Minnie Driver: The minx

Who the hell does Minnie Driver think she is? Not content with winning Hollywood's heart, she's now fronting her own band and writing her own songs too. Nick Duerden listens in
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You can tell she's not from round these parts the moment she steps out of her chauffeur-driven Mercedes. The legs emerge first, clad in a pair of jeans that look very Rodeo Drive, and by the time she's upright, you see that she is wrapped up tight in a light-blue cashmere coat and a bright pink scarf that covers every inch of neck. She is, clearly, quite ridiculously over-dressed, because it is an unusually pleasant autumnal morning in the heart of west London, the current temperature hovering between 19 and 20 degrees Celsius. In other words, Indian summer.

You can tell she's not from round these parts the moment she steps out of her chauffeur-driven Mercedes. The legs emerge first, clad in a pair of jeans that look very Rodeo Drive, and by the time she's upright, you see that she is wrapped up tight in a light-blue cashmere coat and a bright pink scarf that covers every inch of neck. She is, clearly, quite ridiculously over-dressed, because it is an unusually pleasant autumnal morning in the heart of west London, the current temperature hovering between 19 and 20 degrees Celsius. In other words, Indian summer.

"Rubbish!" says Minnie Driver, bustling into the hotel restaurant and only removing her layers upon presentation of a cup of piping hot camomile tea. "It's so cold. Look at my hands." Palms down, she offers them for the inspection of blue veins and chilblains, but all I can see are 10 perfectly normal, healthy fingers. The cuticles are cuticled to perfection.

Driver is in town today on promotional duties, but not thespian ones. Tonight, the actress-turned-singer is performing at a Fair Trade charity concert alongside REM and Coldplay's Chris Martin. The very prospect is making her quake.

"Michael Stipe and Chris Martin, for Christ's sake!" she shrieks, in a stage whisper. "I mean, these are singing superstars. Superstars ... and me." She takes a swig of her herbal tea with a vigour that suggests she wishes it were something stronger.

"This is all still new to me," she says. "When I get up in front of people to sing, I'm terrified. Properly, pale-faced terrified."

She has, actually, been singing since the age of 15, but has chosen now to release her debut album for two very pertinent reasons. The first is a broken heart. She was due to be married to actor (and Barbra Streisand stepson) Josh Brolin two years ago, but the relationship unexpectedly hit the rocks. In pain, she discovered a moderate balm in the writing of wounded love songs. Consequently, Everything I've Got In My Pocket is imbued with much melancholy, the majority of tracks inspired by her relationship with Brolin. Others, of course, have been inspired by the other actors she has dated, among them Matt Damon, John Cusack and Harrison Ford but, f as she will say herself, "If you think I'm going to tell you which is which, you've got another thing coming. I will never name names. It's personal, sorry."

The second reason for the career change is a more professional one. Put bluntly, Driver is no longer Hollywood's British golden girl. "Basically, I wasn't getting the jobs I was going for," she says. "I lost two particular roles that I really desperately wanted - both to the same person actually, and no, I won't say who - and so I thought it was time for me to sit back, reassess and start working on the music I'd been promising myself to do for years."

A few days before we meet, the actress is playing her very first concert at London's tiny Borderline club to an audience of, she is convinced, sceptical media types. She dresses like a Gap model in blue jeans and white peasant blouse, and looks radiant with those tumbledown corkscrew curls of hers, the pronounced cheekbones and the freckles that look as if each has been applied separately in pursuit of schoolgirl cuteness.

"Look at you out there," she says from the stage. "All of you judging me."

She laughs with the carefree insouciance of someone once nominated for an Oscar, but inside she's liquid. Later, she will confess that it was the most frightening thing she'd ever done, but right now she is masking it well. The music is relaxed and languid, gentle folk mixed with West Coast Americana and a liberal sprinkling of the kind of easy listening that made Dido a superstar. Her voice is feline husky, part Texas's Sharleen Spiteri, part Chrissie Hynde, and nicotinely velvet around the edges. She performs six songs with a slow-motion grace, smiles readily and plays the occasional bum note on an acoustic guitar as if to say, "See, I'm not perfect", still convinced the crowd is here only to pour scorn.

The following day come the reviews. Mostly, they are positive, the common consensus being that the girl can sing. "Oh, I never read press reviews," she says, "because I don't care whether I'm liked or not." Here, she blushes, for while she may be a talented actress, she does have her limitations. "OK, all right, I do care, but I'm not good with criticism. It's like a donkey kick, criticism, and it leaves me with a burning sense of injustice, especially when it comes from the pen of some fat bastard journalist who is not having a very happy time in his life." Quite.

She was born Amelia Driver in London in 1970, but her younger sister could never get her tongue around her given name, and so it became Minnie instead. She was brought up in Hampstead and Barbados by her model mother, Gaynor, and her multi-millionaire businessman father, Ronald, and after her parents separated (mother ran away with a polo player) she was enrolled at Bedales, the private institution that specialises in the performing arts. She then attended finishing school in Paris and Grenoble, presumably by now very la-di-da indeed.

In her early twenties, she was bohemian chic personified, and the singer in an outfit called the Milo Ross Band, west London's answer to Massive Attack, by all accounts. They recorded an album for U2's label, Island, but it was never released. Meanwhile, her sporadic acting efforts were paying off: she landed a part in the romantic drama Circle Of Friends and, suddenly, her film career was born. When the offer came to go to New York for the filming of the Italian foodie film Big Night, it meant abandoning the band and fleeing the country. Driver didn't think twice.

"It was hard to walk away from the music, really it was, but I was broke and needed the money," she says. You do wonder just how broke the daughter of a multi-millionaire could be, but you don't wish to bring it up here and now because she is still in full flow. "And anyway, I was so very hungry for life and was never going to pass up the opportunity of filming in New York. No way!"

New York led to Hollywood, where she became celebrated as one of the UK's most fetching acting exports. She subsequently notched up very credible performances in Sleepers, Grosse Pointe Blank and Good Will Hunting, for which she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in 1997 (the category was won by Kim Basinger for LA Confidential). While she insists that she has never done a proper mainstream Hollywood movie, preferring instead the more cultured, independent route, her profile has long been that of a veritable A-lister. With, she suggests, good reason.

"Well, I suppose the press was always going to thrust me into the public eye, weren't they?" she says, airily. "There are so many hooks around me. You know, I left England to go to America; I was fat and then I was thin; I made the mistake of dating my co-stars. Add to that the fact that I'm articulate, not afraid of speaking my mind, and don't just come out with the usual actressy nonsense, and I guess I was really very good copy." She pauses to sip at her tea, and does something with her eyes that makes them sparkle. "I mean, come on, I was a very young 24-year-old, fresh off the bus in a place as glamorous as Hollywood. It was a wonderful time, a complete fairytale."

But, like all fairytales, it wasn't to last. Matt Damon, the chisel-jawed actor with whom she enjoyed a very high-profile relationship, dumped her on the Oprah Winfrey show, Driver masking her hurt poorly and later seeking temporary solace in the arms of Harrison Ford before settling for Josh Brolin. She had just hit 30 and was reportedly desperate for children. Brolin, who had two from a previous marriage, therefore offered her a ready-made family, as well as ascension into proper Hollywood royalty. But, as her mother-in-law-to-be was busy composing a song for f the ceremony, Driver, for reasons she won't divulge, abruptly ended the relationship.

"Contrary to what all those hideous gossip magazines may suggest," she begins, "celebrities don't merely go from one relationship to another just like that. There is actually an awful lot of pain and heartache involved. That was a very difficult time for me, the most painful of my life. It was also, I was beginning to realise, something of a crossroads."

By now, Catherine Zeta Jones had become Hollywood's reigning Brit queen, seemingly at Driver's expense. Her celluloid output was now strictly low-budget, the most recent being the rather dour tale of gambling obsession, Owning Mahowny, alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman. It made zero impact in the US, and has yet to secure a release over here.

"I've always had a great time in Hollywood, but I've seen what it can do to people," she says. "I've seen how it can take someone completely normal and well adjusted and turn them into an anxious wreck simply because the roles start drying up. I never wanted that to happen to me, and I guess I'm lucky because I've always had music. You know, I'm a creative person, and I find just as much creative fulfilment in singing as I ever did in acting. Maybe," she considers, "maybe even more. Have I told you how much I love this album? No? Well, I absolutely love it."

And it is because of this album that she has been forced into doing something that she has wilfully avoided for the past several years now: facing the press. "Basically, I got sick of everything I said being taken out of context and exaggerated, mostly by the wretched Daily Mail," she says, sneering. "Somehow I've developed a really bad reputation as an arrogant, mouthy actress, though God knows why. It's not as if I've ever thrown a doughnut at the Queen, or anything. That's why I stopped talking to newspapers. I just decided to move myself out of the path of a moving truck."

But that was then. She is perfectly happy talking to me now, she says, and as if to prove it, offers me her famous, and most ample, smile. "I'm older now, I'm more comfortable in my skin and I trust my own representation of myself much more than I ever did. Plus, these days I tend to think before I speak."

Not all the time, she doesn't. It was recently reported that Driver described no less a living saint than Dame Judi Dench as a "very small, round, middle-aged woman who would melt into the crowd in a second". That arrogance of yore was suddenly back with a vengeance. Her eyes flare. "The perfect example of hideous exaggeration!" she says, her voice rising several octaves and causing the woman at the next table to jolt. "Taken completely out of context! It's actually something I said several years ago, but it keeps coming back to haunt me in this twisted soundbite. Look, I'd seen her on stage playing Cleopatra, and she was this amazing, sexy, extraordinary woman. At the same time, I also saw her on TV in this comfy sitcom playing a lovely, homely housewife, and I couldn't quite believe it was the same woman. Basically, it was a compliment to her incredible talent, but of course it never got reported quite like that." She subsequently wrote a letter of explanation to Dench, and the Dame proved gracious in her understanding. "No offence to you," she says, placing her hand on mine, "but there are so many arsehole journalists about, aren't there?"

While she hopes that enough people will buy Everything I've Got In My Pocket to justify the beginnings of a proper recording career, Minnie Driver hasn't quite finished with Hollywood just yet. At the age of 34, she says she is just coming into her stride. She has recently completed a small part in the big-screen adaptation of Phantom Of The Opera, wants to make many more films and would love another Oscar nod. She harbours a dream to write her own US TV show, chiefly because she's having such fun in her recurring role on the sitcom Will & Grace. And, under the influence of Coldplay, she has become increasingly motivated to use her celebrity for good causes. Last year, she offered her services to Oxfam, who promptly sent her to Cambodia to highlight the plight of the female garment workers. The results, captured in a documentary she hopes will be screened soon, have changed her entire outlook on life.

"It really is quite astonishing," she says, breathlessly. "The people who make our clothes, their conditions ... it's a crash course in global economics, it really is, and when you properly understand the ridiculous tariffs put on developing countries to export clothes, well, it makes you sick to the stomach. I know it's naïve to say, but I'll say it again and again: trade really is the best way of ameliorating poverty in the world. And it's so easy! If we just make incremental changes, the impact could be massive. Poverty is the single biggest killer in the world today, the biggest known disease, and the fact that it is the most preventable is bizarre, insane. There has to be a shift, there absolutely has to be, because -"

By now, her fists are clenched, her knuckles white. She has much more to say on the subject, clearly, but her PR has arrived to remind her of her next appointment. And so she stands, and reapplies her layers of clothes. Fellow diners in the restaurant look at her strangely, then follow her departing figure outside, as if expecting to see snow. Instead, all they see is a Los Angeles resident very far from home.

Minnie Driver's new single and album, 'Everything I've Got In My Pocket', are out now on Liberty/ EMI. Minnie Driver is supporting the Finn Brothers in concert at London's Hammersmith Apollo on 5-7 November. For tickets (£26.50 plus booking fee) and details of other concerts visit www.cclive.co.uk or call 0870 400 0688. Visit www.oxfam.co.uk