OUT­STAND­ING

HOW AN­TO­NIA CAMP­BELL–HUGHES WENT FROM IR­ISH FASH­ION DE­SIGNER TO STAR­RING IN HOL­LY­WOOD BLOCK­BUSTERS

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - FRONT PAGE -

‘I’m in­cred­i­bly in­tro­verted. I didn’t re­ally know it. Be­cause you teach your­self ways to sur­vive; sur­vival in­stincts. I did not want to be an in­tro­vert. ‘In­tro­vert’ was ‘a loser’.” Ac­tress An­to­nia Camp­bell-Hughes is talk­ing about her child­hood; the early years spent in Done­gal and Derry be­fore years of trav­el­ling all over the world — Amer­ica, Ger­many, Switzer­land — with her par­ents.

An only child, she moved regularly to dif­fer­ent in­ter­na­tional schools. It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that may have in­formed her work as ac­tor — al­ways on the out­side, ob­serv­ing. For years, An­to­nia was best know in Ire­land as a fash­ion de­signer — the wun­derkind who was run­ning her own la­bel in her late teens. She was suc­cess­ful, even pro­duc­ing a range for Top­shop. But in re­cent years, An­to­nia, now in her early 30s, has been qui­etly mak­ing a name for her­self as an ac­tress who can do any­thing from sit­u­a­tion com­edy to dif­fi­cult, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally de­mand­ing art-house cin­ema, to, most lately, Hol­ly­wood ac­tion movies.

“I made my whole life goal to be, not an ex­tro­vert, but an in­di­vid­ual. Which I think I achieved when I was 12. I al­ways went against the grain. I didn’t fit so much with peo­ple, but I al­ways could make a stand. But, you know, it’s a hard path. And that’s why I’m so in­trigued by tribes.”

No, she hasn’t found a sense of her own tribe yet, the ac­tress laughs in a re­laxed man­ner. “I should lie,” she smiles, “be­cause it seems like I’m lost. But no. I don’t think it’s un­com­mon for ac­tors [not to have a tribe].” For an ac­tress of her stature An­to­nia is re­fresh­ingly unedited — this year she ap­pears in An­dron, along­side Alec Bald­win and Danny Glover, next year will see the re­lease of DxM co-star­ring Sam Neill, and she is just back from film­ing Les Cowboys in In­dia with John C Reilly. Sev­eral times dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, she laugh­ingly re­minds her­self to talk about, “the work, the work”, and makes a mock, po-faced at­tempt to be on mes­sage.

Although her act­ing ca­reer be­gan in com­edy, most no­tably in Jack Dee’s Lead Bal­loon on BBC, An­to­nia is prob­a­bly most well known by now for her choice of dif­fi­cult, in­tense roles. She hates the word dark, she laughs, but ad­mits she in­ten­tion­ally moved from com­edy to heav­ier ma­te­rial, if only for the chal­lenge of some­thing new.

“I don’t like to be bored. I don’t like to be stag­nant. And that’s a prob­lem;

I need to ad­dress that,” she laughs self-dep­re­cat­ingly.

“I ac­tively wanted to get out of com­edy. Be­cause it be­came all there was. I wasn’t be­ing seen for the types of films I grew up lov­ing. And that’s why I be­came an ac­tor.”

To work with on our shoot, she is, at times, in­tense and ex­act­ing, though she’s not at all diva-ish, but in fact clever, en­gag­ing com­pany, with a dry sense of hu­mour. There’s some­thing about her that makes you feel pro­tec­tive — this is a ris­ing star who has man­aged to stay fiercely in­di­vid­ual in the most plas­tic of worlds.

Her best friend Rory — “We’re like soul­mates. He’s my barom­e­ter of the world” — has been com­ing on set with her re­cently for the first time. “He says to me, ‘You’d want to watch your­self. Be­cause I can tol­er­ate you, but I know it’s com­ing from a good place. But your in­ten­sity — you can be too dif­fi­cult’,” An­to­nia says.

“It’s be­cause I want the whole thing to be as good as it can be. On our shoot, I know what ev­ery­one’s ca­pa­ble of, you know?” I do know ex­actly what she means. Some­times you work with some­one who is dif­fi­cult, and it’s ob­vi­ously just a power trip. With An­to­nia, it’s out of a sense of per­fec­tion­ism, and deep en­gage­ment with the work at hand, pos­si­bly a hang­over from run­ning her own busi­ness.

“At the end of the day, it’s my face on the pic­ture. And this is where I’ve shot my­self in the foot quite a lot. I’m there, I’ve one job to do. And some­times I think of other things too much,” she says, ex­plain­ing her sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for all the as­pects of a pro­ject she’s work­ing on, pos­si­bly to her own detri­ment. “At the end of the day, look af­ter your own shit. You know?”

She’s in Dublin for work — she works non-stop these days, but it’s also the place that might come clos­est to be­ing called home. Her mother, orig­i­nally for the North, lives mostly here, and her re­ally good friends in life were made here, she says, af­ter she lived here for a time in her late teens, and early 20s.

“Dublin made a dis­tinct mark on me when I moved here,” she says. She was 16 when she first ar­rived, hav­ing come from an in­ter­na­tional school in Frank­furt. “I was de­ter­mined to em­brace a coun­try that I as­so­ci­ated with my blood. I felt it wasn’t a to­tally strange place. But I craved a sense of be­long­ing. It just seemed all very raw, and real. And pas­sion­ate. In­ter­na­tional schools, they’re kind of an ar­ti­fi­cial en­vi­ron­ment. They seem wealthy, but there are a lot of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary kids who are lit­er­ally from trailer parks. There’s a weird mish­mash. And Ire­land seemed ut­terly truth­ful. I lived ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery day. I was in a band and I was cre­at­ing.”

The de­ci­sion to go into act­ing al­most crept up on her. Hav­ing stud­ied at NCAD, she was run­ning her own fash­ion la­bel be­fore the age of 20. “I guess when I was lit­tle I did want to be an ac­tor, as ev­ery kid does. But I was crip­pled with fear. So I would be in school plays, hold­ing a twig,” she smiles wryly. “But, I never wanted to be in the front. For me, ac­tors and peo­ple who were on the stage were beau­ti­ful and pop­u­lar. But I did have an agent from early on.”

‘I was de­ter­mined to em­brace a coun­try that I as­so­ci­ated with my blood. I felt it wasn’t a to­tally strange place’

Lack­ing funds to hire mod­els to show­case her de­signs, she started mak­ing short films of her fash­ion work.

“I was re­ally em­bar­rassed,” she re­calls now. “I found it was like van­ity. I was like, ‘I don’t care’.” She mimes a de­fi­ant lit­tle shrug. “That was my at­ti­tude with ev­ery­thing. ‘I don’t need a mir­ror; I don’t need make-up’. It’s al­most like a fem­i­nist ap­proach that goes too far. When you feel you can’t wear heels be­cause it makes you weak. I thought it was too vain. That’s why I shaved my head. That’s why I pierced my ev­ery­thing. To elim­i­nate weak­ness. Be­cause if you’re beau­ti­ful and you’re fem­i­nine, you’re weak. Whereas now I re­alise that is naive, and stupid. But it’s a process. So it was the same with act­ing. I thought it was van­ity and weak­ness and ego. But I was very fas­ci­nated by film­mak­ing and sto­ry­telling. And a process of al­low­ing your­self to be vul­ner­a­ble.”

She de­scribes mak­ing a short film and be­ing “se­cretly, ut­terly in love” with the whole process. It “felt just like magic. That’s why I keep do­ing this. To me, it’s magic. I had that in fash­ion too. But I fell out of love with fash­ion af­ter a point. I mean, I re­mem­ber with my fa­ther, when I was 18, the first time I’d had sam­ples made, prop­erly, in Poland, and it was FedExed back to me. I got a sim­ple jacket. And I wept, and my fa­ther wept. And we did not re­ally get on.” She shakes her head em­phat­i­cally. “And it was magic. But then af­ter a while, it be­comes a busi­ness. So I was out of love with fash­ion.”

“I looked like Mar­i­lyn Man­son’s child,” she laughs of her early-20s self. “I had, like, black skullcap hair with shaved bits. Ut­terly un­em­ploy­able. I think maybe that was a con­scious thing. I did a week’s course, I think in the Gai­ety. And the tu­tor said to me, ‘you need to do some­thing [as an ac­tress]’. And I re­mem­ber leav­ing and call­ing a friend and say­ing, ‘I’m so in love with this’. And then I liq­ui­dated my fash­ion busi­ness. I was 23. I got a job im­me­di­ately. And I think had that not hap­pened, I wouldn’t have done it. And I just thought it was that easy,” she shrugs.

The job was a BBC drama called Black­beard, shoot­ing for four months in Malta. “Huge bud­get. Joy­ous. Sword fight­ing and all the rest of it.” At the same time, her fash­ion ca­reer, al­beit ne­glected, was tak­ing off. Top­shop launched a dif­fu­sion line, run­ning it for three sea­sons.

It’s ob­vi­ous An­to­nia prefers a sense of con­trol, and in­volve­ment. Go­ing from run­ning your own la­bel, where you are in change of ev­ery­thing, to act­ing, where

you are ul­ti­mately a cog in the wheel, must have been hard. “Yep. When I was in fash­ion, I ran a busi­ness. I mean, when I say ran a busi­ness, it was in the loos­est sense. Very naively. I was so young,” she laughs. “But I guess also when you’re young you don’t have that fear. The qual­ity wasn’t good enough,” she laughs, “but I had balls, or naivete. But that’s what I thought was daz­zling about go­ing on to a film set, that sud­denly you didn’t have to run a busi­ness. I was like, ‘You mean, I just get to do this? And not feel the huge re­spon­si­bil­ity?’

“The weird thing is that when you’re a lead in some­thing in iso­la­tion, where there are not many other char­ac­ters, you take on a lot more re­spon­si­bil­ity; you’re much more in­volved. It’s nice to mix it up. Some­times I like to stand on a mark and be told what to do. And just have that sin­gu­lar ob­jec­tive, which is emot­ing, or per­form­ing. But I do find it frus­trat­ing also.”

She’s known for im­mers­ing her­self en­tirely in the role she’s play­ing. It’s a prac­tice that, on one oc­ca­sion, landed her at the cen­tre of a media storm of con­tro­versy when she lost a sig­nif­i­cant amount of weight to play kid­nap vic­tim Natascha Kam­pusch in the film 3096 Days.

“I feel things quite in­tensely,” she says. “But I’m also quite emo­tion­ally strong. I’ve got quite a sur­vival in­stinct. So I spend a lot of time men­tally with my char­ac­ter, and the story and the process.”

As much as she lives with the role non-stop dur­ing film­ing — “I don’t spend any time away from my char­ac­ter” — the af­ter­math is never a prob­lem. “Weirdly, I never have a prob­lem com­ing out of it. I think the lead-up is the hard­est. The an­tic­i­pa­tion. I find that with ev­ery­thing in life. Not know­ing. Not be­ing able to vi­su­alise what is go­ing to come is un­set­tling for any­one. So for me, it’s the lead-up. When you’re in it, you’re in it, and it’s all-en­com­pass­ing. And then when you fin­ish, you’re ready be­cause you’ve told the story.”

“If you’re given an op­por­tu­nity, I be­lieve in do­ing it as well as is pos­si­ble. And I don’t be­lieve in phon­ing it in and I don’t be­lieve in, you know, tidy­ing your room by putting stuff un­der the bed,” she says en­dear­ingly stern. “And you know, I’ve be­come that per­son be­cause I had hard knocks when I was in art. I didn’t get into var­i­ous fac­ul­ties in school that I wanted to. And I learnt that there was no way to cheat. You’ ll be found out. And that’s how I ap­proach my work. I don’t want to lie. And it’s so funny that act­ing, by def­i­ni­tion, is ly­ing. I think maybe when I was a child I thought, ‘Why would I want to do a job that’s pre­tend­ing’. And so I tried to do some­thing where I’m telling the truth,” she ex­plains earnestly. “In that mo­ment, I’m try­ing to tell the truth.”

“Some­times when I’m work­ing on a cer­tain film, I don’t wear any make-up. Be­cause I don’t want to be a char­ac­ter who does. I’m not re­ally into make-up, any­way. But maybe at the end of the day, all the other ac­tors are. You know? I can be all very ‘ keep it real’, but it’s a busi­ness at the end of the day, and cer­tain things sell.”

There are inse­cu­ri­ties in­her­ent in the pro­fes­sion, like the con­stant rounds of rejection of the au­di­tion process. “I think I’m quite self-aware,” she says. “I know where I fit. So I know when some­thing is not go­ing to be for me. What I’ve learnt is that I guess I’m quite good at what I do. And that is what I wanted to be­come — a good ac­tor; some­one who can change and has craft.”

Of late, An­to­nia — who was pre­vi­ously named a Screen In­ter­na­tional Screen Star of To­mor­row, and who has won the pres­ti­gious Shoot­ing Star Award at the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val — has worked on big bud­get sci-fi movie DxM with Sam Neill. “It’s such a huge pro­duc­tion that you’re very much a small part. And so much work is done for you. Which is glo­ri­ous,” she says, smil­ing. “But I was like, ‘Whoa, I wanna be there’. There’s so much thought, and so many peo­ple in­volved in a shot, that you’re brought out at the last minute.” She loved the ex­pe­ri­ence of the big-bud­get stu­dio movie though.

Her busy lifestyle doesn’t leave a lot of room for re­la­tion­ships, but she says: “I’d like to change it.” Down­time from film­ing, such as it is, is of­ten spent work­ing on other projects. She’s also writ­ing — a com­edy for the BBC is in the pi­lot stage, and she’s work­ing on a script with Alexan­dra McGuin­ness.

“Be­cause I do lots of other things, like writ­ing, peo­ple say you have to take time off, and you need hob­bies. But what do other peo­ple have as hob­bies?” she won­ders aloud, sound­ing half-puz­zled, half-an­noyed. “That’s like say­ing in or­der to have down­time, I have to watch shit movies, I have to stop read­ing. If I could, I’d never take a day off.” Cover Jacket, Top­shop. Trousers, The­ory, Brown Thomas Con­tents and page 11 Jumper, Bella Freud, Sea­green Page 12 and 13 Coat, McQ, Brown Thomas

Op­po­site page

Jacket, Top­shop Sea­green, 6a The Cres­cent, Monkstown, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 202-0130, or see sea­green.ie Pho­tog­ra­phy by Hugh O’Conor Styling by Li­adan Hynes Make-up by Leonard Daly for Lancome Paris Hair by Paul Davey for Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400 Pho­tographed at the his­toric Pow­er­scourt Es­tate, En­niskerry, Co.Wick­low, tel: (01) 204-6000, or see pow­er­scourtho­tel.com Pow­er­scourt Ho­tel Re­sort & Spa of­fers the ideal es­cape, just 30 min­utes from Dublin. In­dulge in the ho­tel’s Grown Up Get­away pack­age, which in­cludes an overnight stay with break­fast in­cluded, din­ner in Sika res­tau­rant and 20pc off Espa treat­ments, from €145 per per­son shar­ing mid­week.

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