Sunday 19 November 2017

Antonia Campbell Hughes: Acting to the extreme

She pushed her body and mind to the limits to play kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch, and hasn't let herself off lightly for her latest film either. Antonia Campbell-Hughes talks to Stephen Milton about taking on a challenge

Stephen Milton

I'm slightly dreading my interview with Antonia Campbell-Hughes. A string of intensely dour film roles has me anticipating a tortured, fixated artiste armed with a fondness for human suffering.

From the urbanised isolation of 'Lotus Eaters' and the atmospheric misery of festival favourite 'The Other Side of Sleep', to new release 'Kelly + Victor', an anti-love story that looks as much at the passion as it does at the pain.

And just in case she hadn't suffered enough, the Derry-born waif made the brave decision to star in '3096 Tage', portraying Austrian kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch, famously abducted aged 10 and abused for eight years in a basement dungeon.

To tell the truth, I'm not even sure I've seen her smile on screen.

But as she shuffles across the drawing room of London's Soho Hotel to greet me, swamped by a high-end shopping bag half the size of her elfin frame, she exudes an endearing wariness, mixed with warmth.

Charming and quirkily effusive, the diminutive actress is not at all what I expected. She jokes. She giggles. She leans heavily on sarcasm and regularly blushes at the hint of a verbal faux pas. It's almost as if Campbell-Hughes was made for mirth, not the go-to girl for pain and anguish.

When she first moved to London and landed a role as Jack Dee's deadpanned teen daughter in BBC comedy 'Lead Balloon', it looked like her card was marked. But Campbell-Hughes had other ideas.

"I kept getting offered more and more comedy things like 'Lead Balloon' and 'Vivienne Vyle' [with Jennifer Saunders], and as much as it was gorgeous and lovely, I got into acting because I liked dark European art-house films," she explains, steadfastly upright in her seat, periodically nursing a cappuccino.

"I wanted to be stretched and pulled, and so I made a clean break, and now it's been all difficult films. So I wouldn't mind going back to comedy. I've endured enough suffering for a while."

Casually chic in an army shirt and jeans, the 31-year-old meets me today to talk about 'Kelly + Victor', an unsettling depiction of two damaged individuals who meet in a Liverpool nightclub. They start a sexual relationship, the excitement of which removes them from the dull ordinariness of their lives.

Based on Niall Griffiths' novel of the same name, it offers mesmerising performances from the actress and the unknown Julian Morris against a bleak Merseyside backdrop. Not exactly the feelgood romcom of the year.

'It's funny because 'my people'," she hand quotes, "were like, 'Maybe you shouldn't do it? You've done a lot of difficult films. You don't need to go down that road again'.

"But I feel Kelly is kind of happy. She's obviously troubled and that's the underlying feeling. But it's a magical time for her, even if it's fraught with history and circumstance. It's a beautiful moment that we see her and Victor in. And that's what I liked about this story. No matter what your situation in life, with money or whatever, it's this fast-fuelled injection of sparkle and fireworks that anyone can experience. And they're both yearning for magic and euphoria, like all of us."

She adds: "It seems like a sad film, but there's a happiness there all the time."

Lean and angular with wispish blonde hair and dark, knowing eyes, she's cultivated a reputation for visiting extreme lengths in the name of her art. During production for 'The Other Side of Sleep', she stayed in character 24/7 for three months, living in solitude, trying to stay awake.

For the graphic sex scenes in 'Kelly + Victor', Campbell-Hughes, co-star Morris and director Kieran Evans bolted themselves in a room for weeks with few breaks, to achieve the raw, claustrophobic grit demanded by the script.

And to recreate the horror endured by Natasha Kampusch in the screen adaptation of her disturbing memoir '3096 Tage' (the number of days she spent in captivity at the hands of Wolfgang Priklopil until her escape in August 2006) the actress pushed her limits to offer a glimpse into the horrifying ordeal.

She reduced her exposure to the outside world, luxury comforts and direct sunlight, in accordance with the imprisoned conditions of Kampucsh's ordeal, languishing in a concrete and reinforced steel cellar measuring five square metres.

Consequently, the already rail-like beauty lost weight. "It wasn't like, 'today's eating plan is...' That seems so conscious and crass. It would've felt arrogant and obnoxious, like I was doing it for attention," she explains.

"All I wanted was to create an environment for myself where I wasn't influenced by outside stimuli. I wanted to experience a lack of light for a period of time, so I had them black out the windows in my apartment.

"I tried to replicate her world in the minute way that I could. I know that sounds crazy, but I didn't want to break. I didn't want to go to the movies on a Saturday. I wanted to keep things very quiet and limited and sort of have a flavour of what her existence was like."

She adds: "I did go to extreme lengths for the film, in many ways, not just weight loss."

Meetings with Kampusch were scheduled and ultimately cancelled, and the pair only spent time together once shooting had wrapped.

"One day, there was an announcement she was coming to set," says Campbell-Hughes. "At that stage, I was very much entrenched in what I was doing. Playing her in a period of time before she escaped the dungeon which is so different to who she is now, quite a strong character and a forceful person. It wasn't the right moment for her, and for me.

"But afterwards, I spent a lot of time with Natascha. She's so remarkable and generous, which is astounding when someone is making a film of your life. It's her voice and somebody's making their impression of your story. She was very giving."

Walking the red carpet at the premiere of 'Frankenweenie' at the London Film Festival last year in an Alberta Ferretti sheer blue gown – shortly after production wrapped on '3096' – invariably attracted unwanted attention.

Critics voiced their concerns as Campbell-Hughes's reed-thin, malnourished body was splashed across the papers. I wonder why she exposed so much emaciated skin in such a public spotlight.

"If you could turn back time ... " she remarks, shaking her head slowly.

"I was Fed Ex'ed the dress straight from the designer and 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**k it, who cares'.

"Everyone was very curious about who was playing Natascha, so I think the [press] were hungry for it. And I was like a moth to a flame."

Campbell-Hughes had no clue of the kerfuffle over her shocking appearance until the following day. "On the Tube, I literally stood on my face [on the newspaper]. And I was carrying the frigging dress in a bag at the time. I wanted to burn it," she says.

"It was horrible. It went all over social media and Twitter and I saw it as viral bullying. It felt like school again, times a billion. And it's not like I needed respect for how seriously I take my roles. I wasn't a Disney kid trying to prove something.

She sagely adds: "Everything's a learning curve." A week later, she attended the 'Kelly + Victor' premiere in a dress suit.

Though she only spent four years there as a teen, Dublin will always be home for the actress, who is currently based in west London. A product of a nomadic upbringing, thanks to her father's position with US chemical company Dupont, her first years were spent in Derry and Donegal, before the family shuttled between the States, Switzerland and Germany.

They eventually settled in Sandymount, where her mother lives now after her dad passed away a few years back.

While in Ireland, Campbell-Hughes initially pursued a career in fashion, launching a successful line under her own name before her 20th birthday which was subsequently sold as a diffusion range in Topshop.

Acting sporadically on the side, she eventually came to a fork in the road; continue with fashion or pursue her true passion.

"It was like I was insulting both industries by trying the other, so that's when I thought, 'Right, I'll start afresh, move to London where no one knows who I am'," she says.

Next up for Campbell-Hughes – named one of Screen International's Stars of Tomorrow in 2011 and awarded the Shooting Star Award at the Berlin Film Festival last year – is a temporary relocation to Manhattan to finish off movie, 'SPLiT' with 'Hounddog' director Deborah Kampmeier before moving on to Tennessee Williams biopic 'Lonely Hunter' with 'Prometheus' actor Logan Marshall Green.

And there's an anticipated pilot for Ridley Scott's TV drama, 'The Vatican' alongside a cast including Anna Friel and 'The White Queen's' Rebecca Ferguson.

Sounds oddly mainstream for a mistress of indie cinema.

"It's Ridley Scott, that's just something you have to experience as an actor. But it's a small role. I'm not even optioned should the series get picked up," she says.

A self-professed workaholic, the fledgling star has toiled on back-to-back projects for the past four years, leaving romance largely neglected. Single since splitting with Babyshambles bassist Drew McConnell, she seems enthusiastically eager to remedy the situation.

"I used to be so cagey about stuff like that and then I saw an interview with Paloma Faith and she really took to the paper to find a bloke, saying 'I'm interested in this type of person, get them for me'. Not a bad idea," says Campbell-Hughes.

"Most people say I'm hunting. But whatever, here's my phone number, my stats. Although maybe that's kind of desperate," she mutters, regretfully.

Frankly, I think it's an inspired personal ad. I'll buy a hat.

'Kelly + Victor' will open in cinemas nationwide on September 20

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