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A Vicar's Daughter In Hollywood

20 March 2005   |   Written by Maureen Paton

At first glance, actress Sophia Myles is the quintessential English rose. But the demure appearance and modest manner belie a blossoming talent with a will to win in Tinseltown

Sophia Myles nips out of the room where she’s having her photograph taken and starts grazing on danish pastries. She is trying to give up smoking, hence an almighty urge to nibble that would challenge the principles of a saint – let alone a laid-back London vicar’s daughter such as Sophia, who makes lighthearted jokes about swigging the communion wine. ‘I need to be locked in a room with Allen Carr [the stop-smoking expert],’ she groans before succumbing to her craving for a puff and asking if I mind her lighting up.

Yet snacking doesn’t seem to have harmed the hourglass figure of the 25-year-old actress. She boasts that ultra-feminine rarity in these pumping-iron days, a tiny waist, which gives her the authentic 1940s look she needs to play a woman so fought over by two men in ITV’s new drama Colditz that she inspires a breakout from the infamous Nazi prison for Allied officers. To play roles such as this convincingly, you need to be pretty stunning – and she is. At first glance, she’s a classic, fair-skinned English rose, right down to the slightly blue-tinged legs when she poses in a cold temperature without tights for our photographer before changing into Seven for All Mankind jeans for our interview. ‘I’m really all about comfort – having spent a lot of time in corsets and high heels at work, it’s nice to slob around,’ explains Sophia. But that English rose has a distinctly exotic twist – for she also takes after her paternal Russian grandmother, with feline blue eyes that give her oval face an intriguing sense of mystery.

Already anointed the Next Big Thing by Vanity Fair magazine, she has had a prolific career so far for one who never even thought of going into show business until she was talent-spotted by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes at a school play. Since then she has played a tomboy vampire in Underworld, appeared alongside the playwright Sir Harold Pinter (‘a really lovely guy’) and Jonny Lee Miller in Mansfield Park, bonded for life with Keira Knightley when they were cast as sisters in Oliver Twist, and played Johnny Depp’s wife in From Hell. What a golden opportunity to compare notes with Keira on love scenes with the gorgeous Mr Depp. ‘Every part of the experience was very, very pleasant. I think God spent a little extra time on him,’ says Sophia with a grin. ‘It’s a funny old thing to do, a love scene; it’s very different from the average nine-to-five office job, because you’re getting paid to kiss your co-worker. But they’ve all been very attractive boys, so I’ve had no problem.’

Her latest leading man, in Colditz, is the scarcely less delicious Damian Lewis of Forsyte Saga fame, who trains so much on-screen intensity on the lucky Sophia that it sparked an off-screen romance rumour, which she is anxious to correct. ‘Damian and I were really good mates, but I’ve been reading absolute nonsense about us canoodling in restaurants. The two of us were laughing about it, actually, because he and I have never been to a restaurant together in our lives. It was very funny, but we’re not an item.’ As to whether she has a partner at the moment, that’s the one subject which is not up for public discussion. ‘That’s all private stuff; it’s something sacred,’ insists Sophia, who has learnt to be wary ever since her friend Keira found herself hounded by the paparazzi.

On screen, her love life has been decidedly complicated of late, with the much-sought-after actress temporarily cornering the market in eternal triangles. Not only does she have to choose between two men in Colditz but it’s also the theme of her next cinema release, Tristan and lsolde, in which she costars with Rufus Sewell and James Franco. ‘Moral dilemmas, that’s my thing,’ giggles Sophia, who went into films instead of taking up a place at Cambridge to read philosophy, and now finds herself wrestling with fictional ethical conundrums of the kind most of us would volunteer for if they involved Rufus Sewell and Damian Lewis. To go straight from shooting the comedy of last year’s live-action film Thunderbirds (in which she played a Chanel-clad Lady Penelope) to the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde was, she admits, quite an emotional jolt, particularly as she had to spend most of her time in floods of tears as Isolde. Rufus’s reputation as an off-screen wit seems to have made up for all the on-screen angst, however: ‘He’s great, a very, very funny guy,’ she says.

Since her film-stealing turn as a mischievous, self-assured Lady Penelope, who picks a lock with the undenviring from her bra, she admits she would love to do more comedy. While Thunderbirds itself bombed at the box office, by common critical consensus she and the veteran character actor Ron Cook as Lady P’s Cockney chauffeur Parker covered themselves with glory – as well as soap suds, in Sophia’s case, for a wonderfully camp bubble-bath scene, which paid sly tribute to the fact that Lady P was the first screen lust object for a whole generation of 40-something men. ‘She was a fantastic character to play, and I still get lots of lovely fan mail about the film. And there were times when Ron made me laugh so much that I could hardly speak my lines,’ says Sophia, most of whose dialogue was written by Richard Curtis when the Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually writer was parachuted in as a script doctor.

Her one disappointment was that all Lady P’s kick-boxing scenes had to be performed by stunt artists. Sophia loves to identify with strong women: Germaine Greer is a heroine of hers (particularly after storming out of Celebrity Big Brother), as is Fay Weldon, whom Sophia got to know after appearing in her dramas Big Women for ITV, and The Two Alice Bakers on stage. ‘I’d love to do an action film – it would be a good excuse to get myself along to the gym,’ sighs Sophia. She wincingly recalls ‘yelping like a piglet’ during bombing scenes in Cofditz that were filmed in Woolwich. ‘Damian has done loads of action stuff, such as Warriors and Band of Brothers, so he’s really used to explosions. But I’m such a cissy,’ she laments.

Yet she has already shown strength in her own way. In the forthcoming dark comedy Art School Confidential, in which she stars alongside Anjelica Huston, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi, she appears in the nude as a life model and artistic muse. That kind of role in such an impressive line-up requires considerable confidence for a girl from a non-showbiz background – and who was so shy at primary school in Notting Hill, West London, (where the future model Liberty Ross was in the class above her) that she begged to play the donkey in the nativity play ‘so that my face wouldn’t be seen’. With such refreshing modesty it’s no wonder that Hollywood – where she shares the same agent as Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci – loves her.

But until Julian Fellowes spotted Sophia, she had no thoughts of entering the business, despite a major crush on her drama teacher, the wonderfully named Mr Broadway (yes, really). Her performance so impressed Fellowes, a veteran actor until he hit scriptwriting gold with Gasford Park, that it led to her first professional role in the film The Prince and the Pauper while she was still at school. ‘I didn’t have any ambition to act until I walked on that set – and it was one of those magical moments when I knew I was where I wanted to be,’ she explains. As can be seen from her emotional range in Colditz, she’s an absolute natural.

The accidental actress was bom and brought up in Notting Hill, where her father Peter was vicar of St George’s in literary Campden Hill Square. She grew up in a liberal, highly individualistic family that mixed with artists and writers, hence her absent-minded air of boho chic. She was named Sophia (which is Greek for wisdom) not after Sophia Loren, but because her parents simply wanted a name that couldn’t be shortened. ‘But all my friends call me Soph now, to rhyme with loaf,’ she shrugs, grinning. Her mother Jane works in educational publishing and her younger brother Oliver, 21, is an avid surfer who will probably, she says, specialise in medicine ‘because he loves caring for people’. Sophia lived at home until two years ago, when she bought her first flat, in Queen’s Park, Northwest London, but she remains very close to her family.

In short, it was exactly the kind of non-materialistic, altruistic background that will enable her to put Hollywood hype in perspective. ‘I’m going out to Los Angeles soon to have some business meetings and see what’s going on, because it’s the centre of the industry for us actors,’ she says realistically. ‘I love LA – it’s a very positive place where people celebrate success. I put weight on with their Mexican food, though.’ Yet she has no illusions, having already seen the other side of the business when a film of the classic fairy tale The Snow Queen fell through, despite having Michelle Pfeiffer on board. ‘I was out of the loop for a bit and it was quite tricky to climb back up again,’ admits Sophia, who had been cast in the movie as Gerda. ‘It’s a very changeable profession – there’s no logical progression to it. l try to stay grounded: you’ve got to take work seriously but it mustn’t become the centre of your universe. I like to read a lot and see my friends, to take myself away from the industry sometimes.’ And having just turned 25 Sophia, who is five years older than Keira Knightley, is already worried about Tinseltown’s attitude. ‘I’ve suddenly got scared,’ she admits. ‘It’s a very ageist industry- boys have got a slightly longer shelf life.’

Yet she has a strong network of supportive friends out in Hollywood, where she says the main difference between American men and British men is that the former spend more time in the gym and the latter more time in the pub -‘with a will to start the detox tomorrow’. She wonders if ‘maybe a hybrid of the two might work quite well’. Meanwhile, her only public thought of romance is a keen desire to make a romcom with Hugh Grant. ‘He’s a comic genius with his quick, dry wit – I think he’s really clever.’

No problem: Hugh should find his perfect match in this Notting Hillbilly.

Colditz will be shown in two parts on ITV1, starting next Sunday at 9pm