Rosamund Pike: The belle bites back

Rosamund Pike is the picture of innocence. But the young actress has double-crossed James Bond, stripped for the West End stage and, for her new play, hit the juke joints of the Deep South. Neil Norman meets an English rose with thorns
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For someone with the looks and demeanour of Rosamund Pike, the actress has managed to sidestep her potential pigeonholing as "English Rose Type" with some success. Although her CV includes some posh frock dramas - TV's A Rather English Marriage, Wives and Daughters and the recent film Pride & Prejudice in which, as Jane Bennett, she outclassed Kiera Knightley's Elizabeth B in some minds - there are fewer than one might imagine. Aside from a few early Harriets and Fannys and Celias, Pike, 27, has very quickly learned to kick ass on screen with the best of them.

Clearly, this is a result of her breakthrough role, as double agent Miranda Frost in Die Another Day, the Bond movie that pitted Pike's bluestocking femme fatale against Halle Berry's hot-blooded avenger.

"I have Bond to thank for my whole career, really," she says in a room in Nottingham Playhouse, where she has been appearing in the pre-West End run of Tennessee Williams'Summer and Smoke. Bond fans point out, rather ungallantly, that the age gap between Pike and Berry was the widest (12 years and 5 months) between two Bond girls since Alison Doody and Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (18 years). While this may seem of marginal interest, there was evidently not a huge amount of sisterly feeling between the two. During the Bond publicity tour in Japan, she recalls, apropos of nothing, the Japanese had great difficulty pronouncing Halle Berry's name.

"They referred to her as 'Hairy Belly' which we all thought was hilarious," she laughs. "She was not amused at all." She runs a hand through her butter-blonde hair and smiles.

Pike is playing Alma Winemiller, the sexually frustrated daughter of a reverend Summer and Smoke, which opens in the West End on Wednesday. It is her first stage outing proper since her brave and intriguing 2003 appearance in Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde, during which she was obliged to stalk around the stage wearing nothing more than a pair of stiletto heels. In the wake of Nicole Kidman's onstage disrobing in The Blue Room and the various actresses d'un certain age dropping their kit for The Graduate, it was quite a good season for high-minded voyeurs who would invariably claimed that they attended to see the play, not the nudity.

In Summer and Smoke the fragrant Ms Pike remains, more or less, fully dressed at all times. It is, however, a tale of thwarted sexual desire and the vagaries of love during one of those long hot summers so beloved of Williams.

"It's all about young people," she says. "They are all only children. All of whom have been fucked over by their parents - very Larkinesque. It's a hot summer of heaving passions about a man who can fall in love with one woman and screw another. It deals with the first pangs of sexual jealousy. I can relate to all of it. I've had a glimmer of sexual jealousy. I have definitely been ill at ease in the company of someone I wanted to impress. You just take it a bit further. Alma is in her late Twenties and it would normally happen in teenage years - Why, why, why doesn't he fancy me? Why? - I can relate to all those situations."

Given Pike's much-vaunted qualities of Englishness, I wonder why it is that English gels seem so at home in Southern roles? One only has to think of Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, and Deborah Kerr in Night of the Iguana, to trace a lineage up to and including Pike.

She briefly gives me a demonstration in Southern elocution and explains the similarities. Her accent, even sitting across a table in an anonymous rehearsal space, is perfect.

"It's something to do with the period," she says. "They tried to affect an Englishness and the accent is close to posh English. It's very strongly connected. They also possessed a modesty and a delicacy. And," she adds after a pause, "a neurosis as well."

Being an Oxford graduate, I assumed that Pike did a great deal of research for each role. After all, for the mad-as-a-bag-of-snakes movie Doom, she famously conducted a post-mortem in Prague in pursuit of authenticity for her role as a scientist specialising in demon biology. Academic and well read as she is, Pike is not afraid to get her lilywhite hands dirty.

"I finished a film in Canada and I went to the South, down to Memphis. I drove a jeep around the South for a month to help me with the character of Alma. I found rednecks and bars and blues but very few women. I met a blues producer who took me to a juke joint in the middle of a cotton field; we were the only two white people there."

There is a streak of adventurousness and independence about her that punches through the poster image of demure Englishness. The only child of parents who were performers themselves, she was born in London in 1979. Her father, Julian, was an opera singer and her mother a concert violinist and singer. An only child, she attended Badminton School in Bristol. "I was totally out of place," she recalls. "I was the only one who turned up in a dress. Everyone else was wearing jeans and trainers. I'd never had a pair of trainers." Given that she is currently in rehearsal mufti, including jeans and trainers, I assume she has subsequently learnt the art of fitting in.

She went on to read English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford, where she got a 2:1 in spite taking time off to appear in a couple of BBC costume dramas (a stint at the National Youth Theatre had landed her an agent). Pike is one of the lucky few who short-circuit the system by not going to drama school, and headed straight into the profession where she's proved a quick study.

When I suggest that performing is in her blood she unhesitatingly agrees. "I'm completely at home in the theatre and I don't know why," she says. "I remember quite clearly when I first set foot on stage. It was during The Coronation of Poppaea in Amsterdam. My father was performing and he took me on to the stage. I apparently just lay down. It is something to do with the live audience and the relationship you have with them. It shifts. You can feel when you've lost them. Maybe it's all bollocks. Maybe I'm completely misguided. But I find it very exciting. I am amazed at the juxtaposition between the chaos and the rubble backstage and this delicate thing on stage. I didn't know how it would be possible to do a costume change in 30 seconds backstage. Now I feel we have oodles of time."

From "bollocks" to "oodles" in a few sentences. This, I think, is part of Pike's appeal. She has one foot in the Daisy-Pulls-It-Off world of Angela Brazil novels and the other in the modern world of easy oaths and don't-give-a-toss nudity. It is an attractive combination.

It was evidently attractive enough to lure Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright into her intimate vicinity. Since the film, they have been an item, although she is not appearing in his latest movie, Atonement, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel. She asks me what I thought of Pride & Prejudice and when I tell her honestly that I didn't much care for it, it doesn't bother her a jot. Instead, she shows me a series of mobile-phone photos of the Dunkirk location for Atonement - replete with hundreds of extras, boats and bomb craters, all recreated on the beach at Redcar.

The offscreen relationship between a director and an actress can be problematical, especially if they are working on different projects. "It's a difficult one," she agrees, "but it starts from a position of mutual respect. We discussed the play and then he went off and did Atonement. We talk about it but he doesn't give me notes. You almost fall in love with someone's creativity. It's the first thing you are attracted to, isn't it?"

Part of the reason she is so easy and fluid in conversation with the press is surely due to the baptism of fire she received during Die Another Day. At the time she said that her air of sang froid obscured a nervousness and anxiety through which she was helped by the reassuring presence of Pierce Brosnan, an old hand at the game of publicity. But the day may not be too far off when it will be impossible for her jump in a Jeep and drive across America, when her dearly-loved independence will have to be sacrificed, or at best, compromised. Everyone will want a piece of Rosamund Pike, from Tatler to the tabloids.

"It is possible to have a public and a private life," she says, citing Helen Mirren as a prime example. Pike had no idea, for example, that Mirren was married to the Hollywood director Taylor Hackford.

"The secret is to answer questions as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, so people don't think there is anything to dig for. Sometimes you feel a bit apologetic that you don't have a rough-and-tumble lifestyle to declare. I feel I'm only living at half mast unless I'm working. Sometimes I feel like a shadowy person and I get the opportunity to be vivid and strong through acting. Life is more intense. I grew up with that. Although," she adds with a laugh, "if I do make any money I am perfectly prepared to have fun with it.

The only question she balks at is when I ask her if she keeps in touch with Chelsea Clinton, with whom she was close at Wadham College. She just gives me a cool, withering glance and says: "Oh please no. No."

Given her background and her love of words and literature (she is one of the very few people I've interviewed who wants to know what I am currently reading and notes down the title and author), I ask if she writes herself, keeps a journal, that sort of thing. She tells me that her imagination was highly developed as an only child and that it remains hyperactive.

"I used to create worlds in woods and create stories around statuary in gardens," she says. "I'd cook with plants and bury things and gallop for miles on imaginary horses. I dream very vividly. I dreamt the other night that I was being pecked by birds." She pauses, does the hand through the hair thing once more, a seductive technique that girls must learn on their mother's knee.

"To be honest I'd only keep a diary if I thought one day someone would read it..."

* 'Summer and Smoke' is currently previewing at the Apollo Theatre, London (0870 890 1101), and opens on Wednesday