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Girl, Intercepted
09 Jan 2015 : Paul Byrne
Antonia Campbell-Hughes
About to head off to India to shoot ‘Les Cowboys’, the busy Antonia Campbell Hughes takes a breather to talk career, clothes, childhood and Crowe with IFTN’s Paul Byrne.

It’s been a pretty busy year for Antonia Campbell-Hughes.

Having made her name with such critics favourites as ‘The Other Side Of Sleep’, ‘Kelly + Victor’ and ‘Albert Nobbs’, the 32-year-old Derry-born actress put her dark materials to the side for 2014, shooting the sci-fi actioner ‘Andron: The Black Labyrinth’ alongside Alec Baldwin and would-be sci-fi blockbuster franchise ‘DxM’, alongside Sam Neill. No wonder flying out to India next week, to join Les Cowboys, the directorial debut from award-winning French writer Thomas Bidegain, is a sort of homecoming for Campbell-Hughes. ‘This film couldn’t come at a better time,’ she smiles. ‘After all that green-screen, I need my arthouse fix.’

Luckily, we were able to sit Antonia down for an hour before she headed for yet another airport...

PAUL BYRNE: ‘Les Cowboys’ sounds like it’s going to be a nightmare shoot; you’ve got John C. Reilly as one of your co-stars, and behind the camera, making his directorial debut, is Thomas Bidegain, the writer behind ‘A Prophet’, ‘Rust And Bone’ and ‘Saint Laurent’...

ANTONIA CAMPBELL-HUGHES: Yeah, what am I thinking, signing up for this?! Actually, I was attached long before John signed on. It was Thomas Bigedain that was the big draw for me. I was filming in Rome when my agent called and told me Thomas wanted to meet, so, I immediately flew to France. I share Thomas’ love for working quite organically, and as soon as I heard his name, like most actors, I was happy to travel any distance to meet with him.

This is the writer behind ‘A Prophet’ and ‘Rust And Bone’, so, there’s a very good chance that he might be a genius…

Yeah, ‘Une Prophete’, ‘Rust And Bone’, the Laurent movie - he’s always a contender for the Palme D’Or. If there’s a film festival of choice, it’s always Cannes. I did an Irish film there [‘The Other Side Of Sleep’] a few years back, and I just love it there. My education has always been European cinema, having grown up in Germany, and there’s a growing market for these kinds of films. The idea of the multi-lingual film is something I love to. It’s partly to do with the funding coming from different countries, but I’m really fascinated by these melting pot films. Thomas is such an incredible writer too, of course - a very poetic, beautiful sensibility - and this story is really interesting. It looks at a mixture of the family unit, generational change, how American culture is impacting on French society, and how different cultures bleed into one another, and rub up against one another.

Quite the nomadic childhood, your family leaving Derry when you were two, and bouncing around the globe - how are your language skills?

I have French and German. I moved to Switzerland when I was two, lived there until I was eleven, and then, yeah, travelled on...

That international jet-setting childhood give you this pull to let’s say the more interesting side of film, as opposed to the mainstream?

It’s funny, I’ve always said that I’m a rare fish in this game, but that’s been useful as well as difficult. I’ve been very privileged to work with some of the greatest filmmakers, since day one, without even knowing it, and I’ve always been drawn to those artists who have that global range. Someone like Charlotte Rampling I’ve always loved and admired, and Kristen Scott Thomas too - the multilingual actor who continue to have validity and importance, and they’re always challenging. These are the actors that I aspire to have a career similar to, and it’s an obvious fit. I used to get compared to Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I never quite got that, but I am a product of my particular upbringing. I have a funny accent, all that. I went to international schools. I can spot people who have had the same kind of upbringing in a crowd. There’s a nomadic sensibility.

Second perhaps only to a broken home, being the new kid in a new town constantly pretty much creates a need for constant reinvention.

Yeah, but I don’t know if there is any real formula, because there are a lot of actors who come from very privileged backgrounds. Sometimes you need a certain amount of security to pursue your dream, per se. I didn’t grow up dying to go Hollywood, or longing to be an actor. I didn’t even know that was an option, to be honest. I just wanted to be an artist who was honest and true, and I just wanted to create. And this is just the career that has come to me.

So, you fell upwards, from your debut, uncredited as a zombie in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, then your first credit, as a stripper, in ‘Breakfast On Pluto’. You also had your clothing line starting up back then. No masterplan back then...?

None, at all. And there’s no masterplan now either. As a child, I never did acting classes, or anything like that. During my teen years, I was street cast, and I got an agent, living in the States. Back then, I was creating art installations, which is kind of like low-budget filmmaking. I guess because of the way I grew up, I was somewhat fearless, and when I was living in New York, and I was making what I thought was conceptual art but it was clothing, and it was being sold through a store, perhaps getting a lot more attention than it deserved. With the ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ thing, I was in London, and I needed the extra cash. It was that simple. I’ve been quite lucky, because there’s something destructive about being too hungry. You end up destroying it. But now, I’ve been acting for ten years, and I’m utterly in love with my job. So, it’s pretty steadfast.’

Now that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re the face on the poster, does that alter your feelings about this line of work. You’re on demand, online, 24 hours a day, and your work, your image, what people think of you, it’s out there, with a life of its own.I think it’s quite negative, to be honest. I was never shy of the camera, because I wasn’t vain, I guess. That’s something, again, that would have come from moving around so much growing up, and having to present yourself again and again to another roomful of strangers. You grow up without this attachment to the self, if you know what I mean; that attached preconception of yourself. There’s something very healthy, of course, about growing up with your peers, but it’s also a little stifling, I suppose. I modelled as a kid, as a teenager, so, I got used to that, but I wasn’t used to being criticised, and that’s something that comes with this job. You are literally being critiqued. We’re in a social networking world, where everything is picked apart, but there’s a lot more access to great art. I can’t stand being judged though, but what are you going to do?

I’ve been very lucky in that some early films that I made, they were small, but with ‘The Other Side Of Sleep’, it was largely me alone. It got good reviews, but with the camera being on me all the time, naturally, people are going to pick you apart. When you’re in that independent cinema world, it’s actually kinder. It’s only when you go into the mainstream that you meet that harsh audience. There’s an element of dehumanising that comes with big movies. People see you as fair game...

How come you moved around so much growing up - Derry, America, Germany, Switzerland - were your parents on the run?

Nothing quite as exciting as that - my dad was an ex-pat who worked for DuPont [the American chemical company founded in 1802]. People always ask me if I liked travelling so much as a kid, but I wouldn’t know. I didn’t know anything else [laughs]. I come back to Ireland a lot because my mother is Northern Irish, and having left there at two, it was a big deal for me, moving back at sixteen. It just felt so real. The ex-pat world meant I grew up in this very fake community, and suddenly, here was a home, where people really knew one another, and people had long, shared histories. So, I clung close to Derry, and without sounding corny, I just embraced the soil. I feel strongly about having somewhere to call home. Psychologically, it’s so important.

On the career front, despite feeling more comfortable in the arthouse world, is there a side of you that yearns for the call from Michael Bay? To run away from explosions in slow motion?

Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last year or so [laughs]. I’ve been strictly arthouse for ages, so, it was fun to jump into something big. I was in Bucharest for five months, doing ‘DxM’, and it’s not ‘Transformers’, but it’s fairly big - €40m. Which is big for me. It’s Red Bull too - or Terra Mater, which is Red Bull. They’re branching out, and it’s a new series, a franchise of films. Similar to the Twilight books, where they’ve bought up a series of four books, and what’s made me feel fine about it is that, basically, there was a lot of research done into MIT and quantum physics - because we’re all playing quantum physicists. So, there was a lot of study that we all did, learning our various science fields, and I just knew the brain would be exercised. And on the body front, there’s lot of martial arts, parkour, wire-work - I fly - and green screen. This was all incredibly challenging for me, and so, I just couldn’t resist. And making this, and ‘Andron: The Black Labyrinth’, an action movie with Alec Baldwin and Danny Glover, it just made me long for my arthouse films again. So, the call from Thomas for ‘Les Cowboys’, that just came at the perfect time, and I’m sure it’s going to be one of the special films next year.

So, a busy woman. All good, or does the back-to-back film shoots, and all those lonely nights coming back to an empty hotel room, become a little crushing?

It’s lovely, and tiring, and you don’t know what’s coming next. After a while, it’s fine, and you realise too that the grass you’re standing on is actually very, very green, no matter how tired or lonely you might feel at times. I’m very aware of how lucky I am. I think of those actors who went to drama school, and who have dedicated their lives to this profession, and they may never get to truly shine, to have their moment in front of a camera. Which must be so, so hard to live through, so soul-destroying. What exhilarates me is getting to work with inspired people, and knowing that I’ll get to make a film with someone like Thomas Bidegain, with his stunning words, that almost makes me feel guilty. I’m so, so lucky.

Just to get a film up and running is such a struggle too - the budgets are getting tougher to secure - and that makes me realise too how lucky I am. I think it’s great too that the Irish Film Board have been doing, championing the whole co-financing process, from very early on. Getting great films made that would never have a chance otherwise, and it’s bringing Europe together too - as tacky as that sounds. Bringing all these voices together helps make magical films too.

Do you recognise when magic happens? Do you watch your own work after its done?

It depends. I can’t sit down to a double-bill of my films, because I have a hard time watching it. The first time I watch it, I’ve got to be on my own, with a small screen. I generally don’t watch my own work, but, if you’re going to talk about a film, you have to see it, at least once. But once is usually enough. When it comes to audience screenings though, I prefer to wait outside.

I know a lot of actors don’t watch themselves, and I’m not sure what is really gained... If I sat and watched ‘Kelly + Victor’, and found myself thinking about how a scene should have played, it would mean it’s not working. And that’s just painful.

You’ve been doing shorts every year too - favours, or just keen to keep mixing it up?

I just don’t think there’s any such thing as a role that’s too small, you know. Every role is integral in a vital piece of work, and shorts can be really exciting. You can learn so much, and I would always want that challenge. The no-budget world is full of great ideas, and the opportunities to push yourself is always there. I just want to keep working, and keep learning. I get offered a lot of shorts, and I don’t do them all, of course. And it’s not just the script; it can be the people involved, and how inspired they are.

You created and starred in ‘Bluebell Welch’ for MTV in 2009 - are you keen to create again?

I actually have a show that’s in development with Talkback and the BBC at the moment, and we’ve just committed the first script. These things take a long time though; we’ve been working on this for two years. I took something of a sabbatical from comedy for a few years, so, it’ll be nice to jump back in. It’s very gratifying, to be given your own show, and I’m writing it with another guy, and it’s for me to be in - which is a little frightening. I was surprised how much people liked Bluebell Welch, given how much of an idiot she was. No one said anything nasty about her. Must have been the glasses.

So, what’s the plan with ‘Les Cowboys’...?

It’s been shooting since November, actually... I’m heading to India next week to join it, and I’ll be finished in February.

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