Catherine McCormack: The play's the thing

Catherine McCormack has starred opposite Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt in Hollywood blockbusters. But now she describes some of her big movies as 'shite'. A spell in the theatre is just what she needs, she tells Nick Duerden
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The Independent Culture

Largely to combat incipient boredom, Catherine McCormack has been dabbling in the writing of short stories of late. Not for publication, mind, and nothing quite so linear: "Just one-line ideas, visual suggestions for possible short films, that kind of thing," she says.

Before she started filling notebooks, the actress bought a saxophone in the hope that, after a few lessons, she'd be good enough to grace the stage of jazz club Ronnie Scott's. "I get like that," she says, blushing. "Very immediately excited about something, before just as suddenly losing interest. Unfortunately, I couldn't get two notes out of the bloody instrument, so that went pretty quickly. I just need to fill the space between jobs, that's all. There's a lot of space, sometimes."

We meet in the café of Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre, where she is currently rehearsing for her latest play, The 39 Steps. "And the thing about extended periods of unemployment," she continues, "is that it doesn't suit me - at all. I can't sit around doing nothing. If I'm not working, I have a habit of becoming rather insular."

Thank heavens, then, for The 39 Steps, which starts its month-long run at the bijou Tricycle tonight before moving, if successful, into the West End. Directed by sometime actress Maria Aitken (A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures), the play is a faithful realisation of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of John Buchan's novel about an ordinary man thrown into the extraordinary (espionage, spies and such like). McCormack plays the protagonist's hapless girlfriend. She plays other roles, too, as the production notes suggest that its four lead actors will somehow handle, between them, up to 150 roles. McCormack, shaking her head, suggests that this is somewhat exaggerated. "It's more like a mere 40 or 50 parts," she deadpans, "but it's certainly a very physical, very busy play. I've never quite done anything like it. It's definitely a challenge."

Aitken offered her the part because she felt that McCormack had untapped comedic talents. "Apparently, Maria thought I needed to be seen in a wackier light," she says, "but whether I'll actually manage such a thing rather remains to be seen, doesn't it? This is definitely a little light relief, though. Much of my theatre work [Arthur Miller's intense All My Sons, for example, which she performed at the National in 2001] has been rather serious."

McCormack is quietly optimistic about The 39 Steps. This is good news, as she hasn't always been quite so positive about much of the work she has undertaken since coming to prominence, back in 1995, in Braveheart. Very few actresses in her position ever really speak their mind. This one is an exception. Much of her back catalogue, she suggests, has been, not to put too fine a point on it, "shite".

McCormack was born in 1972 in Hampshire. When she was six years old, her mother died of lupus, and she and her brother Stephen were brought up by their steelworker father. At 11, she attended a convent school, but this is where things start to get hazy. "No, not because I was whipped twice a week by evil nuns and have attempted to banish it from my nightmares," she jokes, "but just because I have such a terrible memory. Oh, I'm all right with the short term - which means, mercifully, I can just about memorise scripts - but I've forgotten so much about my past. It's funny, I listen to friends who talk about back when they were 14, eight, 16, whatever, as if it was yesterday. Me, I've no idea what I did. It's all a blur, I'm afraid."

After A-levels, she went to drama school and, within three months of graduating, landed her first film, Loaded, about a group of teenagers who decamp to a country house for a memorable weekend. This is one of the aforementioned "shite" films.

"Basically, I had a miserable time with the director [Anna Campion]," she says. "It was my first film job, I needed to be mollycoddled, I needed to be helped through it, and I wasn't. Mostly, it was a horrible experience."

Braveheart, in which she starred alongside Mel Gibson, followed a year later. In this, she was exquisite, and all the ensuing talk was that Hollywood had its next golden British girl, an Elizabeth Hurley who could actually act. But McCormack's subsequent film career would prove somewhat bumpy. While she excelled in small homegrown films such as This Year's Love, the bigger budget ones left an unpleasant taste in her mouth. Co-starring with Brad Pitt on 2001's Spy Game didn't stop her from clashing with director Tony Scott. "I've worked with some male directors who don't understand women at all," she said at the time. "I'm flabbergasted by their ignorance."

The same year, she appeared in The Tailor of Panama, but while she loved the director this time around (it was John Boorman, a man apparently in touch with his feminine side), she failed to fully engage with the material.

"We-ll," she says now, hesitantly, "I said all those things when I was in my twenties. I've mellowed a bit now [she's 34] because I don't want to stay bitter about certain career choices. That would be quite ruinously frustrating, I think."

McCormack, who is dating a London-based photographer, has, however, largely enjoyed her experience in the theatre - particularly All My Sons and, so far at least, The 39 Steps - and has now developed other interests. To date, she has directed two short films (both adaptations of William Boyd stories) and is currently trying to secure funding for her debut feature, about which she'd rather say nothing just now. Smiling wryly, she says that directing has come to her far more naturally than the saxophone ever did.

"The great thing about having spent all this time on film sets is that I've been able to watch directors and how they work. I now know that this is what I want to do as well: to tell stories visually. But it's definitely my vision that I want to put across, nobody else's.

"I have so many themes I want to explore, so many questions I'd like to raise and develop, and hopefully, I'll get to do just that."

'The 39 Steps' opens at the Tricycle Theatre today; 020-7328 1000, www.tricycle.co.uk

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