, it’s really hard to turn right,” she admits sheepishly.

Anyway, her future is out of her hands. For a start, she’s just finished two more leading roles, in Tristan and Isolde (another big-screen costume drama, though medieval this time) and in a two-part TV drama called Love from Colditz. And then there are the voices. “I sometimes think that if someone spoke to me the way I speak to myself, I would kick them,” she declares. “I’ve always been really ambitious, whatever I do. At school, I always wanted to be the best in the class – no, it wasn’t enough to be the best in the class, I’d want to be the best in the country.”

Thunderbirds’ is out on 23 July