from SFX UK, August 2004 / by Steve O’Brien
She’s shared a bed with Johnny Depp and acted with Bill Nighy. Now Sophia Myles meets Steve O’Brien to talk about Lady Penelope…
FOR A PLACE TO MEET LADY PENELOPE THE Dorchester on Park Lane is hard to beat. “Do you know where the loos are?” I ask in the bar. “Ahem, we call them lavatories here, sir,” is a typically savage snobby exchange. But whereas the Dorchester is a perfect place to meet the aristocratic Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, Sophia Myles cuts a curiously mischievous figure in its oak-panelled, empire-evoking midsts. “Getting us a suite at the Dorchester,” says Myles conspiratorially. “Are they having a laugh? Do they not realise?!”
What she means by “not realise” is that Sophia Myles is emphatically not the good Lady Penelope. As she sits here in jeans, scrambling around for a fag (“Can I nick one? Thanks!”), she’s as keen to talk up the differences between her and the coolly sexy Lady P as she is about talking up Thunderbirds, her first real headlining blockbuster.
Landing the role of the cool Hitchcock blonde has thrust Myles into the harsh tabloid spotlight. For a series as cutely iconic as Thunderbirds, nobody much cared who was playing Brains or Jeff Tracy. But Lady P? A couple of generations of men have had their sexuality awoken by this two-foot piece of wood, so casting her was potentially the biggest cock-up the producers could make. For years, Gerry Anderson was talking up Kristin Scott Thomas but the makers of this new movie (made, lest we forget, without Anderson’s patriarchal gaze) wisely realised that he was looking at the wrong age bracket. For this film to work and for a real Lady P to become a pin-up to the Britney generation, they’d have to look for someone more youthful. Enter Sophia Myles, 24 years young.
It’s quite good interviewing you so early in the day because you’re not bored yet at answering questions like “How did you get the job?”
“Oh, I know. You just go on auto-pilot!”
So, er, how did you get the job?
“It was all very last minute! They sent me the script that day and I frantically read it on the tube. Then they called me back and I did a screen test in full hair and costume and make-up and then they said yes a couple of days later.”
Where were you when you actually heard the news?
“It was on the phone! I was in a Greek restaurant in Berwick Street with my friend. I’d done Underworld, but really just paid off debts, ‘cos I’d been unemployed for 18 months. But this call came through that I’d been offered Thunderbirds and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was a really amazing moment.”
You’ve said you weren’t really that aware of Thunderbirds when you got the role. How did you learn what a phenomenon it actually is?
“It was only when I mentioned it to my friends, really. I said 1 was doing this film Thunderbirds, and they were like, What?!’ and I said I was playing Lady Penelope, and they were like, ‘Fucking hell, no way!’ I then started watching all these DVDs of the original series, and I gradually got more nervous. I had a complete panic attack when we started!”
Have you met Sylvia (Anderson, who voiced the puppet Lady Penelope)?
“Yeah, she came to the set. She’s lovely! But that was scary, too. I was thinking, ‘Oh, I hope she likes what I’m doing,’ because what we’ve tried to do in the film, and what I’ve tried to do is not to replicate the original completely. The main change we’ve made is with the voice. The voice that Svlvia used is a very retro ‘6Os kind of voice, and we’re trying to target a 21st Century audience.”
I’ve noticed that Lady P doesn’t smoke in this film, whereas that cigarette holder in the original was such a big part of her visual signature…
“You’re the first person to ask about that! It didn’t even come up, and in a way I’m quite glad, because with continuity on film you’ll be shooting one scene for like eight hours I’d have been like fag-ash Lil by the end of it.”
Did you base her on anyone?
“There’s an element of a Princess Diana-type magic about her. It’s difficult, because she’s such a fantasy character and I think what’s great about her is to be able to play a strong, powerful, funny, intelligent female who doesn’t have to take their clothes off. And being sexy without being provocative. It’s very rare in films, especially if you’re the leading lady, that you’re not going to have a love scene with somebody or take your clothes off. And that’s what’s so fantastic about her. Lady P never has a boyfriend…”
How much freedom do you have creating a character like Lady P? Presumably you can’t bring too much reality to it or three-dimensionalise it that much. It must be a bit of a balancing act.
“We were really lucky on this, because Jonathan [Frakes, the director] is such a warm, kind person and he’s really open to suggestions and it really was a collaborative effort. Not just the cast, but director of photography, the camera operator, the set dressers, everybody. And one of the things they really had to deal with was, okay, Lady P and Parker, everybody knows the voices and what they look like. We tried to be truthful to the original but also make it fresh. And in terms of the look of the film, there’s elements of a retro ’60s vibe, but with a futuristic twist. And as regards my hair, there were discussions about going for the ’60s bouffant. On a puppet it’s fine, but seeing as I was doing kickboxing in this film, we’ve made it longer with more movement to it.”
Oh, so you get some action then?
“Yeah, there’s a huge action sequence with the baddies, which is the Hood and his two sidekicks. And there’s kickboxing and gymnastics involved.”
Did you train up?
“Yeah, we had two weeks and the stunt coordinator showed us all the choreography and we learnt it. But Ron [Cook, Parker] and I, neither of us had been to a gym in five years and so that was taxing. And I had two doubles, a kickboxer and a gymnast. I’d love to say I did it all myself, but any sequence where I look cool, it’s not me.”
You’ve often said you’re a bit of a tomboy and totally unlike Lady P, but there must have been something in the role that convinced you that you could do it…
“It’s an opportunity to really be confident. I think a lot of British actors, they’re so humble. When you see Americans winning awards, they’re like, ‘Thank you Jesus, thank you mom and dad,’ whereas Brits when we win, we’re like, ‘Thanks, sorry,’ and saunter off discreetly. I think it was the chance to be confident and to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m a strong, confident young woman, and I’m intelligent, I’m attractive and I’m funny.’ It’s everything I wish I could be every day. What I did find during the shoot was the pressure. Obviously Lady Penelope looks perfect all the time; perfect make-up, perfect hair. The first few weeks were fine but 23 weeks into the shoot and you’re feeling tninging and you wake up at 6am and you think, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to put high heels and a skirt on today.'”
Are you the kind of actress who needs to work your character’s backstory?
“Me and Ron got together and said, ‘Well, how did they meet?’ We hadn’t met Sylvia at this point, so we came up with this idea. I mean, these characters are so different in every possible way, how did they meet? And what we decided, which Sylvia told us is not true, is that Lady Penelope found Parker breaking into her house, saw his ability, and said, ‘Either I’m going to turn you in to the police now, or you’re going to come and work for me.'”
You’ve done some biggie films before like Underworld and From Hell, but this lead role in a massive production must have been quite a steep learning curve for you.
“I know! It’s Working Title’s biggest film to date. I’d done enough films to know the technical stuff, but here it was the scope of everything and the size of everything. But you get used to it; it becomes normal. At the time, there was this other film being made called Tooth and the producer on that film would bring people over and say, ‘Oh, the kids want to meet you, Sophia,’ and, ‘Harry wants to meet you,’ and it’s, ‘Hi Harry… Harry ENFIELD?!'”
Did you have a chance to hang out with the rest of the cast?
“Me and Ron hung out a lot, Ben Kingsley a lot, Brady Corbet who plays Alan Tracy quite a bit, Bill Paxton a bit. But the other Tracy brothers, not a lot. I just remember walking down the corridor and they were coming out in their bloody Thunderbird spacesuits. I nearly wet myself!”
Are you prepared for the inevitable press attention?
“To be honest, I’ve never thought about it. I try not to. I try to get on with a normal life, like I’ll be out with my mates in the pub as soon as I’m finished here.”
But that’ll be harder to do, surely.
“I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll cut all my hair off. Have you seen the film?”
I’ve seen the photos.
“If you saw me walking down the street like this, would you think, oh my god, that’s that girl from Thunderbirds?”
Well, not yet.
“See – I don’t look the same! But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m still completely naive thinking noone will ever recognise me, thinking, ‘Oh, the film’s gonna be crap and so no-one will know.'”
Was getting involved in movies what you expected?
“Absolutely. You bring friends to the set and they’ll say it’s like watching paint dry and they want to go home. Five o’clock in the morning sitting in make-up feeling like shit and just saying, ‘Oh, do we HAVE to put the false eyelashes on today?! I can’t be arsed!’ I love my job, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the lack of sleep. I need ten hours a night. I could sleep for England.”
And you got to go to bed with Johnny Depp in From Hell. Bet you weren’t sleepy there?
(Adopts girlish voice) “Oh no, I was wide awake there!”
Even though people haven’t yet seen the movie, are you getting different job offers?
“I haven’t been offered any aristocratic characters yet. I still get a lot of the corseted young maidens coming my way. I was in the corset trap for a while, so I thought, okay, let’s do a vampire and leather trousers action movie which was Underworld. And now there’s this. I think I’ve got enough now to show there are various things I can do. My next challenge, after doing Thunderbirds, is I’ve got a real taste for doing comedy, so I’d love to do a really good rom-com – something in jeans and t-shirt!”
And so what’s next for you then?
“I’m about to go back to British television, actually. I’m doing a two-part drama about Colditz and then another movie, a romantic-comedy with an edge. Oh, and I’ve just bought a flat in Queen’s Park, so all I’m thinking about is mortgages now!”