Homely? Well sometimes: Andie MacDowell is good at playing 'real' women. Other women like her characters, men don't much. Now she's in the unlikely hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and still it's hard to know if she's got more than ordinary to offer

ANDIE MacDOWELL was a top model who managed the leap into movies just as it was becoming an ill-fated cliche. She's been acting for 10 years now, in good films - great films, mostly - in which she appears as a sympathetic, lovely-looking woman, believable and fun to watch. She's played opposite Depardieu and Malkovich; she's been directed by Robert Altman; she's currently starring in the top two films at the US box office - Bad Girls, a female western, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, the low-budget English comedy written by Not the Nine O'Clock News veteran Richard Curtis, which has startled the British film industry with its wildly enthusiastic reception in the States. She should, by now, be an undisputed star, and yet the nagging question remains: is she really any good?

Maybe this is just prejudice against her mannequin past - the bane of MacDowell's acting career. Her response to the model question is to point out that the majority of Hollywood actresses started as models: 'Anjelica Huston, Jessica Lange, Geena Davis - what's the girl from Basic Instinct? Sharon Stone - Sean Young, all modelled. The big difference is that I was extremely successful.'

The tartness of the riposte is rather at odds with her likeable screen image. Naturalness - or the appearance of it - is her great quality: a mass of long, untended hair, barely made-up pale freckled skin; the body of a real person, a little thick around the middle; a frank smile. One of her great assets, as a model and an actress, has been her ability to seem possible, rather than a cartoon confection; to evoke empathy and identification. This is as useful in selling cinema tickets as it is in selling L'Oreal products - to which she still turns her hand a few days a year for a reputed dollars 500,000. And it's an impression backed up by her participation in lifestyle spreads for Hello] and American Vogue, down home on her 2,000-acre ranch with her husband Paul Qualley, an ex-model whom she met shooting a Gap ad, and their two children. Now they live in Gap heaven: big country for beautiful real people. Despite the title of her next film, MacDowell comes over as a nice girl, not a bad girl, big on sincerity, her glamour never tipping over into threat.

For this reason she appeals to women as much, if not more than, men, who don't always find her sexy. She has a solidity on screen, an earthbound womanliness. Though she can look delectable, she's not afraid to play frumpy, or the gauche Southerner, which women like her for and men don't. Even when she's prissy - as the uptight Bronte in Peter Weir's Green Card, exasperated by Depardieu's odious masculine habits; as the inept mother in Short Cuts, whose son has been knocked down by a car; or as the shy housewife in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, who's never had an orgasm - the roles are conspiratorially female.

But unlike the actresses she compares herself to, MacDowell is hard to define. There's an ambiguity between her glamour and her 'realness' - 'half matron, half siren' as one of her colleagues on Four Weddings describes her - that comes out in her best work. She's not all looks (Sean Young), all sex (Sharon Stone), all character (Huston, Davis, Lange). 'She's not taken seriously as an actress in the way that Michelle Pfeiffer is, or Meryl Streep was 10 years ago,' says New York magazine film critic David Denby. 'She holds her own, but there's no temperament there. There's nothing distinctive you could say was Andie MacDowell.' However much she'd hate the notion, a trace of the model's fierce blandness lingers in her. Though this serves her well in comedy, where her sincere delivery gives her characters a comic spin, there's a sense that directors have to come in close to coax a performance out of her, or they use her as a foil. Has she done all she can, or there something in her waiting to happen?

So good is MacDowell at appearing to play herself that I feel I know who I'm going to interview. Even warning bells - rumours of tantrums on the Four Weddings set, a photographer telling me she's tough as hell - fail to penetrate this nave illusion. Although I've never had fun interviewing a Hollywood actress before, I feel sure that she'll be cosy and friendly and we'll get along; that, at heart, she's one of us. I'm wrong.

I'm escorted to a suite in the St James's Club into which she walks, accompanied by Davien Littlefield, her manager of 14 years, as outsized and mid-Western-looking as MacDowell is pert and trim. The bodyguard stunt is a bad sign. We have a strictly circumscribed chunk of time. MacDowell thinks twice about shaking the hand I offer; then we sit down and go to it.

There's nothing soft about her. No Southern slowness, no spare smiles. Whatever charm she may have once reserved for journalists is long gone. She's dressed for the city in a sludge- coloured cropped sweater and wide trousers, her hair cut in a thick crop. I'm struck by the minuteness of her nose and the flat planes of her face. She sits straight and tense, barely concealing her impatience at having to subject herself to her umpteenth round of interviews, rapping out her answers in a rapid, high- pitched voice, leaving no room for interruption or dialogue.

Nearly all my questions seem to trigger irritable, defensive answers. She's defensive about modelling, defensive about being a model-turned-actress, defensive about the fact that Paul Qualley has acted as a househusband in the service of her career. She jumps down my throat at the suggestion that several of her best roles share traits of repression. 'I don't think you can compare them; they're different characters. I mean there's all kinds of repressions, and the woman in Green Card I don't think was repressed. In what sense was she repressed . . ? I think that maybe sometimes people like to have an interesting way to write articles.' Elsewhere, she has been at pains to point out the richness of her sex life with her husband, should anyone for a moment wish to suggest that she had anything in common with the sexual hang-ups of her character in sex, lies and videotape.

When I ask her if she has ever felt limited in the roles she's played, she retorts, 'When you look at the work that I've done in the last few years, I don't know that it could be better.'

'You don't get the sense of insecurity from her at all,' says Mike Newell, her director in Four Weddings. 'I don't know where that's come from, since she's from a pretty modest background and didn't have a particularly easy time.'

MacDowell (real name: Rosalie) grew up in the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, the youngest of four daughters whose parents divorced and whose mother eventually died of alcoholism. She talks matter-of-factly about this - how her mother was a fall-down drunk who went from being a music teacher to working in McDonald's alongside the schoolgirl Andie, who would ply her with coffee and breath fresheners. She once

said that when she was in her teens she felt 100 years old.

She's clearly proud of her independence, recounting how she left college, where she was studying to be an elementary school teacher like her sisters before her, to try what everyone had told her she should do, walking into the newly founded Elite agency in New York, where she was promptly signed up. 'I'd read an article about the agency which said it had a family atmosphere,' she says, turning to Littlefield. 'Ain't that a joke?' She brightens momentarily when I tell her I work for Vogue, where she did modelling jobs, one of which led Hugh Hudson to cast her in Greystoke, her acting debut.

She survived the mortification of having her Southern voice dubbed over by Glenn Close in the film, and the subsequent industry derision; in fact, this spurred her on. Four years later, after the success of sex, lies and videotape, she found herself 'extraordinarily busy', and now she picks her roles to suit her taste and maternal dignity. 'I watched - and I don't mean to put down Sharon Stone, it's her choice and there's a lot of people that obviously liked the movie because they went to it - but I watched the movie in fast forward on an airplane until she crossed and uncrossed her legs, just 'cause I wanted to see. I find that extremely demeaning to me as a woman, and because I have children too.'

MacDowell, who has spent nearly half her life in the worlds of high fashion and movies, had been described to me by directors and fashion editors as 'astonishingly unspoilt', 'real and funny', 'extraordinarily unpretentious'. If she has pretensions, they're to reality. She and her family live in Montana in the approved movie star way, but MacDowell seems genuinely determined to be part of the local life. 'While we were filming they had lots of friends coming out to see them from Montana who were almost amazingly normal, including an old guy called Bob they'd bought the ranch from,' says a crew member on Four Weddings. This is MacDowell's 'real Rosie' role, the one she played in her cameo in The Player, ostensibly as herself, waxing lyrical about Montana and its people: 'you should try it.' What she wants to do now, she says, is make a documentary about the women's group in the valley where she lives. 'They get together to learn how to do things you do on a ranch like canning, putting up preserves, and so on . . . '

So much for reality. MacDowell's role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which opens here on Friday, is an unapologetic slice of American gorgeousness. Flitting in and out of the lives of the circle of English friends who group and regroup, she manages to combine being classy and, in the words of another (female) character, 'a slut', cheerfully seducing the hero at every available opportunity - a perfect male fantasy, in other words, and therefore a cipher of a role, which she delivers straight. Her familiar presence seems to have provided a filter through which American audiences can home in on the film's British charm, and particularly that of Hugh Grant, its dashing, bumbling star, even if this doesn't necessarily rebound well on MacDowell. One witness at a New York screening of the film reports that the audience booed and heckled at the film's closing clinch, when Grant gets his dream girl. 'No,' they yelled. 'Don't do it, you don't want her]'

So what to make of her? 'I suppose it's inevitable that she's slightly spoilt,' says one of her co-stars. 'Sometimes she'd be very down-home and kind of innocent and the next moment she'd be very petulant.' 'She's the opposite of being that cute kind of straightforward sweet thing she appears,' says another, Anna Chancellor, who plays Hugh Grant's jilted girlfriend in the film. 'She's much funnier than that, more loud and wild and a brilliant mimic. She'd tell really funny stories. I don't think she's tapped all her talent yet. She hasn't touched on the lethal side of her personality.' -

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003