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'I've seen the dark side of fame, the paparazzi...'

2 February 2006   |   Written by Elizabeth Grice

Despite numerous high-profile roles, superstardom never quite beckoned for Sophia Myles. And that may be just how she likes it, she tells Elizabeth Grice

Sticky cakes, pain au chocolat, warm raisin scones and cream dusted with icing sugar… all the calorific delights of a winter afternoon are on offer in the library of the Soho Hotel. But this is not what Sophia Myles has in mind. She orders half a dozen oysters. They remind her of rackety nights spent with Rufus Sewell and the Irish actress Bronagh Gallagher in Connemara, filming the medieval romance Tristan & Isolde.

“We were like the three amigos, eating oysters, drinking Guinness, pure unadulterated fun,” she says. “I felt like paying them afterwards because they made me laugh so much.”

In Hollywood, Myles, 25, is still described as “the newcomer”, which goes to show how splashy liaisons, as much as good work, are essential to being noticed. If she were a celebrity junkie, it would annoy her because she’s been in films, up there with the best of them, for 10 years, on both sides of the water. But operating “under the radar” has its advantages, as her gossip-fodder friends, Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, remind her. “The idea of being famous does not sit well with me,” she says. “It would be frightening. I have seen the dark side, the paparazzi stuff.”

Myles is just back from a junket in Los Angeles to promote Tristan, an epic weepie, in which she and James Franco play the doomed lovers. There’s scarcely time to talk about her role in a new Miss Marple episode for ITV1 before she’s off to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival where her latest film, Art School Confidential, is being premiered. She plays the life class model, alongside John Malkovich, as the art teacher, Max Minghella and Anjelica Huston.

Myles had misgivings about going naked for the part. What nicely brought-up vicar’s daughter would not? Disrobing in a public place, even the swimming baths, just wasn’t something she did. “I quite like to keep my clothes on. I even had a problem looking at my bottom in a mirror at home. I used to be the girl who hoicked her knickers up under the towel in the changing room.”

For Tristan & Isolde, because of the obvious potential for nakedness, Myles had a no-nudity clause written into her contract. “I was scared. I wasn’t ready to do it. I was too young – and it didn’t seem appropriate for the movie. It’s hard to say this, but a woman’s body is incredibly beautiful, something to be celebrated not exploited. But when nudity is appropriate, as it was for Art School, you’ve got to go for it.

“The film has given me confidence. I could be daring under someone else’s skin. Having said that, I did have to have a very stiff gin and tonic first. I am quite shy. Not body-conscious, just not great in front of large groups of people. I have seen the film but I shut my eyes when the scene came on. But I’m glad I did it. It’s given me freedom at the gym.”

Myles’s days under the radar could be coming to an end – though she’s heard all that before. It is some years since she was named Next Big Thing by Vanity Fair magazine. When she was chosen to play Lady Penelope in the family blockbuster Thunderbirds, it was predicted that her days of blissful anonymity would be over, but she’s still waiting. “It was going to be amazing… huge. Then it so didn’t happen.”

All that happened, in personal terms, was that she enjoyed some crazy stunts with her manservant, Parker, played by Ron Cook, and she frightened the life out of a small boy at her local swimming pool. “Mummy, Mummy, Lady Penelope’s in the changing rooms and she hasn’t got any clothes on!” the tearful child shrieked.

Classical features make Myles a natural to play dressy girls. With her roundedness and her wide-open face, she looks like a young Kate Winslet, something she may eventually capitalise on. “If ever I find out there’s a film she is doing where she has a younger sister and they don’t cast me, I will really throw all of my toys out of the pram.”

They have the same unfashionable idea, shared by most men, that real woman have curves. “In Art School Confidential, I’m pleased I was a lot heavier than I am now. I didn’t want people to notice a big cage of ribs. A lot of women’s ideal of the perfect female body type is to be stick-thin. No man finds that appealing. When artists paint women in the nude, they generally like them to be voluptuous.”

Another oyster slithers through her perfectly white teeth. Defying etiquette, she chews on it. “I can’t get them down in one.”

Myles is the daughter of a liberal vicar from west London. She’s baffled by the universal interest in this aspect of her background. “The question comes up again and again of what effect it has had. My brother, Ollie, and I are quite mystified. We used to go to church, but when you hit puberty, the idea of waking up on a Sunday and having to go and listen to your Dad at work, instead of having a lie-in or getting some homework done, didn’t really appeal. I love churches, but I don’t know whether the C of E is my thing. I would always call myself a Christian and I am very spiritual but I don’t go to church now.”

She was an academic child, competitive and hard-working, but her plans to take up a place at Cambridge were derailed when Julian Fellowes saw her in a school play, aged 16, and invited her to be Lady Jane Grey in the BBC’s The Prince and the Pauper. “They wanted a well-spoken young girl, but none of the private schools would let the kids out because shooting would take place during exams. So they went to the state schools [Myles was, by now, at the Green School for Girls in Isleworth]. It may sound naff, but the moment I walked on to the film set, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

Though she lists months out of work since then, her on-screen adventures can’t have been disappointing. A cheeky performance in The Abduction Club, modest parts in Mansfield Park (with Jonny Lee Miller) and Oliver Twist (the beginning of her bond with Keira Knightley), three hours in bed as Johnny Depp’s wife in From Hell, the vampire movie Underworld, intense scenes, requiring “closed set privacy”, with Damian Lewis in Colditz, mad stunts in Thunderbirds, an epic weep-in with Franco in Tristan – and a role as Madame de Pompadour in Dr Who, to be screened later this year, which resulted in a love-match with the Doctor, David Tennant.

This romance alone could change the way she is seen, and how much is seen of her. But as a couple, they seem determined to attract as little attention as possible. “I am in a really lovely place personally and I’m very happy about it,” she says. Though surely true, this is really just lovely waffle designed to repel further questions. “David and I are very private. He’s low-key about it all.”

Eighteen months ago, after living in vicarages all her life, she bought her own flat in Queen’s Park, north of Notting Hill, and this is where, for the time being, they hunker down without cameras on their doorstep.

“A family is something I’ve always wanted, and do want, but I don’t think I could be a mother who takes babies to film sets. It seems quite traumatic for the mother and puts everyone on edge. My mum [in educational publishing] went off to work quite quickly after me and Ollie. We had 12 or 13 au pairs. I would like to be one of those stay-at-home mothers for the first few years, if I could afford it. My goal is to be able to make enough money to do that.”

Apart from ordering oysters in the middle of the afternoon, Myles has many enjoyable traits. Not many actors would admit they’ve spent the taxi journey into central London trying to come up with something intelligent to say about their work. She laughs at “the inner luvvie” that’s surfacing as she gets older, though possibly she doesn’t realise how well-developed it is. Sewell is “such a sweetheart”; Ed Hall (the director of Miss Marple) “super bright and very hungry”; Russ Abbot “the nicest, sweetest man; great craic and a true gent”. Dawn French “lights up a room”. Geraldine McEwan (Miss Marple) is “a dynamo”. She could go on. She does.
But it’s all offset by an unshowy pleasure in what she does and the feeling that nothing can be taken for granted. Last week she was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hollywood. A fortnight on, she’ll be crashing out on a friend’s couch looking for another job. “You start all over again each time.”