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Paradise isn’t lost on stage-fright Sophia

31 May 2012   |   Written by Steve Pratt

In spite of film and TV roles, Sophia Myles has always steered clear of stage roles until the offer came to star in a play at Newcastle. She talks to Steve Pratt about conquering stage fright in search of Utopia

SOPHIA Myles talks of being “out of her comfort zone” in making her stage debut in Utopia at Newcastle’s Live Theatre. It’s an overused phrase bandied about by all and sundry these days to indicate doing something that challenges you or pushes you beyond your normal limits. In her case, it seems more than justified.

She has an impressive list of credits on her CV, both on TV and on film (where she embodied Lady Penelope in the live action film of Thunderbirds), but would appear to have steered clear of the theatre – she doesn’t count a very small stage role when she was 19 – for good reason.

“I suffer from terrible stage fright, which is why I haven’t done theatre before,” she says. “I was shy as a child. When my school did the nativity play, I said the only character I could possible play was the donkey because I could wear a mask over my face.

I’m frightened of big groups in general – rooms packed with people or rock concerts.”

Happily, both venues where Utopia will play – meaning Newcastle will be followed by her London stage debut – are of the smaller, intimate variety.

She did test herself beforehand by taking part in a 24-hour play-reading marathon at London’s Old Vic in November.

Steve Marmion, the director with whom she worked on that project, asked her to do Utopia. “I wasn’t looking consciously for theatre, but my agent said, ‘What do you think?’ and the Old Vic was me testing the water,” she explains.

New writing project Utopia – a Live Theatre and Soho Theatre co-production – is conceived and directed by Marmion and Max Roberts. The cast also includes comedian Rufus Hound in his stage debut, and one of Live’s founders David Whittaker, fresh from appearances in The Pitmen Painters.

The writing team behind Utopia are Michael Chaplin, Zoe Cooper, Thomas Eccleshare, Alistair McDowall, Dylan Moran, Anthony Neilson, Janice Okoh, Simon Stephens and Chi Onwurah MP. The productions will also include material from the works of Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Adolf Hitler.

The production continues the artistic collaboration of the two theatres following A Walk On Part, which transfers to the West End Arts Theatre on June 18.

The press release for Utopia describes the piece in the following terms: “Six clowns in a world of blueprints in search of Utopia. From spaceships and retirement homes, to political rallies and Facebook.

No stone has been left unturned in our collaborative quest for paradise.”

Fair enough, but what exactly is it about? Myles isn’t entirely sure. “To be honest, I’m flummoxed,” she says. “It’s a combination of different things, eight different plays within one play. I really honestly don’t know how to describe it.

“You ask the question ‘what is Utopia?’ and everyone has a different opinion. For everyone going away from the play, whether you are in the audience or one of the actors, I think it will resonate on a different level.”

She plays six or seven different people, from a wise fool to a housewife and Ukrainian refugee. The cast of eight are dressed as clowns with white face paint. She thinks she’ll be wearing T-shirt and boxer shorts with an added piece of costume for each different character.

“I like a challenge,” says Myles – and Utopia certainly seems to be that, as much for the audience as the cast. “I accepted the job not having seen the script and it’s very challenging. There’s lots of music and dancing, although I made it clear I don’t sing, not even in the shower at home.”

She’s not complaining, saying its “good sometimes to have a firework up your bum”. She feels comfortable in film and TV after doing it for 17 years and wanted something new.

HER career began when she was spotted as a 16-year-old by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes in a school production and cast in a BBC production of The Prince And The Pauper.

Her involvement in school plays had nothing to do with a burning ambition to act. “I was secretly desperately in love with my drama teacher – that’s why I did drama. Acting was not part of my grand vision,” she says.

More roles followed the BBC series, leading her to drop out of university – she was studying philosophy at Cambridge – and pursue acting. Roles on big and small screens on both sides of the Atlantic followed including Nicholas Nickleby, Colditz and Doctor Who (as Madame Pompadour) on TV, and Thunderbirds, Art School Confidential and Tristan & Isolde on film.

She caught the acting bug once she started working.

“I loved being on film sets. I loved the people and the creative energy. That’s very inspirational and uplifting – and where the buzz came from, the process of the work itself.”

She has made films in the US, where she starred in the TV series Moonlight, about a private investigator who’s also a vampire. She played reporter and love interest Beth Turner, then returned here to play another Beth – Beth Bailey – in the final series of BBC1’s Spooks.

“Doing Moonlight was amazing. I was working at Warner Brothers studios every day. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work there in the epicentre of Hollywood,” she says.

“I will definitely be going back. Hollywood has always been incredibly welcoming to me. I’ve tried to have a balance of doing jobs here around the world.”

She’s worked in the US since I was 21, but never thought of living there for good. “In my heart I never left. England is my home. I had to relocate for the TV series, but the moment I finished working I’ve always come back to England. I only want to be there when I’m working. There’s nothing to do there unless you’re working,” she says.

Utopia: Live Theatre, Newcastle, From today until June 16. Box Office 0191-2321232 and live.org.uk