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This Thunderbird is definitely go!

27 July 2004   |   Written by Sylvia Smith

Fast-rising British actress Sophia Myles used to play prim and proper costume parts in TV period dramas such as Oliver Twist and The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, but now she’s grabbed the top female roles of the year, as Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, the Tracy family’s ultra-cool secret agent partner, in the new big-screen version of Thunderbirds.

Vicar’s daughter Sophia, from West London, was originally spotted by a British casting director at the age of 16 in a school play, and landed a small part in the TV version of The Prince and the Pauper. Since then she’s hardly looked back, with parts that have included playing Johnny Depp’s wife in From Hell.

But it’s Thunderbirds that will propel her to dizzy new heights of international fame. Sophia relished the chance to camp it up as the beautiful aristocrat with a penchant for pink, especially as she go to be chauffeured around in Lady Penelope’s stunning FAB1 car – a bright pink, 28ft long, six-wheel Ford, driven by her trusty manservant Parker.

Here, 24-year-old Sophia talk about the fun she had making the eagerly-awaited family blockbuster, about her plans for the future – and how she’ love a pink car in real life …

How did you approach playing Lady Penelope, who’s such a famous character and, of course, originally a puppet?

I sat down and watched all the Thunderbirds DVDs, most of the time with Ron Cook, who plays Parker. We studied our original characters very closely, but obviously we weren’t trying to copy them exactly. We wanted to do the original justice, but at the same time give it a fresh twist and make the characters our own. The main thing you have to remember about Lady Penelope is that she is unflappable – Parker does all the worrying.

What kind of training did you have to do for your big action scene, where Lady Penelope gets to fight?

It was the most exercise I have ever done in my whole life! We spent two weeks filming it and we had a great group of stunt co-ordinators and we just broke up the sequence every day bit by bit. Obviously Lady Penelope’s fighting style is very acrobatic, and she loses none of her femininity – the moves we did reminded me a little of Emma Peel in The Avengers. I have to point out that I had two stunt doubles, so any time I look cool during that sequence, it ain’t me!

Did you get to travel in the car that much?

Whenever you see Parker and me sitting in FAB1, we weren’t sitting in the car at all – we were sitting in a mock-up in a car park in Pinewood, and we’ve got cows mooing on one side and they are demolishing the set of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life on the other, and we are surrounded by blue plastic. But when you see the film it’s fantastic! You have to really use your imagination. We have to watch a polystyrene cup on a stick and go: ‘Hi Jeff.’ Actually, it’s a big surprise when you see the finished result, and it’s wonderful to see because you have no idea how it is going to go!

There’s one very amusing scene with Lady Penelope in the bath. How long did you have to sit in the water?

It took two days doing that scene, but luckily the water was always very warm. However, I think they used some cheap bubble bath – my skin started to itch and I got a rash all over my body. It was horrible!

During filming, did you ever think, if I see pink again I’ll scream?

No, I never get sick of pink. That’s part of the real fun about Lady Penelope – she’s something of a fashion icon, and everything she wears is pink and wildly unsuitable for action. And I reckon there is definitely a market out there for pink cars. I would really like a pink Mini Cooper. I think we should bring out some more vibrant colours for cars. I love those streets in London where they’ve got the houses painted in different colours. I wish they would allow that to be done more.

Which scenes in this film do you look forward to seeing the most?

Actually, there’s a hilarious scene you won’t see until the DVD comes out. It was during our first week of filming, which was in the Seychelles. There was a scene where FAB1 lands on Tracy Island and Parker says: ‘Pardon me m’lady, but there is a torpedo rapidly approaching us.’ so we have to abandon ship, and it turns into a pedal – a pink pedal with a Mississippi mud wheel at the back! I am sitting with a pink parasol, looking as cool as ever, and poor Ron is pedalling away like mad! We shot it in the midday sun in the Seychelles, when you burn even with factor 60 on. I have never seen someone so physically green before! They took us right out into the middle of the water for a helicopter shot and poor Ron was in full uniform, and this guy goes: ‘We’re going for another one, Ron.’ He nearly died!

What is the nature of Lady Penelope’s relationship with Parker? Is there a sexual attraction?

I think it is more avuncular. He is very loyal to her, he would do anything for her. There is a story that Parker was discovered burgling Lady Penelope’s home, and she said to him: ‘Either I am going to turn you in to the police or you can come and work for me.’ That is how they met. He was an East End villain, and he had been inside. I don’t think you can see it in the film, but he does have tattoos!

Did you find there was a lot of testosterone on the set?

There was, but it was difficult when they were in those suits! It was so funny. We didn’t work with the Tracy brothers that much; were were mainly with Brady Corbet, who plays young Alan Tracy. So they were like a family to us, those guys – always polite and very thoughtful.

How do you think children are going to react to you and the film?

It’s already been amazing. We went to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and I had little girls coming up saying: ‘We really love your car!’ I thought that they might be more into the clothes, but no, even with the girls it was the car, which is pretty cool.

Merchandise will obviously be a big part of this movie. Have you seen yourself as an action figure yet?

No – I can’t help thinking of it as a voodoo doll! I’m sure it is going to be really strange. I’ve actually already got a little Parker figure, the original Parker. I was given it in Tokyo by one of the journalists where we did a press junket. He came with this photographer and I thought it was just a present, and then they wanted a picture of me and this doll!

Are you up for being in a sequel?

Most definitely, if they ask us. I hope so. We haven’t heard anything about a number two, but fingers crossed. I think everyone would’ve the idea of a new movie franchise, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface with Lady Penelope and Parker.

What kind of women do you generally like to play?

It depends. I just like to try different things for each film I do; to try something that is a challenge which I haven’t done before. The fantastic thing about Lady Penelope is that she is such a positive role model for young children because she is bright, intelligent, funny, strong and sexy without being provocative, and I think it’s nice to actually have a role model for children who isn’t dancing around showing everything hanging out!

How would you like your career to be heading in the future?

Well, I’ve never been in a film this big before, so I have no idea until I get there. But in terms of my career, I just want to carry on doing work and material that really inspires me. I just want to work with really great directors and a great cast, because that is when you really learn.

What will we see you in next?

I’m in a very romantic film called Tristan & Isolde, with James Franco, which I made last year in Prague – I play Isolde. More recently I’ve been making Colditz, a remake of the classic prisoner-of-war TV drama series, for ITV1, which has a fantastic cast including Damian Lewis, Jason Priestley and James Fox. At the moment, I’m making another feature film, Art School Confidential, a comedy drama, again with an amazing cast – John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Huston. I feel very lucky because every job I’ve done is very different, and all actors thrive on variety.