What's a goodgirl to do?

Neve Campbell is perfect as Scream's beleaguered girl next door. Maybe too perfect. She says she wants to work on her dark side. Nick Coleman fears this is one fight she can't win
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'Idiot! Don't you know that pop culture is the politics of the 21st century!?" This line in Scream 3 is delivered as archly as a row of Romanesque cathedrals by one of the several Arquettes who act in it. When it happens there are only two ways to respond. One is to plunge a knife into the neck of the person sitting in front of you, as a sort of ironic comment on how this kind of camp post-modernist cinema distances audiences from a sense of what is and isn't real; the other is to breathe a great inward sigh of relief that it was an Arquette and not Neve Campbell who got to say the line.

Just imagine: if Campbell, in her signature role as the grave action-girl-next-door Sidney Prescott, had been made to utter such language, the movie would have been killed stone dead. Indeed, you'd have heard the wind go out of an entire trilogy of films, much as life whistles out of a multiply-punctured lung.

Why? Because the whole flapping, self-reflexive Scream edifice depends utterly on Sidney never, ever being clever, insincere or, worst of all, droll, in much the same way that El Cid depends on Charlton Heston not falling off his horse. Sidney is Scream's central support. She's upright, she's intelligent, she's real, she's pretty, she's brave, she's Beowulf, but Sidney is not, and never can be, in on the joke. Otherwise, we'd all go to Scream films and not know where to put ourselves, and where's the fun in that?

Campbell is the only famous person I've ever met who is exactly the same size in real life as she is on the screen. Same width, same height, same colour, same level of realness. This is quite odd. One feels compelled in the face of such unexpected authenticity to frown with intuitive suspicion, much as Campbell does in the films. It's as if the two hours I'd spent that morning in a preview theatre in Soho, being made to jump and snigger by her latest movie, were only an adumbration of the interview we're about to attempt in the Dorchester, and that at any moment an Arquette is going to flump through the doorway with a breadknife in his or her neck and the remnants of something sardonic dying on his/her lips. Campbell would narrow her eyes to glinting slits, thrust me into a window bay, pull out a huge, nodding gun and declare to the empty suite that she's ready for you, you bastard, wherever you are, while I scream and claw at the curtains behind her and narrow my own eyes into dull, unreadable slits.

It doesn't happen. Campbell sits and smokes with her socked feet up on the coffee table. She offers me a fag. She apologises that I had to see the film at such an inappropriate hour - she hates horror movies, too. And she explains seriously that she's pleased that "people seem to think that the new one's better than the first two. Pleased and surprised." I concur. I certainly enjoyed it more than the splattery first one and the tittery second.

"Well," she says kindly, "maybe that's because it's fresher, less gory, more about the black humour and the people."

She is quite lovely. She dresses down, Sidney-style, in green T-shirt and nondescript trousers, like a proper 26-year-old. Her hair is hoiked back at the sides but left to arch freely across her beetling brow. She smokes properly, too, with the cigarette held up next to her face. Her overbite is only allowed out unselfconsciously when she laughs.

"Ah-heee-heee-heee."

It's a marvellous laugh. But what's unusual about it is that it doesn't obey the rules of laughter. Unlike the overbite, it pops out in quite unregulated fashion. And you don't have to have said something funny. Perhaps this is why I find her as charming as I do. She laughs at my jokes before I've made them; sometimes when I'm not even trying to make one. For instance:

I wonder, Neve, if you'd had the opportunity to write your own part in the Scream trilogy whether...

"Ah-heee-heee-heee..."

...whether you might have given yourself the odd joke or clever thing to say?

"Well, the truth is I'd have probably written it the same. Because it's my job to be the eye of the audience. When I first came to the script I struggled a bit with this. Everyone else had fantastic lines - very funny, great attention on them - and I felt: am I supposed to be like that as well?" She smiles benignly. "But my job was to be the character the audience follows and cares about, and who seems to be based in reality. It wouldn't have worked if Sidney'd been snide or sarcastic or witty."

I wonder, then, in the light of the fact that you have to shoulder such a mighty moral burden in Scream...

"Ah-haaa-haaa-heee."

...whether that had something to do with the decision to appear in Wild Things?

"Wild Things was extremely different from anything I'd done before. Suzy Toller was not moral. She was complex. Very controlling, manipulative and evil. I wanted people to realise that I wasn't always going to be the girl next door and that there are different shades to us all. I wanted to work on my shadow."

She wanted to work on a different film altogether, if the truth be told. Wild Things was a convoluted "erotic thriller" in which comely ciphers strove to create opportunities to have sex with and then kill other equally attractive stereotypes,all in the name of greed; and then do it all over again, but this time in wet T-shirts. Wild Things was neither thrilling nor erotic, and Campbell wasn't very good in it.

It wasn't her fault. It's possible to conceive of better-written and better-directed Carlton TV dramas. But Wild Things did bring one issue into stark focus. If Neve Campbell is going to make it on to the Hollywood A-list - or the list of cool refuseniks - she's going to have to act so well and so differently that we all forget about Sidney Prescott and her valiant struggle to deliver a satisfying denouement while the walls of post-modern artifice come tumbling down around her. That will be tricky, for Campbell does jut-jawed moral fibre better, and more memorably, than anyone else out there. She makes being good watchable. So far, she's made being bad look like no fun at all.

So the ghastly fear abides that, much as Richard Thomas failed to transcend John-Boy Walton, so Neve Campbell may become indivisible from Sidney Prescott. Oh, horror!

She was going to be a classical ballet dancer. The daughter of amateur-theatrical Torontonian parents, she trained at the National Ballet School of Canada for years before deciding that she "needed to have more space in my mind than that". So she jacked it in, got a gig singing and prancing in the Canadian version of Phantom of the Opera and was promptly spotted.

She's since done plenty of telly, been married and divorced, moved to LA, learnt to live there, and discovered to her dismay that she will be recognised on any street she walks down in the Western world.

She has a handful of things in the pipeline. A "ridiculous, out-there character" in a comedy entitled Drowning Mona; a romantic comedy with Matthew Perry, Three to Tango ("so there's a different shade!"); and, perhaps most promisingly, Investigating Sex, directed by Alan Rudolph and co-starring Nick Nolte, a "no money, no nothing film, but a really great acting exercise," which sounds so thoroughly washed-up in all departments that it has to be a cooker.

But if pressed on what she wants to be doing, as opposed to what she thinks she ought to be doing, she says she'd like to be Juliet - a part where she gets "to play with the language and soul". And, no doubt, to fix narrowed, glinty eyes on an out-of-control faction of blade-wielding psychopaths, as if sheer force of moral will can subdue them and bring them to the justice of a great denouement. It's a good thought. In fact it's a brilliant thought. And she doesn't find it in the least bit funny.

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