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Corsets off for new Spook

18 September 2010   |   Written by Vicki Power

Sophia Myles tells Vicki Power why she has moved from period drama to play a spy.

Posing as an Eastern European prostitute on a Somali pirate ship in the first episode of a new series of Spooks, Sophia Myles is clad in a gaudy get-up of stonewashed denim, hot pink Lycra and the sort of cheap bling you might associate with the oldest profession. “It was just the most hideous, most unattractive outfit I’ve ever worn,” chuckles Myles, 30. “And with dirt and mascara running down my face, I look really grimy.”

Of course, the garish outfit is soon replaced with the cool leather gear of an MI5 superspy when Myles joins the slick BBC One drama’s ninth season as Agent Beth Bailey. But Myles’s grubby debut is noteworthy because it’s a leap from the crinolined English roses we’ve seen her play up to now in costume dramas such as Mansfield Park, The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and Tristan & Isolde.

Spooks is giving Myles the opportunity to break free of corsets. “In my early twenties I was playing the innocent victim of the harsh uncle, and now I’ve moved into playing empowered young women,” she says, in her deep voice.

But it was a bonnets-and-breeches outing that gave a 16-year-old Myles her big break a decade and a half ago, when Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes spotted her in a play at her Isleworth comprehensive and cast the vicar’s daughter as Lady Jane Grey in his 1996 TV series, The Prince and The Pauper. “He’d come to my school because it was exam time and the private schools wouldn’t let their kids out to film,” explains Myles drily, who still keeps in touch with Fellowes.

The gods were certainly on Myles’s side when a small part in Patricia Rozema’s acclaimed adaptation of Mansfield Park got Myles noticed in the US; roles that followed included playing Johnny Depp’s wife in the Jack the Ripper film From Hell. “At 19 to get paid to snog Johnny? Come on,” she laughs.

Parts followed in period pieces, Colditz, the Thunderbirds remake and the thriller Art School Confidential, which also starred John Malkovich.

“Each film I’ve done has had an impact on some level; there’s nothing there I’m embarrassed about.” Myles continues to earn praise while flying under the radar, which is exactly how she likes it.

“I don’t want to be famous. I like to be able to sit in a café and watch the world go by and observe people. The minute you’re famous, all eyes are on you and people are reacting to you in an unnatural way.”

But she’s discovered that it’s not easy being anonymous when your love life is gossip-worthy. Myles has had relationships with actors David Tennant and (to many raised eyebrows) with Charles Dance, who is 34 years her senior. When asked about it today, Myles becomes endearingly flustered. She says she never talks about her love life, then starts and stops several sentences before putting her head in her hands. “Wait… wait…” she giggles. “I want to give you something good.”

Myles looks up after half a minute. “If you were to do a line-up of past suitors, it’s definitely a very eclectic group, is all I’ll say,” she concludes.

Myles is refreshingly devoid of the ambition that seeps from the pores of many young actors; she even took a gap year alone to Southeast Asia last year. “I had been working solidly for 16 years and wanted to find out a bit about myself outside of anything professional or romantic,” she explains. The highlight of the trip was a rather severe-sounding fast and colon cleanse at a Thai spa.

Another catalyst for the gap year was turning 30 earlier this year. “In my twenties I was getting addicted to the adrenaline rushes of a press junket here and a premiere there,” says Myles. “I think I’m striving now for much more balance on a daily basis.”

Spooks’ continued high ratings (of 6 million or more), alongside the recent headlines surrounding the death of MI6 codebreaker Gareth Williams, make it clear that the public is still fascinated by the lives of spies, whether real or fictional. Myles is thrilled that her character, Beth Bailey, is based on a real, unnamed, former MI6 spy who then got rich working in private intelligence.

“I’ve met her several times and she’s very grounded, very sexy and very, very cool,” enthuses Myles. “It’s amazing what a woman of a similar age to me has done with her time.” Even better, says Myles, is that Bailey has no love life as yet. “This is the first time I’ve told a story that doesn’t involve romance.”

The only possible drawback is that Spooks tends to catapult its lead actors into the spotlight: think Keeley Hawes, Rupert Penry-Jones and current star Richard Armitage. Given the impact Sophia Myles makes in next week’s first episode, she may just have to resign herself to a little bit of fame.

Spooks returns on Monday 20 September on BBC One at 9.00pm