Neve Campbell: Queen of screams

She was once voted the third sexiest star in history. She tells Matthew Sweet she's happier playing for laughs
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"Ding dong," purrs Neve Campbell, as if she were wearing an RAF blazer and leching around an early 1960s British hospital ward. Hollywood film actresses aren't supposed to quote lines from Carry On Nurse. Women who've shared a home with John Cusack are unlikely to have been great mates with Joan Sims or spent the weekend chez Donald Sinden. But Neve Campbell - the star of Robert Altman's behind-the-scenes ballet melodrama The Company and of the monstrously successful trilogy of Scream slasher flicks - can tick all of these boxes. And she's just made her second film with Leslie Phillips. She and Phillips formed a friendship in 1996, on the set of a TV movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, in which Sims and Sinden co-starred. ("I would have lunch with them every day," she recalls, "and just listen to them go at each other.")

Their second collaboration appears in cinemas today. Churchill: The Hollywood Years offers a revisionist scoop of the sort generally claimed only by history documentaries on Channel 4. It contends that the bald gentleman with the cigar was an impostor recruited from the ranks of Equity. The real Churchill, the film asserts, was a thick-armed American GI who saved Britain from invasion as he wooed Princess Elizabeth with his devilish grin and hip-hop rendition of "Hang Out Your Washing on the Siegfried Line".

In Peter Richardson's film, Christian Slater is the ass-busting, vest-wearing hero; Neve Campbell is the young princess - well-meaning, hopelessly square, and so posh that she can barely separate her teeth. (Her cut-glass accent shines like the sort of decanter you might find in Paul Burrell's back bedroom.) I attended a screening of an unfinished cut back in July, introduced by one of the heads of Pathé with the suggestion that the two American stars had little idea what was going on during the making of the film. Campbell snorts at the idea. "I understood!" she exclaims. "And I also understood what I didn't understand. I didn't know, for instance, that there was a song called "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball". But I got the humour. Christian, however, will tell you that he thought it was a serious movie, and that he believed it was all true."

Neve Campbell - you pronounce her first name as if it were short for Neville - is Canadian by birth. She muses on the relationship between her mother country and its monarch. "I think we celebrate her birthday," she says, uncertainly, "but that's about all." And she snaps away with her lighter at a Lucky Strike.

Our interview takes place in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel, from which we can almost see Buckingham Palace through the trees of Hyde Park. It's about as close as you can get these days, unless you happen to be dressed as Batman. "I did do some research," she insists. "I listened to a lot of her Christmas speeches when she was younger. Her accent has actually changed quite a lot. I guess people started making fun of her and somebody suggested that she loosen it up."

Campbell began her career as a dancer - and would have stayed one, had other successes not tempted her away from this vocation. Her father, a Glasgow-born high-school drama teacher, separated from her mother, a Dutch psychologist, just after she was born. It was her father who took her, aged six, to the production of The Nutcracker which sparked her interest in hoofing. By nine she had won a scholarship to train at the National Ballet School of Canada. At 16, she left school to take a job in the chorus of the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. At this point, however, an agent - let's imagine him as a cheroot-smoking gentleman with a fob watch and an astrakhan coat - suggested that she should push her talents in a different direction. "He actually had me model for a couple of months," she reflects, "which I despised." The experience of seeing her swimsuited self on a Toronto billboard put an end to these assignments.

She then found herself put up for a series of acting auditions. "I just kept getting stuff", she says, like someone describing their capacity for picking up minor infections. "Then I got Party of Five, and that was that." Party of Five - a sitcom about a litter of kids left to fend for themselves after their parents were killed by a drunk driver - became one of America's highest-rated shows.

"It was security," she says, more apologetically than she should. "I moved out when I was 15 and didn't have any money or any education. I had to take care of myself. I'd also suffered a lot of injuries as a dancer and knew I would really struggle, even if I was with a company."

So when she was offered the lead role in Wes Craven's Scream, her return to the bar became even less likely. As the imperilled heroine Sidney Prescott, she spent three movies dodging the attentions of a knife-wielding maniac in a fright mask. It was at this point that Empire magazine declared her the third sexiest actress in movie history, fans began pestering her for autographs even while she was on a restaurant loo, and slightly creepy webpages were established in her honour.

Today, the attention she receives is a little more measured. "I'm very grateful that my career is not at the height that it once was," she says, sounding as if she means it. "It was very difficult to deal with. I had to deal with several stalkers and a lot of strange letters. The audience is a little older now, too. The people who are watching me now have jobs and lives and families. I don't get the obsessive stuff any more."

Did she, I wonder, consider going back to college? "I used to say I didn't regret dropping out of school because it's what I had to do," she replies. "But I do feel it. There are certain conversations I feel excluded from. When people talk about Greek history, I just have to sit there and listen. I excuse myself from games of Trivial Pursuit."

Campbell produced as well as starred in The Company, and this is an experience she's keen to repeat. She plans to make a film about the silent-film icon Louise Brooks, and is keeping her fingers crossed over a project entitled The Mermaids Singing.

But the most prominent plan on her drawing board is for a film to be entitled A Private War, the story of Pete Antico, a Hollywood stuntman who suffers from Tourette's syndrome. Campbell knows all about Tourette's. At the age of seven, her younger brother, Damian, began to develop its symptoms. I tell her that when I was seven, I spent several months in the grip of the compulsion to pull back my top lip over my teeth. "That's so Tourette," she whoops. And she makes her own confession. "I can't go to sleep at night unless I rub my feet a certain amount of times. I have to do it the proper way or I have to start again. The sequence goes eight, six, four, and so on."

Campbell also wants to follow her Churchill co-star Christian Slater onto the London stage. If her royal turn in Churchill: The Hollywood Years proves anything, it's that she has talents as a farceur. Maybe it's the sort of play in which she should make her West End debut - and I've an idea for the ideal leading man. Mature gentleman. Neat little moustache. Wandering hands. "Absolutely," she says. Ding dong to that.

'Churchill: The Hollywood Years' is released today