Neve Campbell: Scream star makes London stage debut

She shot to fame fleeing knife-wielding psychos in Scream. But instead of signing up for a career of big-budget schlock, Neve Campbell took on indie projects and produced a film with Robert Altman. And now the great man is directing her theatre debut

Catapulted to stardom in the mid-Nineties in Wes Craven's blood-and-guts-in-high-school trilogy Scream, Neve (pronounced "Nev") was everywhere. Men's magazines voted her one of the sexiest women alive and everyone wanted a slice of her. Since then, however, the temperature has cooled. More ambitious actors might chafe at this, but Campbell is nothing but relieved. She has other things in mind.

She and her partner, the actor John Light, have recently returned from a Christmas spent ricocheting around her native Canada, catching up with her far-flung family. During the trip, John rummaged in his pocket, went down on one knee and produced a simple, square diamond ring. (She accepted.)

Things aren't stagnant on the work front either. The two of them recently finished shooting on Partition, a Canadian film set in India in 1947, and while he goes to Stratford-upon-Avon to play Brutus in the RSC's Julius Caesar, she has a succession of leading roles in forthcoming movies including The Mermaids Singing with Jessica Lange and Dougray Scott and Relative Strangers with Kathy Bates and Danny DeVito. Oh, and there's the little matter of her second project with Robert Altman.

Despite having moved in to an airy north London house only a couple of weeks before going away, she looks strikingly at home. In sweater and jeans, legs tucked neatly beneath her, she's wearing no make-up and looking seriously younger than 32. Nestled into a sofa surrounded by her three dogs, she's nursing a cup of tea and contriving, rather successfully, to look relaxed. Mention of Altman, however, elicits a slightly anxious laugh. "I'm nervous," she admits, dark eyes gleaming, "but excited." Those mixed emotions stem from the fact that the project, Resurrection Blues, is a play. Campbell is about to make her stage debut.

London has lately become littered with Hollywood stars, starlets and dim bulbs beefing up their career chops by appearing in safe vehicles that stretch their screen personas not a jot. But instead of cruising through a theatrical Hollywood retread such as the misbegotten When Harry Met Sally, she has chosen the penultimate play by Arthur Miller.

"It's a political satire," she announces crisply, "about an undefined South American country and the crucifixion of a man whom people believe could possibly be holy. It almost feels as if Miller took virtually every political idea he ever had and put them into one play. But basically it's about how the media affects politics these days. So it's dense but funny, which seems to me to be an interesting mix." Her character, Jeanine, is a failed revolutionary and niece of the dictator. At the top of the play she's in a wheelchair, having failed to commit suicide by throwing herself out of the window of a tall building - "I can remember passing the third floor on the way down and the glorious sensation of release." Does Jeanine's valiant but thwarted idealism make her the lead?

"No, and that's great! It's my first play and I really didn't want to carry it. Jane Adams, Maximilian Schell, James Fox and Matthew Modine all have more than I do." She has been looking for a play for some time and turning down inappropriate ideas. "I was offered Shakespeare here recently but that was absolutely the worst choice I could have made. I knew it would be much smarter to start on a more delicate level."

Actually, "start" isn't strictly accurate. The stage isn't a foreign country for her. Like many other girls who'd studied ballet from the age of six, she dreamed of ballet school. At nine she auditioned with 2,000 others for Canada's prestigious National Ballet School and, alongside six others, got in. "We started off dancing a minimum of five hours a day plus academic work. It's such a big thing to be there - you're constantly made aware of that." Nevertheless, five years later, with solo appearances with the company already under her belt, she became the first person in 50 years to quit the school.

Her Glaswegian father, a drama teacher, and her Dutch-born mother divorced when she was a baby. She now evenly describes her childhood as "difficult". Non-stop dance was physically draining but a way out of loneliness. "But by the time I was 12 or 13 I was constantly being told to cut back on the expression. It became all about technique. I started to hate it. I just thought, 'I'm putting myself through all this pain and stress and I'm still not allowed to express myself within the one thing I really love.'"

Fiercely self-motivated, she felt increasingly isolated. In a culture driven by fame at any price, her decision to ditch so promising a career looks almost bizarre. "I just wanted to be normal. I didn't have friends. I wanted some. I wanted a locker! You know those ones you see in high-school movies? We didn't have them."

Normality - and a locker - arrived via a school that was 95 per cent Jamaican. But she didn't abandon dance altogether and, just shy of 15 years old, found herself at a massive open casting call for Phantom of the Opera. To her complete surprise, she got it. "Suddenly I had left home, I was working and being paid," she says. "Everyone was 10 or 15 years older than me. And they were sane and adult and taking care of me." It was the beginning of a pattern that has seen her repeatedly winning independence while searching for support.

In modern fairy-tale fashion, an agent spotted her and guided her towards modelling. "I stuck it for two months and despised it." Acting in commercials led to TV and small movies and, at the age of 20, a brief spell rattling around LA going nowhere until someone put her up for two auditions. The second was to play studious good girl Julia Salinger in a new TV show called Party of Five. It ran for six years.

The template for the likes of Dawson's Creek, this hour-long, weekly primetime show about five kids whose parents were killed in a car crash was the first teen drama with crossover appeal. It won the Golden Globe for best drama in its first season and made the names of everyone on it, including Jennifer Love Hewitt and Matthew Fox, now resident hunk on Lost. Hell, it was iconic enough to resurface as a punchline on Will & Grace. Once again, though, her public image and private self weren't matching up. "You're famous and doing all these magazines and you're in everyone's living room every week but you work 15-hour days, seven days a week, nine months a year and you have no life."

By this stage she was married to a younger Canadian actor, Jeff Colt. He followed her to LA but work got in the way. Disparity in their careers opened up cracks in the relationship and they divorced after five increasingly difficult years. She won't discuss it, other than to say that they married far too young. What she does allow is that leaving Party of Five was like becoming an adult for the first time. "At 27, after seven years in LA, I realised that all I knew about was the route from home to work and back again. I suddenly woke up."

And something else had happened in the interim. TV actors come with a stigma attached - even Jenifer Aniston can't shrug off Rachel Green. So Campbell had ensured that she made a film during the show's annual three-month hiatus. And in the second one she wound up in a small Northern California hotel with a bunch of virtual unknowns on the least likely of projects. Miramax's postmodern slasher comedy was written in a weekend, cost $15m, was called Scream and grossed (I used the term advisedly) $103m. Campbell grins. "We made jokes - hey, wouldn't it be funny if this movie works and next Halloween people are wearing the costume? And now every year they do."

Her fame began to curdle. She was even caught minding her own business in a lavatory while a fan slid a pen and paper beneath the cubicle door demanding an autograph, not to mention the rise of internet fan-sites boasting nude photos. "Of course it's nice that people pay attention and once a year you find yourself going on a site and seeing some nude picture of yourself and thinking, 'Hey, great body - it's not mine, though. That head looks a little big ...'"

Other offshoots of notoriety were harder to shrug off. Scream brought her stalkers. "It was upsetting." She falters a little. "And scary. It reached a point where I had to hire security and have my house done. I suddenly had to pay for my safety. I'd never decided I wanted to be famous, or even to act. It just occurred. I thought, 'This is my job, which I love and hopefully I'm entertaining people, which is a good intention.' Out of that someone threatens to kill you. That's a tough thing to comprehend."

Off-screen her intelligence is self-evident by the sheer speed at which she speaks. On-screen, she avoided repeating herself by swathing herself in eyeliner to play the disaffected, scheming bad girl Susie, doing sultry lesbian kissing with pouting, poolside Denise Richards in the cult sex'n'murder thriller Wild Things. What she shouldn't have done was make the Matthew Perry faux-gay rom-com Three to Tango. "I knew the script wasn't ready, my character in particular. But my agents were saying, 'You need to look beautiful. You want to be Jennifer Jason Leigh but you should be Julia Roberts.' It ended up being bad and I was really bad because I didn't believe in it. After that bombed - which it should have - I thought, I am not going to listen to other people."

With money in the bank and industry clout, she could choose to avoid badly written, high-profile pictures - she turned down Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - in favour of independent projects she felt passionate about, such as Panic with William H Macy and Donald Sutherland or Last Call opposite Jeremy Irons. And The Company, directed by Robert Altman.

Campbell spent eight years producing the movie, planning, structuring, raising finance, hiring the talent and crew. After 10 years, she returned to dance, to a level where she could pass as a leading dancer at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. She spent months flying back and forth to New York to persuade Altman to direct. With a deal within sight, she went snowboarding and dislocated her knee.

"I was told I needed surgery and it would be a year before I could walk properly," she says. "I was livid with myself." And she couldn't tell Bob. She kept flying to New York, standing outside Altman's office, removing a leg-brace and trying to walk normally. "He'd say, 'The only reason I'm making this movie is if you can dance. Can you dance?'"

She rejected surgery in favour of intensive body therapies including rolfing, a deep tissue massage that lifts muscles from the bone. For six months, she trained eight-and-a-half hours a day. The pay-off? "I'm actually shocked to be able to say the film pretty much turned out exactly as I wanted."

Even defending her strongest achievement, she is self-possessed yet reserved. You realise that she's shy, an actress happier away from the spotlight. That's why she's enjoying Resurrection Blues. "This is about a group of people using ideas and techniques to really discuss and work the material."

Even outside work, London life is her perfect antidote to the barren LA life she so loathed. She giggles at the fact that living here meant she had no idea when the Golden Globes were on, much less who won them. Far better to be walking unrecognised around the city, or disappearing off for an afternoon at a museum. She sighs, understandably content. "It's really nice to go places with John and have people say to me, 'Are you an actor too?'"

'Resurrection Blues' is at The Old Vic, London SE1, 0870 060 6628, www.oldvicthreatre.com

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