'If we were to put what’s going on in America right now into a TV series, I would say it was over the top': Neve Campbell discusses House of Cards, strong women and her days on the panto stage
When you meet Neve Campbell, the gorgeous Canadian actress with the striking brown eyes, glossy hair and dazzling smile, you might be surprised to hear she got her start on the panto stage.
Although the Scream star’s first professional role was in the original Toronto cast for Phantom of the Opera, aged 14, she laughs with delight as she recalls her days romping through panto staples like Aladdin.
“In America, they really have no idea what ‘panto’ is! My dad is Glaswegian, and he used to direct an amateur Scottish theatre troupe in Canada that my brother and I grew up in, and we did pantos. I think when the Scots go to a different country, they become more Scottish. I think that’s true of any nationality, when you go to a different country you hold on to your roots, sometimes too deeply!"
Campbell’s first career was as a dancer, but after suffering injuries, she moved into acting.
“I do miss ballet, although I’m too old for it now. I’ve always had part of me that missed it and I used to struggle with it a lot more, but I made a film The Company that Robert Altman directed, and that was such a beautiful experience and a way of exorcising that demon for me.
"Since then, I feel like I’ve done what I was supposed to do.”
Perhaps a segue into acting was inevitable – her father was a drama teacher for 35 years, her mother had a dinner theatre in Canada that both she and Neve’s brother acted in, and her grandparents ran a theatre company in Amsterdam.
“It’s in the blood,” she says with a smile.In 1994, she got her big break, when she landed a role on the family drama Party of Five, which would go on to run for six seasons.
Two years later, she shot to fame as Sidney Prescott, the heroine of the hit slasher film, Scream, and its three sequels, in one of the most lucrative film franchises of all time.
Campbell returned to our screens last week on the award-winning Netflix series House of Cards as Leann Harvey, the steely, ambitious campaign manager to Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood. She says she was a big fan of the show before being cast, though she admits to only catching a few episodes when she wasn’t run off her feet looking after her three-year-old son, Caspian.
“It’s nice to play an unapologetically strong woman, which is still very rare unfortunately. For me, it’s nice to be seen as, yes, a strong woman, but as an adult. I like the fact that she’s intelligent, she’s ambitious, and she’s successful. She’s kind of unlike anything I’ve done in the past,” she says with a smile.
Now 42, Campbell notes that the kind of roles out there for women over forty aren’t usually so tempting.
“I get offered a lot of moms and wives, but that’s unfortunately what the industry is like at the moment. You just have to wait it out and try to find the right jobs,” she says.
“Unfortunately there are just far fewer roles for women in this industry. That’s got to shift at some point.”
“There are starting to be more female executives in studios, but even they are finding it challenging to get rid of this old story that women can’t put bums in seats. It’s not true! Especially when you look at leading female television characters, who have this huge fan base, so obviously there are a lot of people who want to see women do well in this industry and want to see their work.
“It’s just an old story that has to change, and I’m not sure how that’s going to happen. It will, in time, but at the moment we just have to be patient,” she says.
Campbell seems to have grown weary of the imbalance in the industry, but observes it’s a much bigger problem in film than on television.
“In the feature world, it’s much harder for women. It’s hard to get feature films financed these days. Independent features used to get a budget of about $10-12m, but those don’t exist anymore. You either get a micro-budget of $1.2m if you’re lucky, or the studios are making these big action films or reboots of old films just because they’re not courageous enough to try something new.
“If they’re making far fewer films than they used to make, then they’re going to convince themselves men are more of a guarantee to make money, so they continue doing that.
”Campbell now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her son and her partner JJ Feild. She lived in Los Angeles for many years, but says it never really felt like home.“Living in LA didn’t suit me. I just felt that I wanted more culture. It’s not very multi-cultural, and there’s not a lot going on in theatre or dance. I’m from a walking city, and I like being in a city where I can go out and have my day find me, as opposed to having to plan everything.
“I find it more inspiring to live amongst lots of different cultures and kinds of people, and LA is very one-track minded. It’s all about the industry, and that gets a bit old after a while. I get bored, and I don’t want to raise my son there, to be honest. I’d rather him be around different cultures and experiences, and to have more stimulation than that offers.
”One of the advantages to living in California, however, is the ‘No Kids Policy’ magazine publishers recently adopted to prevent paparazzi from taking photos of celebrity offspring, following a campaign from A-listers including Jennifer Garner, Halle Berry and Kristen Bell.
“There have been pictures taken of me and Caspian here and there, and I get that that’s part of the business, but I don’t like when it involves my child. That’s the hardest bit,” she says.
It’s more than 20 years since Campbell first appeared in Party of Five, and television has undergone a dramatic revolution in that time. “It’s incredible how TV has changed,” she says.
Of course, Netflix played a huge role in revolutionising storytelling on television with their all-you-can-eat business model.
“On Netflix, you’re not trying to create a beginning, a middle and an end to each episode. You don’t have to wrap every episode up with a pretty bow, and as an actor you don’t have to finish a character’s arc in an hour. It can be carried over the episodes, and that’s more fun for an audience to engage, I think,” says Campbell.
Although she’s not a binge-watcher, she loves Orange is the New Black and Amazon’s original series, Mozart in the Jungle.
A major part of the binge-watching phenomenon is the proliferation of a spoiler culture. If you haven’t yet finished all 13 episodes of House of Cards’ fourth season, you’d be wise to shield your eyes on social media to avoid discussions on the show’s many twists and turns.
Campbell is no stranger to spoiler warnings, which she first encountered in the 1990s. “I had the same thing with Scream, we had to be really mum about it!”
She also appeared in a wonderful cameo on Mad Men’s final season. The series’ showrunner, Matt Weiner, is notorious for his aversion to spoilers, and even asked Campbell to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“It’s understandable,” she says. “People don’t want it to be spoiled because they’re such fans of the show.
”She’s also been instructed to stay tight-lipped about her character on House of Cards, but what she will say is this: “I think being in the world of politics and being a woman, you would have to behave a certain way, and there would have to be a certain amount of coldness. So Claire and Leann are similar in a lot of ways, and I think that makes sense, because they’ve had to survive a lot.”Is it possible to get ahead in politics and still be a good person? Campbell doesn’t think so.
“I find it hard to believe that you can be completely clean and get things accomplished in politics, unfortunately. There are so many people with different opinions of what should occur, and I think there are always going to be compromises that have to be made, sadly.
”The new season follows Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood as he makes a bid for re-election. Outside of the show, we’re also watching a presidential election play out in the US, but Campbell thinks the drama on the show can’t compare to the real thing.
“It’s funny, if we were to put what’s going on in America right now into a television series, I would say it was over the top. It’s almost more extreme than any fiction that could be written,” she says.
“It’s kind of frightening what’s going on at the moment.”Campbell, who became an American citizen 10 years ago, says the show has taught her a lot about the electoral process in the US – and given her an inside look at the real-life world of politics.
“Through the show, I’m learning more about politics. Politicians come to set sometimes. We were just in Washington for the premiere and I met a bunch of politicians. And I’ve just been invited to the White House!” she says, beaming.
“I’m very excited about that.”House of Cards has already been renewed for a fifth season. Although Campbell’s performance showcases serious staying power, she won’t give any hints as to whether she’ll be returning next year. Whatever happens, Campbell doesn’t seem to be missing the mayhem of her Scream years, and says she has become more selective when choosing roles since then.
“I’ve been offered leads in network television series, and I wouldn’t do that because of the schedule,” she explains.
“That’s not the kind of mom I want to be. An ensemble piece like House of Cards is just what I was looking for. I’m able to go to work two or three days a week, and then I’m able to be with Caspian the other days, which is great. I’m very happy.”