Outstanding: How Antonia Campbell-Hughes went from Irish fashion designer to starring in Hollywood
With several big film releases due this year, she's set to becomes a household name. Here, Ireland's most talented rising star tells Liadan Hynes of her peripatetic childhood, losing herself in her work, and how she's far too busy for a boyfriend
'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 mish-mash. 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."
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 film-making 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."