On the cusp of receiving the same kind of instant fame that was thrust upon Kristen Stewart after Twilight, Alice Englert is naturally a little nervous today. Those nerves are one of the reasons why the unknown 18-year-old Australian actress rejected the lead role in Beautiful Creatures three times before agreeing to meet the director, Richard LaGravenese.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Beautiful Creatures will be the same lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon as Twilight, but it is produced by the same studio and comes with a built-in audience – the many, many readers of the popular young adult series. A variation on Twilight's girl-meets-vampire-and-his-blood-sucking-relatives tale, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures is a boy-meets-witch fantasy set in the South.
The film adaptation features Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons and Viola Davis, among others. If it seems a little uppity to turn one's nose up at an offer to star with such a cast, Englert has her defence ready. “I said 'no' three times just because I hadn't read the script and I got a three-sentence brief that described it as being a Twilight re-make. I'd done nothing and I didn't want to audition for something I wasn't going to get anyway because it was a big studio thing. And then they asked again and I said 'no', and then they asked a third time and I thought that was funny but again said 'no'.
“But then I got an email from the producer asking me to please come in, so I went in, and I was precocious and out of my place and told Richard how I thought he should make his film, and so after I finally got around to reading the script and loved it, I said to myself: 'Oh my god. I'm such an idiot. I'm not going to get it now.' And then I did one audition and I did.”
Her pickiness may also be attributed to the fact that she knows the film business inside out. She is the daughter of the New Zealand director Jane Campion, best known for The Piano, for which Campion received the Best Screenplay Oscar in 1994, the same year that Englert was born. Her parents divorced when she was young, and Englert spent time with her father Colin Englert, also a director, as well as travelling the globe after her mother.
“Apparently I had lunch with Johnny Depp when I was three months old,” she says. “I spent time at schools in New York, London, New Zealand, Rome and Australia, a lot of quick moving around while I followed my mum, who was always on film sets. I went to Sibford boarding school in Oxfordshire for a while too. Apparently it's for dyslexic people although I don't think I'm actually dyslexic. Maybe I'm in denial?” she laughs in her deep, strangely mature voice.
Indeed, so self-possessed and worldly beyond her years is she that even director LaGravenese professes to being intimidated by her. “I deliberately went to boarding school. It was my choice. My mum was abroad and I wanted to wean myself off being dependent. It was a very important time for me to be able to create my own individual, independent life; just as a way of growing up,” she says. She ultimately dropped out before finishing school.
In Beautiful Creatures Englert plays the bookish outsider at her new school, a role which is not too dissimilar to her own experience: “For a lot of my own school time, I felt so disconnected and what really sustained me throughout was writing music and poetry and reading books,” she says, citing her favourites as Chekhov, William Blake and Dostoevsky. Nor was she the most popular girl in class.
“I almost managed it briefly because I had nice hair but then I was just too weird. What makes me sad about school is that the people who are unhappy are unhappy because they don't believe it will change. And I just want to say: 'It does! High school ends and it's over.' I will tell anyone that it's OK to be unhappy at school, make lots of mistakes and then it will be over. My problem but then my salvation was that I did travel and I did know that there was actually another world. But it did mean that it was hard for me to take the high-school world very seriously.”
Nevertheless shooting Beautiful Creatures' school scenes in New Orleans brought back painful memories: “I hate shooting high-school scenes. I swear, you put everyone in a classroom and it's just the same again. There's something about a classroom, everyone's just suddenly bad. There I was on set, and I'm a totally normal human being now, but when I'm in a classroom I go and find the darkest corner I can.” Her mother visited the set on the very same day Englert filmed a crucial scene in which her character destroys her mother (played by Emma Thompson).
“That was interesting. My mum thought it was brilliant.” She also relished working with Irons: “I've loved Jeremy and had an inappropriate crush on him since I was a little girl when I saw him in The Mission when I was 10. And working with Emma Thompson was marvellous too. She has a phenomenal career and does everything I would want to do,” says Englert who, curiously, speaks with a British accent. She now plans to set up home in London.
Unlike most other young actresses, she shows up for our interview unadorned – no make-up, no designer clothes and huddled in a huge trench-coat that looks like it might be a thrift-shop bargain. Long brown hair tumbles messily about her shoulders and her nails are unvarnished.
“It's for print though, right?” she shrugs, like an old pro. “I didn't think it mattered. Clothes are very interesting but in my own dress sense I like to have who I am lead the way as opposed to what I wear. I will only wear jewellery if it means something to me,” she asserts, while showing me three rings, one of which, she says, is an Italian mourning ring although she declines to say anything further than they are “private and special”.
She has no time for the usual teenage insecurities: “I'm not interested in changing anything about my body because I'm more interested in being happy and I think that the way you look doesn't ever make you just happy,” she declares.
“You can be beautiful and unhappy and you can be not attractive and unhappy. And I think that beauty is so subjective. Everybody I love is beautiful because that's how I feel about them.
Nor will she take any nonsense from immature men, happy that her love interest in Beautiful Creatures is written as loyal with a big heart.
“There are so many of these young-adult movies with these cold guys who act like jerks to girls but are hiding soft sentiments. But in the real world most guys who act like jerks are jerks. Generally they are. I spent a lot of high school thinking that horrible guys must be very sensitive and interesting and it's not true.”
Having got her acting chops on her mother's short films The Water Diary in 2006 and 8 in 2008, Beautiful Creatures marks her first major feature film. She filmed Roland Joffe's epic period drama Singularity some three years ago, but it is only now scheduled for release this year. She also stars with Elle Fanning and Annette Bening in Sally Potter's 1960s drama set in London, Ginger & Rosa, and in the low-budget horror film, In Fear.
“It's very scary without the gore,” she explains. “It's always exciting when you can freak people out.”
'Beautiful Creatures' is released in the UK on 13 February
This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine