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.

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