Film: Meet our reluctant friend in the North

Gina McKee really doesn't like interviews. But she's a star now. Does she need to loosen up?
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The Independent Culture
OUTSIDE, A sticky summer storm is threatening, but sitting in an exclusive eyrie of Soho House in London Gina McKee is as cool and white as her bone-china teacup. She's taller and thinner than she appears on screen, and her long-limbed elegance makes her look like the subject of a Modigliani painting, or a noblewoman in a medieval tomb carving: impossibly long fingers pressed together in prayer, impossibly thin greyhound lying at her feet.

Right now the only thing McKee has at her feet is the British film industry. After an award-winning performance in the BBC TV series Our Friends in the North, the 35-year-old actress has won roles in almost every prestigious film project going, from Mike Figgis's forthcoming The Loss of Sexual Innocence to Michael Winterbottom's Cannes favourite, Wonderland. This week she appears alongside Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Richard Curtis's new romantic comedy Notting Hill. Not bad for someone who never went to drama school.

"I auditioned when I was 17," she says softly, "but they wouldn't have me, they said I was too young." After a children's television series and two seasons at the National Youth Theatre, McKee went straight into acting instead, appearing in everything from The Lenny Henry Show to Inspector Morse. And if skipping drama school left her with the lingering sensation of "having missed out on some big secret", McKee made up for it by teaching herself technique. "I went to voice training, learnt circus skills - did classes in everything and anything. The only thing I never did was fencing."

That was a skill which would surface, verbally at least, with the first stirrings of media interest. To say that Gina McKee doesn't like being interviewed is a bit like saying cats don't enjoy swimming. Despite years in the business, she has granted only a handful of interviews, and these read more like transcriptions from some on-going courtroom defence than the usual blandly colourful lifestyle profiles. Not for McKee the easy anecdotage of the seasoned luvvie. No, what you get is a combination of shyness, circumspection and blunt stonewalling.

Even the most anodyne of enquiries about her private life are viewed with suspicion. In one interview for that notorious scandal sheet the Radio Times, a suggestion that McKee, who grew up in County Durham, might have identified with Our Friends in the North was roundly refuted. "The first part of my life was in the North, but now my home and a huge part of my work are in the South, so I'm not a southerner or a northerner."

Thanks to such stringent self-censorship, both McKee's background and opinions remain sketchy. When we meet she chats amiably enough about growing up in Peterlee, a new town that replaced the traditional back- to-back colliery villages with rows of flat-roofed houses that "looked like little boxes". But she freezes when I ask what her parents did for a living. "Didn't they tell you? I don't talk about my personal life". Even questions about her own feelings can be fraught - as if she fears that she may be held accountable for the most trivial admission.

Asked what it was like to move to London at 18 years old, she says it was "no big deal. I felt totally ready for it. It made perfect sense." Well, was there an early revelatory role, perhaps, one that fired her enthusiasm for her new career? "I don't know, because that often happens," she replies cautiously. "Even if it's not the most successful project, you can still learn on various levels. You can learn something that furthers your understanding of the business or you can learn very private, creative things. I can't really pinpoint anything in particular."

What about Our Friends in the North? Didn't McKee think that playing Mary Cox from the age of 18 to 52 might mark a turning-point? "When I read Mary's character I got a slight turn of my stomach, because I really related to her," she says. "I really, really wanted to play her, and I thought, `the disappointment potential here could be huge', but I put that to one side because it wasn't useful. Anyway, anything can happen between your taking the job and its being transmitted."

Like all actors, McKee speaks from experience. Four months into a seven- month rehearsal period for Mike Leigh's Naked, McKee discovered that the character she had created was not going to play a large part in the final film. "It was disappointing," she shrugs, "but I was having the time of my life. I was learning about habits I'd got into and how to break them. I went on my own private journey." A more recent role in Luc Besson's Joan of Arc went the same way.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for someone who takes their work so seriously, McKee has never shied away from the comic or the commercial. Along with several advertisements, McKee's previous television work includes the sitcom An Actor's Life for Me and the role of a moustachioed reporter in Chris Morris's satirical sketch show Brass Eye. Working with Morris was, she says, "liberating - a breath of fresh air. He's hilariously funny. Often when you are on camera he can throw out the odd, improvised line that tests your every strength not to laugh."

Somehow you can't imagine McKee cracking up. When I turn to her latest role in Notting Hill and ask whether she shared her character's starstruck feelings on meeting Julia Roberts, she appears to regard the question as an affront to her professionalism. "Ultimately we were both there to do our jobs, so I got over that because it's not useful." It may not be functional, I suggest, but it is still an emotion that I can imagine feeling. "No, I don't think you would," she insists. "I mean, if you know anybody famous, you know it's the last thing they need. You've got to get beyond that. I think it's fair enough if the time is right to say, `I really respect your work', but to get starstruck is just not useful."

Which actors does she respect? "Hundreds. There are so many good ones out there. I wouldn't want to say in case I missed someone out." Well, I wheedle, just one or two will do. "Funnily enough, I met Faye Dunaway the other day. I remember watching Bonnie and Clyde when I was a kid and thinking that she was incredible." Like Dunaway, McKee would like to take on a feminist role or, as she puts it, to "explore a female who has characteristics which are traditionally thought of as male." What would be nice, she says, would be to do such a project without gender "becoming the issue".

Talking to McKee, you feel that she'd like to get on with acting without fame becoming the issue. Perhaps it's a fear of being pigeonholed, perhaps a reluctance to retail her off-screen experiences for the sake of her career, but she seems pathologically wary of the press. After chiselling away at her polite self- possession for an hour, I leave Soho House feeling as though I have spent an hour questioning one of those cathedral carvings.

The next day there's a phone call from her press people saying that Gina wasn't "comfortable" with our encounter, feeling that it lacked "focus" and that I was too "shy and nervous". They would also like to see the interview before it's printed. Post-interview paranoia is offset by another call, this time from her agent, helpfully passing on the author of a book that Gina had recommended (the book was The Odd Women, the author George Gissing). Somewhere between that desire to communicate and that desire to give nothing away, McKee is making herself a brilliant career. Just don't ask her to talk about it.

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