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Sophia Myles

Autumn 2004   |   Written by Peter Whittle

Speeding along a fast-track career, this church minister’s daughter gears up to take on leading roles in three upcoming movies

Sitting across from her in a bar in London’s trendy Chelsea area, it’s hard to imagine Sophia Myles — poised, calm and self-assured — as a struggling young unknown.

But the 24-year-old actress, who’s now regularly tipped as Hollywood’s next big British star, and who just burst onto the summer blockbuster scene with her portrayal of Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds, has certainly had her share of what the acting fraternity here calls “resting.”

“I worked in a pub for a bit — that was disastrous,” she tells me, laughing. “I did go through a very hard time. All my friends had gone to university, and I was on my own in London. I spent nine months wandering around, doing the odd audition here and there. I used to think, with all these other people getting these jobs, is there some secret handbook with the rules that I’m not party to?”

It’s a cry heard by many a would-be movie star. She did, however, have excellent company during the lean times; one of her good friends was Keira Knightley. “Keira came round to my parents house four or five years ago,” she recalls. “We couldn’t get jobs, and thought, ‘What is wrong? Are we really ugly or what?'”

With her classic English looks, that seems most unlikely. She did, after all, beat out model Sophie Dahl and even Britney Spears for the part of the sophisticated Lady Penelope in Jonathan Frakes’ live-action movie adaptation of the iconic ’60s Thunderbirds TV show. In fact, her spectacularly speedy rise should have many of her peers drooling with envy.

Although now a veteran of eight movies — she caused a stir as a vampire in Underworld and played Johnny Depp’s wife in From Hell — Sophia (pronounced So-FY-ah) hadn’t shown the remotest interest in acting as a kid. A shy, straight-A student, she was all set to study philosophy at Cambridge University (the British equivalent of Harvard) with the intention of becoming an attorney.

But at 16, her performance in a school play was spotted by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park. This led to a small part in a BBC historical drama and a call from an agent asking whether she wanted to do more. The answer was yes, but only during school holidays. Corseted roles in more TV costume dramas followed, and an appearance in the movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park came just after she’d finished her final school exams.

By this time, there was no turning back. “I’d already completely fallen in love with it by then,” she says. “The energy, the people who are involved in this business, I just find them so fascinating across the board.”
As well as Thunderbirds, she’ll also be seen later this year in Tristan and Isolde, director Kevin Reynolds’ movie of the ancient mythic love story, in which she co-stars with James Franco, and is about to start filming Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential. That means that more of her time will be spent commuting to Los Angeles. Not a problem for the London-based actress, who immediately warmed to the city when she first visited to explore the industry with just $300 in her pocket.

But wasn’t Hollywood just a bit daunting? Myles is matter-of-fact about it. “I’ve always found that the less I know about something, the less frightened I am about it. And when I started out in England, I had no idea with the first job I got, and the second, how strong the competition was. It was the same really in L.A. — it was so new to me, I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll see how it goes.'”

And it went well. The second day she was in L.A., she auditioned for Underworld, got the part, and was signed by powerful agency International Creative Management. Not that she believes she’s really experienced Hollywood yet. “I’ve never been to an American premiere — ever,” she adds.

That’s sure to change, but there’s an attractive lack of pretentiousness about Myles that should ensure she keeps her feet firmly on the ground. She describes how she read through the script of Thunderbirds on the subway on her way to meeting Jonathan Frakes at the audition: “I was skimming through it and I thought, ‘Oh God, too much to learn!’ so I blind-read it at the audition, and I just clicked with him instantly. It was the most enjoyable audition I’ve ever done.” And she would hardly call herself a Method actor. “Acting really is lying — it’s recreating reality,” she says.

So who on the current scene does Myles admire? Well, she eulogizes about Depp: “He’s amazing to watch on film. He completely transforms himself.” She thinks Angelina Jolie is “brilliant,” and Scarlett Johansson “mesmerizing.” But, if given the chance, there’s one person she’d really like to work with — Woody Allen.

“I just love his work. I love working as part of a team, and all of his films are very much a collaborative effort, ensemble pieces,” she says. “I don’t know whether he reads Ingenue, but…” she trails off, laughing. It’s likely that along with everyone else, Allen will be hearing a lot about Myles in the year ahead.