No strings attached
Aged just 24, Sophia Myles is too young to remember much about either Thunderbirds or Lady Penelope – the elegant, chauffeur-driven, unflappable icon of femininity at the heart of the legendary 60s TV series.
Even when she beat a raft of other beautiful actresses to the role in the new $70million Thunderbirds blockbuster, she didn’t grasp that Lady P was so much more than just a puppet in a British TV show. That she was, indeed, a timeless symbol of expensively dressed, perfumed, cool, upper-class Englishness with a mysterious sex appeal that pulled the strings in a million male fantasies.
“No, no. I had no idea about any of that,” she laughs. “Thunderbirds was part of my parents’ childhood, but I sort of missed out on it. Then, when I told people I was going to play Lady Penelope, they all said, ‘Oh my God!’ And when all the newspapers started announcing the fact that I’d been cast, it hit me what I’d taken on and I got quite shaky about it.”
Not that the shakiness shows. On screen, Sophia is the living embodiment of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, a thoroughly self-assured character, thought to have been modelled on the wife of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson.
In the movie, which is unadulterated popcorn fun, she and the Thunderbirds crew attempt to foil a takeover of Tracy Island and their HQ by The Hood, a criminal mastermind, played with glorious pantomine menace by Ben Kingsley.
When not communicating with HQ on her pink teapot telephone, or gliding through the action in her iconic pink car, FAB 1, with chauffeur Parker (played by Ron Cook) at the wheel, Lady P is fighting off baddies in balletic kung fu sequences (for which Sophia was rigorously trained) that leave not one carefully coiffed blonde hair out of place.
“For me,” Sophia says, “the important thing was to capture the grace and the elegance of this character at all times. When I was playing her, the word ‘poise’ was always at the forefront of my mind.”
She was helped in this endeavour by the clothes. She has 15 fabulous costumes during the film; all of them bespoke, of course, and, to match the car, all of them pink.
“Yes it is the most pink I have ever worn,” she laughs. “But I loved the costumes and didn’t want to give them back. In real life, all my clothes come from Gap. In fact, if it was the only clothes shop in the world, I’d be happy. I’m not exactly a tomboy, but girlie clothes usually make me feel a bit like a man in drag. The costumes on Thunderbirds changed my view a bit.”
To others, of course, Sophia’s delicate, feminine beauty is self evident. For the part of Lady Penelope, she was up against other classic English-rose types – including Rosamund Pike and Sophie Dahl, according to some reports. She’s also best friends with another famous beauty, Keira Knightley, and when they’re out and about it must be a traffic-stopping affair. “But, you know, Keira and I played sisters in Oliver Twist, in 1999, and after that neither of us could get a job,” she says. “We were like, ‘Why are we unemployed? Are we mingers?’ We even thought about writing something for ourselves.”
The last is typical of Sophia’s self-deprecating humour. In fact, from the very outset of her career, her stock has been steadily rising. In fairytale fashion, she came into the business after being spotted in a school play at Richmond College by the Oscar-winning screen writer Julian Fellowes, who offered her a role as Lady Jane Grey in the BBC production The Prince And The Pauper.
“At that point I was meant to be going off to Cambridge to study classics,” she says. And with a full complement of straight As in her 10 GCSEs, and three A levels, you can see how that might have been a possibility. “But these offers of work started coming in. And I remember thinking ‘I can go to university at any time in my life, but this is an opportunity I may never have again.’
“Besides, almost by accident, I seemed to have discovered my passion, something that really set me on fire. From that moment, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
TV roles in Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist and Big Women followed. But she’s an actress whose talents translate easily to the big screen, too. Her film appearances have included roles in The Abduction Club, Out Of Bounds and the recent Underworld in which she played “a kind of cheeky minx, tomboy vampire”. Next up is Tristan And Isolde in which she stars with James Franco as the tragic heroine herself.
The movie side of her career took off in 2001 when she was cast as Johnny Depp’s wife in From Hell – a role which involved some passionate on-screen canoodling, much to the envy of her friends. “It was rather odd,” she says, “but definitely in a good way.”
There is more canoodling. too, in her next TV role – ITV’s much vaunted two-part interpretation of Colditz. In the World War II drama, she plays a girl torn between the love of her absent, incarcerated boyfriend, played by Tom Hardy, and the best friend left to “look after her” (played by Damian Lewis). Love scenes between herself and the latter required “closed-set” privacy during filming in London. It makes you wonder what her parents and especially her father – the Rev Peter Myles, a Church of England minister – will say.
Sophia grew up in vicarages, first in Notting Hill, west London, and then, from the age of 11, in Isleworth, Middlesex. “And you have no idea how fascinated people are by my dad’s job,” she says. “People ask me about it all the time. But my recollection of growing up was that being a vicar was just something my dad did for a living and religion was not rammed down our throats at all.
“My dad is philosophical about what I do, and both my parents are very supportive. Even when things get a bit near the knuckle. they accept that I’m acting.”
Any real-life romances are, it seems, destined to be less public. “I think if you get engaged, or something like that, then it might
be time to discuss it.” she says, with all the poise of Lady Penelope. “But not really until then.”
She’s much happier discussing her career, and particularly her new-found enthusiasm for Hollywood. “I’ve spent a lot of time in LA and I love it, ” she says. “A lot of Brits can’t stand the place, but I like the west coast attitude and the way people celebrate success.”
Once Thunderbirds hits screens, Sophia will have a mighty success of her own to celebrate – though she remains endearingly mystified by her casting. “When I was a kid I never had a doll or wanted a Barbie,” she smiles. “I used to like playing soldiers and climbing trees.” Perfect training for a very post-modern Lady Penelope.
Thunderbirds opens next month