Shy teenage star shuns red carpet of Cannes

Tale of life on a council estate acclaimed at film festival

A 17-year-old from Essex who left school last summer and had never acted before became the unlikely toast of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival yesterday.

Katie Jarvis was the talk of the Croisette following the screening of Andrea Arnold's Palme D'Or-nominated film Fish Tank. Critics acclaimed the film and awarded it a standing ovation.

Yet the teenager, who grew up in the town of Tilbury, was absent from last night's red carpet premiere at the Grand Théâtre Lumière because she was at home with her boyfriend Brian, in Basildon, recovering from giving birth to their first child two weeks ago.

Jarvis, who was spotted by Arnold's casting agent having an argument with her boyfriend across platforms at Tilbury train station, had initially declined to hand out her phone number when approached because she thought it was a wind-up. She was eventually persuaded to attend an audition. She plays Mia in Fish Tank, the troubled 15-year-old daughter of a council estate single mother. Mia is passionate about dance, and her life changes after befriending her mother's boyfriend, played by Michael Fassbender – one of last year's Cannes stars as the lead in Steve McQueen's prize-winning film Hunger.

Reflecting yesterday on her experience of being an amateur cast in a feature film, Jarvis remarked: "There weren't a lot of people at the first audition so I wasn't nervous, but at the second it became a bit more scary as there were a lot of girls. I'd never done any dancing or anything like that and I didn't think I had a chance."

Jarvis refused to dance at that audition, so the director cleared the room and got her to dance alone in front of a camera.

Jarvis recalls: "They called me on my birthday and told me I'd got the part. I cried my eyes out, I was well chuffed." She adds: "I learnt a lot doing the film. Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time, it made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to... It shows you don't have to go to drama school. But I think I was one of a kind, I don't think anyone else will get picked off a train station."

The teenager is blind to the impact the sudden attention will have on her life, director Arnold said, and is uncertain about pursuing an acting career. "I don't think she quite understands what it means," said Arnold. "She has got an agent and she's been up for a couple of things which she's got but hasn't taken. I don't know if she wants to continue. I think she does but she has just had a baby."

Fassbender said of Jarvis: "Katie is a very expressive person and very easy to play with as she's not really acting."

Arnold's film is among three British offerings competing for the Golden Palm. The winner will be announced on Sunday 24 May.