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Antonia Campbell-Hughes: I dare to be different

Actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes is fast becoming one of the rising talents on the UK movie scene, and is determined to do things her own way. The Londonderry-born star talks to Jane Hardy about love, life, her hectic career and individual sense of style.

Talking to Antonia Campbell-Hughes on the mobile as her mother is ferrying her between the Irish countryside and Dublin is slightly surreal. The 29-year-old actor, possibly best known for playing Jack Dee’s sulky daughter Sam in Lead Balloon, giggles as she discusses life, love and her brilliant career. Her ebullience is understandable as she has just been declared this year’s Shooting Star, awarded by the European Film Promotion organisation to promote young European acting talent. She’s picking up the statuette in Berlin on February 11.

“Everybody always says ‘Oh, Daniel Craig got it’, but that’s a long time ago, 15 years,” she says.

“Of course it’s brilliant but it’s not so important to me. I’m quite passionate about the award because the two previous female winners are Andrea Riseborough and Carey Mulligan, both of whom I’d cross paths with.”

Antonia was born in Londonderry — her mother Jackie is from Buncrana in Co Donegal — and then travelled quite a bit. “We moved to Switzerland when I was three, as my father worked for a US company in Geneva.” She lived the ex-pat life for some years, continuing to move around until the family settled in Dublin when Antonia was 16.

The question of where is home is therefore a little complicated. “I feel most at home in Ireland and do go to Dublin quite a lot where I have some very good friends. I’ve never thought of London as home although I have lived there longest. It’s because my job is just so nomadic.”

At the moment, the subject that’s exercising Antonia most, apart from what she’s going to wear on the Berlin Film Festival red carpet when she gets her award, is her new flat. It’s a two-bed Georgian number above a shop in a street not far from Westminster and Sloane Square, and she sounds excited as she describes it. “I’m in the process of buying a flat in Pimlico. I’ve always lived central and it’s a tiny flat but it’ll be somewhere to put my stuff.”

In the understatement of the year, Antonia describes the last few years as “busy” and reveals that she got into the bad habit of living on the hoof, staying in different places and not settling down. “Now it feels like I am growing up and making decisions ...”

The route to this adult phase began when she returned to Dublin at the age of 16. “It was the first English-speaking country I’d lived in. At that time I was into music and living and rebelling. I was ignited by the music and cultural scene.” Antonia describes her preferred sounds as rock/punk and says she was a bit of a Goth.

Musically, she ended up with indie rock as Antonia was, for a time, part of the Pete Doherty ‘court’ when she went out with Drew McConnell, the Babyshambles bass player. She says she doesn’t want to discuss that period but has said that hanging out with the band was “depressing”. She refused to sign a consent form for the BBC documentary on Pete Doherty as it wouldn’t be good for her career.

When she isn’t working, Antonia likes to go to restaurants. “Am I a foodie? Yeah, I used to always eat out and still like going to places like the Hakkasan Chinese restaurants.” What about when she returns here, where she likes to retreat for long country drives but not necessarily for a bite to eat? “Well, I really appreciate downtime there but I don’t eat out in Derry. My favourite restaurant in the city? There isn’t one.”

Before moving into acting, Antonia had an important fashion career and her bohemian designs made magazines such as iD and Wallpaper. At the age of 17 she started a design company, which is pretty impressive but about which she sounds fairly casual. “Oh, it happened by a fluke. I was in New York, experimenting with fashion and was spotted. But that’s secondary now, acting is my absolute focus.”

Yet Antonia’s individuality and style seem part of her success. And finding the right frock for the right event can be crucial. Considering what to wear to pick up her award, for example, isn’t easy as she has to balance commercial requirements with her own instincts.

“I’m not conventional and like to experiment with what I wear. I’m a big fan of designers like Simone Rocha and I’ve never gone the ordinary beauty route. I am blonde now but I’ve cut bits of my hair, dyed bits, shaved areas. I’ve never liked ticking boxes or [being] how people expect you to look. I am slowly learning that it does matter how you look.”

And for the Berlin event, Antonia is being wooed by the big designers. Whichever dress she uses, Antonia probably won’t be going the strong colour route. “I’m a little monochrome and like nudes and pastels.”

Antonia is an only child, which may explain her independence and strength, although she says sardonically: “That could have led to me being an actor if you believe in all that stuff.”

From an early age, she wanted to tread the boards. “I tried to get into school plays but I had overwhelming stage fright. Then I decided to overcome it and that’s one reason

I became an actor. Each time I changed school I could reinvent myself.

“On my first day at Franklin International School in Switzerland, they put on a little talent show. I was 11, an Irish blonde girl, but I sang Alice Cooper’s Poison. I was trying to make friends, but it didn’t work.”

She adds, making a point “but I’ve always stayed true to myself. I’m unusual, in the nicest possible sense.”

Her accent, which she can drop at the appearance of a script, is soft southern Irish. Her look is fey-to-unsettling, and she’s into culture if not necessarily cushions.

Decorating and furnishing the London flat is going to be a gas, though. Antonia has got her Dublin mate, interior designer Eoin Lyons, on board and can’t wait to get started. Eoin was a journalist on The Irish Times but switched to design and has written a couple of books on the subject.

Antonia warms to her theme. “There are big Georgian windows but the place is small and I want it to be very efficient and very English, in keeping with the beautiful street. But it’s not going to be chintzy, as I like things to be neat.”

There will be a few trips to antique markets like the big one in Islington, north London. Antonia says: “I’d like to have a few really nice pieces, but not too many however. Then in the bathroom, I want natural slate tiles with a contemporary style sink, clean and sharp.”

It’s tempting to ask who Antonia might be sharing her flat with. “Nobody, I haven’t a boyfriend at the moment. That’s one of my future plans. I’m on the hunt this year,” she laughs, then adds that the reason she’s currently single is because of her workload over the past few years.

“I’ve just been working and working ...” She’s not wrong, as the 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. She has written MTV sketches around Bluebell Welch, the ultimate fan. Away from the arthouse career, Antonia says she enjoys a blockbuster as much as the next person. “I like Empire of the Sun but that’s a bit old.”

Dealing with fame is OK, as Antonia says it was only after Lead Balloon that the public noticed her in the street. “And they weren’t stalkers.”

You can sense the level of interest is about to change, though. Think Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Geraldine Hughes, James Nesbitt, then add Antonia Campbell-Hughes. This shooting star means business.

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