Hungry for success: Actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Criticism of her emaciated appearance left Londonderry's Antonia Campbell-Hughes wary of the Press yet (after a tricky start) she talks to us about faith, feeling an outsider in Ireland and why she regrets nothing.
Antonia Campbell-Hughes is still stinging from the media coverage she received after appearing like a walking skeleton on the red carpet back in 2012. She had starved herself for the role of Austrian kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch - famously abducted aged 10 and abused for eight years in a basement dungeon - and then, shockingly, turned up at a premiere wearing wisp of a dress that showed far too much of her malnourished, bony little body.
Overnight, the Londonderry-born actress became the new poster girl for those warped pro-anorexic websites, and the London tabloids had a field day speculating about a possible eating disorder. Going by the trailer for her upcoming film, DxM, starring Sam Neill, she hasn't exactly been eating all the pies in the interim.
Although she claims to have got back to her normal weight "very easily" when filming ended on the Natasha Kampusch movie, 3094 (the number of days the Austrian was held captive), she's still looks emaciated in the clip, collar bone and ribs protruding from her tiny slip dress. A waif if ever there was one.
"I would do it all again; I wouldn't curb it anyway whatsoever," she asserts of the weight loss she underwent for the gruelling role. "I was photographed at the premiere of another film when I was in the middle of shooting 3094, so (my appearance) was always going to be a story. It's a shame. I worked very hard on that film."
She's speaking softy - in a mildly English accent - from Dublin, where her mother, Jackie, has a home near the sea in upmarket Sandymount. I imagine that any mother would have been horrified to see their only child so reed-thin, even if, as the 32-year-old actress explained, the method acting ethos of the film involved meant she would "suffer as much as she (Natascha) did".
But she makes clear that any talk of her parents - her English-born father died a few years ago - is out of bounds.
"I learned not to trust the Press after all that," she declares. "Everything gets misconstrued. I don't do interviews very often now. You have to second guess everything; it makes you guarded ..."
I tell her there are some of us that can be trusted, but she's hard to convince. She has admitted to making a mistake with the sheer blue Alberta Ferretti dress she wore to the 2012 London Film Festival, explaining it was Fed-Exed straight from the designer: "At the time I was a little like, 'Should I? Shouldn't I? Should I? Shouldn't I?' But my way of combating nerves was very Irish: 'Ah f*** it, who cares'".
She went on to compare the ensuing Press coverage to bullying at school, but won't elaborate (frustratingly) when I ask her if she had ever actually been bullied.
"Put it like this, I learned from it. I wouldn't do anything differently - I wouldn't wear that dress again, though."
At last, a giggle. I'd been pre-warned by a London PR person that her client wanted to focus on her upcoming projects, which is all fine and well - but who, unless you're the ultimate buff, wants to read an interview solely about films? Emma Thompson got it right when she said some young actors are "a bit snobby about doing Press" and thought they were "above it", arguing that they ought to "bang the drum" for their films and encourage audiences to pay to see them.
Ms Campbell Hughes obviously doesn't agree. Even getting her to talk about her current movie The Canal, which is in cinemas now, is no picnic. She plays an assistant to a haunted film archivist (Rupert Evans), helping him investigate a horrific murder that took place in his home in the early 1900s.
Filmed in the Republic and billed as horror, The Canal has had positive reviews since its New York premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, and holds a rating of 82% on the Rotten Tomatoes review site.
"It's not horror; it's more like Hitchcock," says its female lead, in contradiction of the trailer. "The lead character, David, enters a paranoid state, as is typical of that genre, and the women all represent the ideal female. David's wife is the sexual ideal; I represent tenderness and nurture. She adores him but it is unreciprocated."
While it's hard to imagine such an elfin frame in the role of a nurturer, Antonia has a compelling presence on screen. Her large soulful eyes dominate her slightly pixie face (she'd have been perfect as one of Suki's faerie family in True Blood) and she convinces in the dark and arty roles she favours.
But while she comes across as slightly scatty and fey in person, she's dismissive of the idea of hauntings, a central premise in The Canal.
"I'm not into the supernatural at all. I'm not religious or spiritual - I'm much more scientific," she says, continuing to thaw. "Not that I ever studied it much - I went to art school, did fashion and then became an actor - but DxM (a sci-fi thriller), for example, was an opportunity to educate myself. We had MIT professionals educating us. I can get my head around quantum physics much better than anything religious or spiritual. I'm more a natural academic."
British-born New Zealand actor Sam Neill - "a very nice person," according to his co-star - plays the archetypal mad scientist in DxM, exploring the possibility of quantum theory being used to transfer motor-skills from one brain to another. It gets interesting when dark forces emerge to subvert this technology and turn it into a means of mass control.
"It's not just Marvel or sci-fi," Antonia emphasises. "It's based on a scientific truth which will be introduced into our society, the creation of a technical link with our minds. It's happening right now. There are a lot of theorums (sic) about that (the survival of the consciousness outside the brain) and parallel universes, so many studies. It goes back to our philosophy in the film."
Right, enough film talk. She has spoken before of the "depressing" time she spent as part of the notorious Pete Doherty's circle, when she was going out with his Babyshambles band bassist Drew McConnell. She hasn't been linked to anyone since but has been quoted as being "on the hunt".
"No. Having a boyfriend takes a lot of focus but I am very interested in having a romantic connection," she says, with a hint of a giggle.
She sometimes socialises with a cousin (unnamed, naturally) in "stunning, modern" Belfast, where she says she'd love to work. Elsewhere she's often seen with her friend, Eoin Lyons, a former Irish Times journalist turned interior designer, but asserts that, contrary to an innocuous Press report, that he did not help her decorate and furnish a flat she bought in London's Pimlico a few years ago.
She went for minimalism but in keeping with the Georgian exterior.
"I haven't seen it since I rented it out; I've been basically travelling ever since. I don't like to be idle - I'm not hugely careerist but I enjoy collaborating with people in the motivational arena," she says.
A restless spirit?
"I've been thinking about that recently but, yes, I'd be bored if I took time off."
So where's home?
"I don't know … mum has two properties in Ireland. If I was to buy another it would probably be elsewhere."
She becomes startled when I mention Buncrana being where her mother is from, demanding "How did you know that?" - as if I was going to lead a stampede of media hounds to her mum's house.
I explain I read it somewhere.
A product of a nomadic upbringing, due to her father's position with US chemical company Dupont, Antonia's early years were spent in Londonderry and Donegal, before the family shuttled between the States, Switzerland and Germany. She's rarely in her birthplace of Derry nowadays, apart from flying into Derry airport en route to Buncrana, and claims a greater affinity with Dublin, where she lived as a teenager and had some success with her own fashion line. Yet she has no sense of a national identity - and isn't quite sure where she was born …
"I don't feel Irish," she states squarely. "I didn't grow up in Ireland. The first time I lived here, in Dublin, was when I was 16. I was born in Donegal or wherever, and I left when I was two. I visited in the summers sometimes; I like the countryside."
Surprisingly, she warms to the theme.
"I think the reason I don't feel Irish is that the Irish are very, very loyal to each other and have such a strong sense of family, it's hard to penetrate as an outsider," she adds. "It's hard to be embraced here. I feel like an outsider - but that's okay.
"A lot of actors choose to reside here - like Eva Green in Dalkey; it's a beautiful place and the historical element appeals to me strongly, especially the historical female figures. Because of the rigid historical mentality, all these powerful, great strong Irish women like Countess Markievicz were rejected by their communities. So powerful yet rejected. I can relate to that."
A ringing mobile in the background - "I have lots" - prevents me from taking her to task on her history. She has to get back to the set of a new £60m movie being filmed in Dublin, its title under wraps at present. Then it's off to another shoot in Spain via the Cannes Film Festival for a spot of promotion - but with no appearances in attention-grabbing dresses.
"I don't go by the grain - I can't stand people who will say or do anything to promote a film. Boring," she says.
So, despite that very public fashion faux-pas back in 2012, somehow I don't think we'll be seeing Ms AC Hughes trying to upstage peekaboo dollies Rihanna, J-Lo and Beyonce on the red carpet soon. Good for her.
From fashion to films
- She made her film debut as an unlikely stripper in Breakfast in Pluto (2005) but didn't get to any of its Northern Irish locations
- After a stand-out role playing Jack Dee's sulky daughter Sam in the comedy series Lead Balloon, Antonia was awarded the Shooting Star honour by the European Film Promotion organisation to promote young European acting talent. Previous winners include Daniel Craig, Andrea Riseborough and Carey Mulligan
- Before moving into acting, Antonia had a high profile fashion career and her bohemian designs for Topshop made magazines such as iD and Wallpaper
- On her first day at Franklin International School in Switzerland, aged 11, Antonia sang Alice Cooper's hit song Poisin at a talent show, in a failed attempt to win friends
- She is friends with Cork-born actor Jonathon Rhys Myers but never watched "Jonny" in his famous role of Henry VIII in The Tudors
- Her film credits include Blackbeard, Bright Star, the psychological thriller The Other Side of Sleep, Lotus Eaters and When Harvey Met Bob, about the story behind Live Aid. TV credits include Silent Witness, Casualty, Spooks and Lewis