Bare necessity

Why would an actress on the edge of the Hollywood big time choose to switch to soft porn? Holly Sampson, the new Emmanuelle, explains all to <i>Geoffrey MacNab </i>
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The Independent Culture

She has to have class and distinction. She has to have a beautiful body because she needs to be able to show it - you're not looking for someone who will look vulgar when naked. You're going for a certain finesse. She must be as elegant naked as when she is dressed. And she must not be shy."

She has to have class and distinction. She has to have a beautiful body because she needs to be able to show it - you're not looking for someone who will look vulgar when naked. You're going for a certain finesse. She must be as elegant naked as when she is dressed. And she must not be shy."

That last quality is surely the most important, since producer Alain Siritzky is listing the attributes needed to play the seductress Emmanuelle. Earlier this year, he embarked on a worldwide search to unearth a new actress to take over the part (or parts) made famous by Sylvia Kristel in the Seventies soft porn films. He and his team auditioned close to 3,000 hopefuls but in the end, they plumped for a 26-year-old ex-ballet dancer called Holly Sampson to star in "Emmanuelle 2000", the new series of seven Emmanuelle films now being made in California.

Landing a role as the heroine in a softcore exploitation flick is hardly the holy grail for most actresses. In fact, it's more likely to be the kiss of death - just look how hard Elizabeth Berkley had to struggle to get back into the fold after Showgirls. Even so, Emmanuelle does have a certain cachet. Since she was first launched onto the screen in 1974, the character created by novelist Emmanuelle Arsan has gone on to become a brand name recognised all over the world. "Emmanuelle is a myth," enthuses Siritzky. "You don't have that many recurrent characters in the movies - Bond, Tarzan, Superman, Rambo, Rocky - but it's very very rare that you have a woman."

It seems to be small consolation for Sampson. You can't help but feel that Emmanuelle is a role she has taken on with major misgivings. For Sampson isn't just some bionic-bodied naive young hopeful; she enjoyed acting success in her early career, with guest spots on well-known TV shows such as Matlock and The Wonder Years. Her first film appearance came a decade ago, in Allan Moyle's Pump Up The Volume opposite Christian Slater. Sampson's audition required her to walk into Moyle's office and break down into floods of tears, a task she performed so effectively that he instantly gave her the part.

With Moyle behind her, Sampson should have been set for the big time. He has an eye for new talent. His movies have showcased everybody from Liv Tyler to Samantha Mathis. Somehow, though, her career didn't really take off. Emmanuelle is her chance to re-establish her credentials in what she acknowledges is a cut-throat industry.

On the morning I speak to her, Sampson is in her dressing room, waiting to be called for her next scene. She is polite and friendly, although her misgivings about her new part soon become apparent. "Is it enjoyable?" she repeats my question doubtfully. "Yes, it is enjoyable..." her voice tails off.

She sketches in her biographical background. She was born in Phoenix, Arizona, lived there for 13 years and then moved to Los Angeles with her mother, who works as a receptionist. What about her father? "I'd rather not talk about that," she says. All she'll reveal is that he still lives in Phoenix, where he runs an organic farm. She was a scholarship student at the Phoenix School of Ballet, but once she moved to LA, stopped dancing and started acting. She studied at the Young Actors' Space, where her fellow students included such other would-be stars as Elizabeth Berkley and Chad Allen (co-star of Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman). And no, it was certainly never her intention to be sidetracked into soft-core porn movies.

She has had some lucky breaks - just not enough of them. In 1998, she walked into the wrong audition. "The woman sitting behind the desk said, 'You're in the wrong place, but you're really cute. Let me put you in my movie.'" That's how she came to appear in Gia, a TV-movie written by Jay McInerney in which Angelina Jolie starred as Gia Carangi, the Seventies supermodel. She also pops up briefly as a dancer/stripper in Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas. "I knew Mike Figgis had worked with Vivienne Westwood and portrayed women in a very beautiful way," she says.

Sampson admits she is not particularly well-versed in Emmanuelle lore. She hasn't read the original novels or seen the Sylvia Kristel films. "But I've got an extremely good response from the people I've told that I have the part. People seem to have a positive image of Emmanuelle. I know she's pretty much based on a European character - I'm about as all-American as they come. I still look extremely girl-next-door. When I first read the part, I didn't necessarily think I was right for it."

Why does she think Siritzky chose her for the part, then? "He was going for an essence and perhaps he saw a quality in me that goes beyond physical. Also I have a very slender physique. That adds to the elegance of the character and I know that Alain really wanted the character to be elegant and classy."

Half way through one film and with six more to go, she's slowly getting into the swing of Emmanuelle. "But the genre is very, very hard to get used to. It can be uncomfortable at times." Unsurprisingly, it's the nudity that really fazes her. "You're baring your bod!" she exclaims in mock horror. "There's definitely some concern with how everything looks. You really, really want it to come up looking beautiful and soft and not hard-core and raunchy."

Part of her problem is the absurdly hectic shooting schedule. Siritzky's intention is to spend no more than three weeks on each of the seven films, which are being shot back to back, each with different directors. That means she gets no time off. "It's quite a heavy load. My job is to look rested. That's hard on very little sleep."

The pitch for the first of the Emmanuelle 2000 films doesn't sound especially original. Sampson is playing a scientist carrying out some specially commissioned research on "sex and love". (In Siritzky's words, "the theme of our film is that every woman in the world should at one moment be Emmanuelle - like a flower that opens!") She has a device that allows her to read people's thoughts. She's also able to download herself into people's brains using her very own customised website. "She gets to play matchmaker or Cupid. She makes things happen. She's very caring..." No, she protests, she's not seen exclusively between the sheets. There are snatches of soap opera-style dialogue. Sampson has plenty of lines to learn. "That's something I do every night."

What's on the agenda for Emmanuelle today? "I'm meeting a man whose sister has been kidnapped. I'm going to help him find out where she is and save her."

Emmanuelle, Sampson insists, is just a springboard. She hopes to emulate the path of Krista Allen, who played the role for a while in the mid-Nineties and then moved back into the mainstream, appearing alongside Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar. "And because of the international attention that Emmanuelle gets, this can be much more of a platform for me than, let's say, Pump Up The Volume was," she says.

Somebody knocks on her door. She's needed in the next shot. There's time for one last question. Does she feel exploited? The question seems to dismay her. "It's a very fine line... you just have to believe in yourself. Hopefully, I won't have to do it for very much longer. That's the key - to get in and get out. I'm realistic, let's put it that way. I feel that I'm mature enough to handle it."

'Pretty Cool', Sampson's first Emmanuelle film destined for cinema release, comes out in the US later this year