BRIDGET JONES WITH BALLS

She's been called 'the most famous young actress in the country' and 'a modern pop-culture legend'; and she has a Bafta to prove it. But it nearly didn't happen that way: Daniela Nardini had almost given up on acting when she got the part of Anna in 'This Life'. Now she's about to star in Channel 4's 'Big Women'

ANNA. The very mention of This Life's resident firebrand sets grown men quaking. Help, you think, this is the character who chewed up and spat out blokes like so much cold Scott's Porage Oats. If ball-breaking were to become an event at the Commonwealth Games this summer, Anna would walk a gold for Scotland.

So, quailing male that I am, I approached an interview with Anna's alter ego, Daniela Nardini, with understandable nerves. Thoughts of Christians and lions were racing through my head. Would my self-respect - to say nothing of my more tender parts - be left intact? Or would I be mauled like a hapless extra in Jaws?

I survived. Pretty easily. Nardini had heard that the day we were meeting would be my birthday and arrived at the interview bearing a present. It was an Elizabeth Shaw mint chocolate. Just the one. Still, it's the thought that counts; and the gift of a mint could hardly have been the thought of someone about to administer a Rottweilering to a defenceless journalist.

And, to my relief, Daniela turned out to be nothing like Anna. In person, the 30-year-old actress is no more intimidating than a clump of heather. She is more pussycat than tigress.

You'd recognise her, though. In real life, she has the same compelling look as on screen: cropped brown hair offsetting a mobile, expressive mouth and wide, twinkly eyes that could double for the Northern Lights on a dark night. When she laughs - which she does frequently - it is with captivating, unforced gaiety.

As she settles back into the sofa at her PR's office, a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other - a la Anna, or perhaps her frailer cousin, Bridget Jones, since Anna would more likely be on the hard stuff - she contemplates her status as the hottest property this side of a blast-furnace. The runaway success of This Life, BBC2's cult drama about a group of messed-up, twentysomething house-sharing lawyers, has rocketed Nardini into the sort of league where a programme proposal for her to read out the Yellow Pages would no doubt receive a green light from drooling commissioning editors.

The few journalists she has agreed to meet in the past have been equally enthusiastic in their reports, calling Nardini "the most famous young actress in the country", "the star of 1997's greatest TV show," and - with typical journalistic understatement - "a modern pop-culture legend."

The star, in baggy red jersey, long blue denim skirt and suede clogs, just laughs off the hyperbole. "I keep hearing this word 'icon'. In the press I was described as a 'sex-bomb'. One paper even called me 'the sexiest woman in Britain'. One morning I was sitting at breakfast in a blue towelling robe with a hangover when my mum came in and said, 'Look at the sexiest woman in Britain.' You can't take it seriously."

If Nardini were ever to show signs of developing starry airs and graces, her family and friends in Largs in the west of Scotland would puncture them. "If there's a lot of attention on anyone, it's bound to affect them. But you need people around you saying, 'No, actually, not everything that comes out of your mouth is wonderful.' My family are all quite cruel. It's a Scottish thing: the more you like someone, the cheekier you are to them. A friend of mine said, 'If you don't learn to laugh at yourself and you can't take a slagging, you'll not survive in Scotland.' " Since she won the Best Actress Bafta for Anna last month, Nardini's friends have taken to curtseying to her and calling her "Dame Daniela".

BUT JUST why did Anna become the most popular thing to be exported from Scotland since John Logie Baird's invention? "Anna was like a hero," Nardini reckons. "She was the woman who could say and do anything and get away with it. But people thought it was good that she was quite a mess, too. She was screwed-up enough for them to go, 'Och, poor wee soul.' She was a survivor. There was also a shock element to it with all that sex and drugs. It was part of youth culture, and the Britpoppy audience was ready for it."

Jane Fallon, who has produced Nardini in both This Life and Undercover Heart, the complex thriller she is currently filming for the BBC, knows Anna and Nardini better than most. In her view, "Anna is the character we'd all like to be if we were brave enough. She could make her way in a man's world. Also, she could always come up with the answer we'd only have thought of several minutes after the event." Anna's trick was to be "tough but tender" - a mixture attractive to both sexes. And in Big Women - the imminent Channel 4 adaptation of Fay Weldon's novel about the founding of a feminist publishing house in the early 1970s - Nardini plays, in her own words, another "feisty, leggy Scottish bird".

"Feisty is definitely the word that comes to mind with Daniela," says Renny Rye, Big Women's director. "In a revolution, she'd be the leader you'd follow over the ramparts. She has that ability to inspire. She has suddenly hit a chord this last couple of years because she's got balls, but at the same time she's vulnerable. She represents the perfect balance of masculine femininity."

Tariq Ali, the producer of Big Women, also emphasises the actress's magnetism. "There's an intensity about Daniela. As a private person, she's the exact opposite, she's so shy. Yet the minute the camera's on her, a transformation takes place and she gives it everything."

That's not to say that she's showy. Nardini performs with the minimum of look-at-me ostentation. According to Fallon, "She's brilliant at being small. If you watch her face, her expressions are very contained. She doesn't do big, theatrical acting. She's very bright and can understand subtext. The camera loves her because it can read what's going on in her eyes."

Phew, what an express delivery of hero-grams. But they underline an unmissable point: people just can't get enough of Nardini.

IT WAS not ever thus. After leaving school at 17, she was turned down by three drama schools - how those admissions tutors must now be blushing - before finally being accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Graduating in 1989, she was "flooded with no offers". Walk-ons in Taggart, Dr Finlay and Take the High Road were interspersed with spells working in the family cafe. She now admits that on occasions during that bleak period she felt like head-butting casting-directors.

"I would have six months without work before getting one line in something. It was soul-destroying. As a young actor, you have to be able to handle frustration and lack of respect and having to borrow from your parents, but I was sick of it, so I got an application form for teacher training at Jordanhill [in Glasgow]. I came quite close to ruining some children's lives."

What averted that danger was an audition for This Life, although it nearly didn't happen. "I had to push and get quite Anna-ish about it. At first, they just wanted to meet me and send me home, but I'd got a flight down from Glasgow and thought 'Frankly, no, I'm not leaving without a proper audition.' I just got straight into the scene, and it clicked. I remember walking down Chiswick High Road afterwards thinking, 'This is going to change my life.' " It soon did: Nardini was jet-propelled from bit-parts to Baftas.

Of course some of This Life's popularity rested on its high rumpy-pumpy quotient, which kept the tabloids in a permanent state of excitement over several months. They're sure to get hot under the collar again over Big Women. The first epsiode sees Nardini's character, Layla, dancing naked around a well-appointed London drawing-room, chanting "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" in an attempt to persuade her three square friends to be bold enough to set up a women's publishing imprint.

"I'm a believer in nudity," Nardini says, with an infectious giggle. "I'd take my clothes off again. It's difficult at first, but by the end you're laughing about it. To encourage us, the director said, 'I'll take my clothes off, too,' but no one wanted to see him naked. None of us have perfect bodies. It can be done in a titillating or coy way, but I like it when it's frank and honest."

Her extended Scottish-Italian family, makers of a celebrated ice-cream brand, don't necessarily agree. Her uncle Peter has admitted that he was forced to switch off during certain bits of This Life - "what those bits are, I'll leave to your imagination".

SO WHAT does the future hold for Nardini? Sadly, there is little prospect of us seeing her as Ophelia or Lady Macbeth. "For me, there is a lot of terror attached to the theatre. On stage, I only want to play mutes like Katrin in Mother Courage."

All the same, she has enhanced her chances of longevity by avoiding over- exposure in the press - a case of treat'em-mean, keep'em-keen. When This Life was about to reach its climax, at the end of the second series, Nardini was the only one of the leading actors who declined to talk to a Sunday newspaper for its huge spread on the whole phenomenon. "She's been offered a lot of This Life clones, but she's been very careful," says Rye. "She could have cashed in quickly, but she hasn't done lots of interviews or joined the chat-show circuit. Every week during the filming of Big Women, The Jack Docherty Show would phone up and say, 'Any chance of Daniela coming on?' She'd always turn them down. That's sensible, because otherwise she could have been a six-month wonder. Now she'll keep her powder dry and do better things. In the process, she has been very helpful to many twentysomething Glaswegian Daniela clones, who've taken all the parts she's turned down."

But are we all just being blinded by the bonfire of hype engulfing Nardini? Will she, like a 15-minutes-of-fame boy band, be here today and gone tomorrow? Is she just hitching a ride on the "Cool Caledonia" bandwagon? "When Trainspotting ripped through, the world couldn't get enough of Scots," she says. "But people like Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor are fine actors first and Scots second. We live in a trendy world where things suddenly take off, but Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor will outlive fashion."

So will Nardini. She's got to be wary of Anna-typecasting, but her bewitching screen presence will never go out of style. Self-deprecating to the last, she protests: "people will get sick of the sight of me. I could well still end up doing teacher-training at Jordanhill."

Hardly. As Test cricketers are wont to parrot at this time of year: form is temporary, class is permanent.

! 'Big Women' starts on Channel 4 on 2 July.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice