Minnie Driver: 'I dream of a farm, and making bread. I dream of that other life'

Despite the slings and arrows of tabloid infamy, Minnie Driver has forged a stellar Hollywood career. Now, with the advent of middle age, her priorities are changing. So can she stay at the top?

Minnie Driver must be cold. It's freezing outside. There's snow outside. I'm in a woolly dress, and scarf, and boots, and have just tried to defrost my fingers with the hand dryer at Carluccio's, and I'm cold. Really cold. So Minnie Driver, who isn't in a woolly dress, and scarf, and boots, who is, in fact, in a sleeveless top and very tight black leather trousers, and who lives in California, where it's much, much warmer than this, must be very, very, very, cold indeed.

If she is, she doesn't show it. Her thin arms, which are dusted with freckles, don't show any signs of gooseflesh. She's chic, and sleek, and coiffed, and toned, and even though she's been up since daybreak, for Daybreak, to talk about her new film, which is called I Give It a Year, she doesn't look tired at all. She's smiling in the way you smile when you're used to wearing very skimpy dresses on very cold red carpets, and when you're used to gazing at cameras, and when you're used to sitting in hotel rooms as PRs with clipboards tick journalists off lists.

“You're going to put it on Facebook, aren't you?” she says when I point my iPad at her, and click. I've asked if I can take a photograph, so I can remember what she looks like when I write the interview up, and she, to my surprise, has said yes. “It's very weird and sort of creepily stalk-y,” she says when I tell her that I don't do Facebook. “I don't like the whole notion of creeping around someone else and looking at their life.” Nor do I, I tell her, even though I've never been in a Hollywood movie, and don't have a website with a “gallery” of 22,000 photos set up by my fans, and am not particularly likely to have anyone “creeping around” my Facebook profile, if I had one, which I don't, do I. Did she, I ask, hear what Prince Harry said about camera-phones having killed the concept of a private life?

“It's gone,” she says, and her gaze is so intense I find it hard to look away. “I like the idea of the unfolding of who a person is. The whole basis of how you know something, or a person, it's meted out over time, so that you can metabolise it. The idea of this great glut of everything immediately – it's very weird.” Oh good. This sounds a lot more interesting than all that “tell me about the character you play” stuff we'll probably have to do later. It is, I suggest, aware that I sound like a High Court judge, part of the immediate gratification culture.

“That's the thing!” says Driver. “And to think that's better! I don't think it is, because everything is process, our whole life is process, so if you start trying to cut corners there's a backlash, whether it's a soulful backlash or an intellectual one.”

Oh good! I've read that Minnie Driver is “charming”, and “intellectual”, and also a little bit scary, and already I'm having a lovely time. It's like the whole idea, I say, wanting her to agree with me again, that you want the celebrity without the discipline that takes you to the success that has celebrity as a by-product. “That's exactly it!” says Driver. “It was always a by-product, and now it's the main event.”

For Minnie Driver, now 43, it's clear, that discipline was always there. You might not have expected it to be, given her bohemian background, but it was. Her mother was the model mistress of a multi-millionaire financier whose wife didn't know, at least at first, that he had another family. Minnie (her real name's Amelia, but her sister's pet name stuck) spent the first few years of her life on his estate in Barbados, with his jet-set friends. When she was six, she was sent to Bedales, the boarding school in Hampshire that the Tatler schools guide used to describe as a “bohemian idyll with bite”. On her first day, her teacher told the children that they should each pick a character, and a prop, and do a play.

“She wove it together to make this really beautiful narrative,” says Driver, and it's clear from her eyes that the memory's still fresh. From that day, she knew what she was going to do.

She spent the rest of her school years doing plays and music. She went to drama school, and started to get parts on TV. At first she had quite small parts, in shows like Casualty, The House of Eliott, Lovejoy and Peak Practice, and she made extra money by singing in clubs, and playing the guitar. And then she hit the big time: first with Circle of Friends, in 1995, then with GoldenEye, and then with Sleepers and Grosse Pointe Blank. And then, in 1997, with Good Will Hunting, and a nomination for an Academy Award.

Watching quite a few of the films again, the thing that strikes you most is the range. In Circle of Friends she's strangely touching as the plump (she had to put on two stones for the part) Irish girl who falls for the most handsome male student in their year. In Sleepers, she's impressive as a New York social worker struggling with sadness in both her private and professional life. In Good Will Hunting, she's magnetic as the brilliant student who captures the interest of Matt Damon's janitor genius. She captured his interest off-screen too, though he dumped her live on Oprah Winfrey's couch. She put on a red dress, and a brave face, for the Oscars, which is probably as good a definition of a certain kind of courage as you'll get.

And then it didn't exactly go wrong, but it didn't go quite to plan. She was expected always to get leads, but somehow she didn't. She still worked. She has always worked. She still did very good work, and very varied work, and often very interesting work. She was, for example, nominated for the London Critics' Circle Award for her role in the film of The Phantom of the Opera. (I watched it the other day and couldn't keep awake, but I blame the film, not her.) She was nominated for several awards for her role in Barney's Version, which I've just watched again and loved. She was highly praised for her portrayal of an idealistic drama teacher in Hunky Dory. She was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance as a Southern Traveller crack-addict, opposite Eddie Izzard, in the FX network TV show The Riches. She was great in nearly all of these things, but the thing she's nearly always nominated for, which is “best supporting actress”, pretty much sums it up. She's a brilliant supporting actress, but you can't help thinking she could, and perhaps should, have been the star.

But you can't really start an interview by asking someone why they haven't done a bit better in their career, particularly when they've done an awful lot better than you. So instead I ask her more about her time at school. She is, I tell her, very clearly “intellectual”, so how did she feel about shelving the academic path?

Driver leans forward and her gaze, once again, is so intense I feel I can't look away. “Well,” she says, “maybe it was the school I went to, but the drama department was the English department and I still break down characters in the way I was taught to in English.” She was, she says, “rubbish at maths”, but “really good at music” and always a “voracious” reader. “I'm sad now,” she says, “that I didn't go to university. I'm mad about linguistics and semiotics, language and literature. That was always there, but it was all siphoned into acting. I was so focused. I think you have to be as an actor.”

Ah yes, the question of “focus”. But if you want to be successful at anything, don't you have to be pretty “focused”? It's the Malcolm Gladwell thing, isn't it? The 10,000 hours? Driver nods, with such passion I feel I've said something amazing, even though I haven't. “It's absolutely true,” she says. “You don't think about how much you have to do it, because it's all you long to do. You're dreaming about it when you watch TV, you dream about it when you're in maths class or in science when you're a kid. It was always what I wanted to be doing.”

It would, in fact, be much more surprising for an actor to be successful if they didn't have that “focus” than if they did. But the press has often not been kind to Minnie Driver. She has been called, among other things, “the pushiest woman in Hollywood”. For a while, she didn't do interviews and when you read some of the cuttings, you can see why. So how does she feel about them now?

“I've loved the conversations I've had with journalists,” she says, “but what happens is that there's constant reference to with shitty Daily Mail nonsense from 12 or 13 years ago, which somehow informs things now, and that throwback is what bothers me, because I love talking to people, and I love talking about what I do.”

Well, I'm glad it was her who brought up The Daily Mail, and not me. There was a truly horrible piece which said that she had launched a “bitchy attack” on Judi Dench by calling her “small, round and middle-aged”. In fact, she had been talking about the astonishing gifts of a woman who could transform herself from a “lovely, motherly type” into Cleopatra. It's what Laurence Olivier was talking about when he asked Dustin Hoffman, exhausted from three sleepless nights during the filming of Marathon Man, if he had ever tried acting. It was, in other words, a tribute to one of the greatest actors of our time.

“I can't speculate about why anything ever happens,” says Driver, suddenly sounding a bit tired. “You can only ever move forward, and not revisit it, or give it any kind of angry credence or bitterness, because it doesn't go anywhere. It's hard, though, seeing that stuff revisited and it's very painful for my family.”

The people who write things like that, I say, speak as if ambition was a bad thing. “I know!” says Driver. “That I feel was uniquely British, that notion that ambition is bad, that it's represented sort of like the evil queen in Snow White, as opposed to coming out of a love and desire to keep doing what you're doing.” These people speak, I say, because I now feel like protecting her, as if what she was doing was seeking fame and fortune instead of rewarding artistic experiences with the best people in the business. “I think,” says Driver, “if I'd gone and done the $200m shitty movies over and over again, what you just said would be true, but I think the stuff I've done speaks for itself. Also, I think what's quite funny is that people think you have a choice. Mostly, you've just got to bloody work, because you still have a mortgage to pay.”

She auditions “all the time”, she says. She even auditioned for Zero Dark Thirty, which was “one of the most amazing work experiences” of her life. But the stakes now, she says, aren't so high. “It's not going to break you,” she says, “once you've got a kid, and a life, and a love”. The “kid” is Henry, born in 2008 when Driver was 38. When she was pregnant, with no sign of a partner, the press would actually yell out “who's the sperm donor?” when they saw her walking past. The father, she revealed last year, was a writer on The Riches, and is very involved in his son's life. But Minnie Driver's “disastrous” love life has been the subject of many gleeful reports in the tabloid press. As well as Matt Damon, there were high-profile romances with John Cusack and Harrison Ford and an engagement to Josh Brolin. “There was one time I realised I'd shagged a whole billboard,” she said, with touching honesty, in an interview last year. So, “a love”? I can't let that escape. What love?

“The love,” she says carefully, “of pretty much anything”. OK, well I had to ask. She has talked in the past, I say, not quite wanting to put this into a question, about wanting a big family. “It's the Sliding Doors thing, isn't it?” she says. “You see that other life. I dream of a farm in Gloucestershire, and chickens and rabbits and horses and cows and ruddy fingers and making bread. I dream about that, but I also know I have aspects of that in my life.” She mentions a “brilliant book” she read which I reviewed, by Adam Phillips, called Missing Out: in Praise of the Unlived Life. “We're so busy thinking that there was this thing that didn't happen, we're sort of longing for that, and missing the life that you're living.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes!” I want to talk to Minnie Driver about books all day – Middlemarch, which she has just re-read, is one of my favourites – but I must ask her about the film. I Give It a Year is a romcom, directed by Dan Mazer (who co-wrote Borat and Brüno) which tries to subvert the idea of a romcom by starting with a marriage that doesn't seem to be going all that well. Rafe Spall plays the lazy-to-the-point-of-slobby writer-husband. Rose Byrne plays his driven wife. Stephen Merchant plays the best man and best friend who shocks everyone with his crude comments. And Driver plays the family friend who's about as bad an advert for marriage as you could find. She's pinched, mean, and horrible to her husband, and quite different to anyone Driver has played before. So what attracted her to the part?

“It's Dan Mazer. I would say 98 per cent of the directors I've worked with, I've fallen in love with them. You go on a journey with that person, and he's funny and clever, which is my favourite combination. I also knew I wasn't going to have the burden of being one of the four leads in this film, which is always brilliant, because you get to be completely relaxed.” Really? Really, really? Driver laughs, and it sounds like a genuine laugh. “We had this amazing, lovely summer of no pressure. It was just great. I knew it would be a laugh.”

The film is certainly “a laugh”. It also, at least for a while, makes those of us whose love lives haven't always been a model of contented stability feel that art (if you can call romcom “art”) isn't always as far as it sometimes feels from life. Driver has talked in the past about the very detailed research she does for her roles, from watching bypass surgery to spending time in Jewish community centres and synagogues. Did she do much for this?

She smiles. “I hate to say it, but on something like this, no. It was about showing off, and then seeing if I could make Dan Mazer laugh.” And does she expect to learn anything from a project like this? Driver smiles again. “I've never not learnt a lot.” I have, I tell her, only seen clips on YouTube of The Riches, but it looked about as far from her own experience as you could get. “It was,” she says. “For them to think that this middle-class girl from the Home Counties could play a crack-addicted Southern gypsy feral woman, well that is a great compliment. I learnt a lot about Travellers, and the whole culture. It was really fun.”

It sounds like fun. Quite a lot in her life sounds, in fact, like fun. Hunky Dory, the film she made in 2010 about an idealistic drama teacher, was, she says, “pure magic” to do. It was about drama and music, and the power of the performing arts, a power she has continued, in all kinds of ways, to keep alive. She has kept the music going, and has, in the past decade, even released two albums: Everything I've Got in My Pocket (in 2004) and Sea Stories (2007). Neither set the world on fire, but the first one reached No 34 in the UK album charts, and you can't deny that it's a pretty brave thing for a Hollywood star (or sometimes star) to do.

And what, I ask, about this whole thing of being a woman over 40? It's bad enough in industries which aren't about looks, but in acting? Minnie Driver sits up even straighter and I see in her eyes what I think has got her here. “I've always had to work really fucking hard for every single job I've got. I've never known the next film I'm going to do. So it's not that much of a surprise for it to be challenging over the age of 40. The women that I love – the Helen Mirrens, the Judi Denches – the careers that just go on and on, they continue to unfold, and that's what I want.”

She's right to want it, and if she doesn't get exactly what Helen Mirren and Judi Dench have got, I think she'll still get something pretty good. If you're that smart, and that good at what you do, and that determined, and that hard-working, and if you look as good as Minnie Driver does, even in a sleeveless top on a freezing day in January, then you bloody well should.

'I Give It a Year' opens on 8 February

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