Film: Goodbye to all that

In just a few roles playing abused, vulnerable young women, Kate Hardie made a reputation as a talented actress. But she hasn't accepted a part for more than two years. What went wrong?

Think hip, damaged nymphet and Americans like Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci spring to mind. But Britain's Kate Hardie got there first. Hardie's huge-eyed, duck-lipped baby face haunted Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa. In The Krays, playing Reggie's doomed wife, she was a brittle dose of integrity. And her pugnacious, sexually vulnerable body raged brilliantly through Antonia Bird's TV drama, Safe. But in the last five years she's worked very little (two jobs, in all), concentrating instead on her young son, Lyle. In her words, she's "just stopped"; retired. Hardie is 28 years old.

She's agreed to an interview because those two jobs, Mike Hodges' Croupier (in which she has a relatively small part as a lusty misfit) and Heart (a drama written by Jimmy McGovern in which she plays Christopher Eccleston's cheating wife) are finally about to be released. I'm ushered in to a Soho office and she's there, drinking boiled water. "Oh God," she yelps, when I point out this is a rather unusual choice, "everyone thinks I'm like a mad dieting person, some mad anorexic."

"Mad" is a word Hardie uses a lot (sometimes like a bored Chingford receptionist, with a roll of the eyes, sometimes like a drunk Hampstead school-kid, with a snort of laughter). She's convinced, for instance, that she drives her agent "mad, because I get sent stuff and I'm like no, no, no," (her gangly arms gesticulate wildly), "because there's just something about nearly every script that I'm not sure about."

But everyone saw how good she was in Safe - surely she gets offered decent scripts? "At the time, Safe seemed like the start of a really good thing," she agrees. "But, Jesus Christ, it was the start of the end! I started using my emotion in places that were really naff. And all the parts I got offered were nutty girls. It was so mental, so emotional. I had to get away."

I tell her she sounds like David Thewlis, who suffered a similar fate after Naked. She blushes. "Do you know David's my boyfriend? David's who I bring up Lyle with now! But I think you're sort of right, really, that David's in the same sort of way as me but he's made very different choices. He went to Hollywood and then you're in a machine. But..." here she bursts out laughing "...all of David's bad decisions sort of mean I'm quite financially supported." Lyle's father, Rankin - the notoriously trendy photographer - also helps out. She drags a hand through her hair: "So I'm very supported to try not to be a victim of this profession."

It's a tortuous sentence and victim is a very specific word. As soon becomes clear, Hardie is deeply politicised, someone not ashamed to use the word feminist. I mention that I've been chatting with Eccleston and pass on his description of the McGovern script as "pornographically honest". Hardie guffaws, "Maybe Chris doesn't have the same image of porn that we do. He probably thinks that's a full compliment!' Eccleston also called Heart a "women's film", saying that they "get" it more than men. "No way," she says, with a curl of the lip. "A lot of the blokes I've taken thought that it was great. A girlfriend saw it and said, 'my boyfriend was just keeping his legs crossed because he was really turned on. Other women are like, 'fucking hell Kate, why did you do it?'"

I know what they mean. Hardie seems to spend most of Heart having sex. When she gets lines she delivers them intelligently and movingly, but most of the time what we see are her breasts and her legs up in the air. And yet Hardie doesn't mind. In fact, she's proud of the sex scenes, and boasts about the control she had over them.

I'm confused. You have to be "quite cocky", she explains, otherwise directors "sneak" shots. "The minute you're shy, it gets voyeuristic and then it can become abusive to you. She looks down into her boiled water. In Mona Lisa, [in which Hardie plays an underage prostitute] there's a scene where an old man's behind me and I'm pushed against a mirror and I thought he was massaging my shoulders. Neil Jordan was not fuckin' telling me what was going on in that scene. I was just very shy and my shyness was abused. When I went to see the film I realised he was pulling a rubber glove out of my arse." Upset, but also incredulous, I ask how she could have confused the two. Hardie shrugs. "I really didn't get that, because I was not involved in the discussions. I couldn't feel that as a kid." She shrugs again, defeated. "I was 16 years old."

It's a shocking revelation which, as well as putting you off Jordan, makes you wonder about Hardie's upbringing. But it doesn't explain Heart. Deep down, I'm sure Hardie knows that the "sexy" shenanigans in Heart lack substance. Eccleston himself admits that the script was completed in a rush and that the "dialogue could have been pushed more" but wasn't, because "Jimmy wasn't paid enough". So why does Hardie - so alarmingly honest on every other subject - insist that Heart was a "good" decision? Maybe it's because she's tired of feeling disappointed and abused. Maybe it's because she's tired of appearing "negative". "When I was younger," she says, tugging at her by now much-harassed hair, "I used to just rant and shout and attack people - it was all in a good cause, but I was just intimidating." Hardie thinks it alienated her from colleagues. "People love David but they don't like me. I'm a 'bad situation'." She says of her time on Heart: "We didn't get on that well. I remember Jimmy saying that I was a middle-class arsehole. It's Jimmy's favourite big rant and I got really upset, saying my parents were very, very working class (Hardie's father is the comedian, Bill Oddie). Jimmy was shouting at me, I was shouting at other people - it was just mad."

Hardie's certainly calmer these days. But then, as she keeps pointing out, she hasn't worked for two years. Doesn't she miss having something to do? She nods vigorously. "Yeah, maybe I'm in a bit of self-denial about acting. I forget the sort of energy you get from being creative. Energy like that is propelling. Something that gets you out of bed in the morning..." She frowns. "My life is filled up with little things to do and worries and I'm quite challenged by getting over those at the moment, but maybe if I had creativity I'd sort of fly through them anyway, because I'd have somewhere I was going all the time. I guess I'm sort of paralysed..."

It's the language of depression, but Hardie doesn't seem depressed. In fact, she's extraordinarily bouncy, like a 3D episode of The Magic Roundabout. Faced by an industry that frankly sounds psychotic, and given her obvious, peculiar brand of vulnerability, perhaps she's done the right thing after all. As we walk to the Tube station, this maternal urchin elaborates on her new philosophy. "I mean, I don't sit there and stare at the walls or anything, but I don't eat burgers and I don't want to hurt anybody. Picasso and Jackson Pollock may have done great work, but they didn't look after their wives or their children. I want to take care of people in a gentler way." She also talks about her life with her mum (who split up from Kate's father many years ago). Hardie talks about how bright her mum is, but also about some of the mistakes her mum has made and her regrets.

A week later, I get a note from Hardie: "I enjoyed the conversation a lot, I do talk far too much in interviews though and stray a lot... I'd only ask, be gentle on anything related to my upbringing; my mum hates reading about herself in the press, and I perhaps do not protect her from it enough?" I love that nervy question mark. Maybe Hardie doesn't need a proper job - doesn't need the "brilliant part, in a brilliant film" that she so deserves. Bent on a reckless desire not to abuse others or be abused, she already has a full-time career.

'Heart' opens 11 June, 'Croupier' 18 June

What Katie

Did Before

MONA LISA (1986),Hardie's fourth film. As in her debut, Runners (1983), she's a teenager swallowed by seedy London.

After Cry Freedom and five (count them) spots on Casualty, Hardie appeared with Martin Kemp in The Krays (1990).

She played Kaz in Safe (1993), a harrowing TV drama about the homeless, but dreary stuff like Beyond Reason (1995) followed...

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