Barking up the right tree

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Actor, writer and now film star, it has already been an important year for Oxford graduate Emily Woof. In her latest outing, she joins Rufus Sewell in the movie version of Thomas Hardy's 'The Woodlanders'

"All the posters had Patrick Marber's name on them, but he didn't write it with me," says Emily Woof, clearing up a misapprehension about her one-woman Edinburgh hit, Revolver. "Actually, I think the publicity said he'd directed it. But he didn't do that either. We were going to work together on it. And we did collaborate for a couple of weeks, but it didn't work. So we parted company. Amicably."

Actor, writer, performance artist and now film star - the diminutive Woof seems capable of sporting any number of hats without the help of Mr Marber, or anyone else. Currently appearing alongside Rufus Sewell in Phil Agland's film adaptation of Hardy's The Woodlanders, Woof is busy adapting Revolver's Beatles-inspired study of obsessive behaviour for the big screen. She also recently "got to wear glitter and five different wigs" in Todd Haynes's eagerly awaited glam rock extravaganza, Velvet Goldmine.

While such success might knock a lesser starlet off her feet, Woof is keeping hers sensibly planted on the ground. "At the moment I feel happier than I've been in a long time. I feel more settled in myself. Better at balancing relationships with work and coping with the insecurities of the profession," she reflects, before admitting that waiting to hear about a plum role in the BBC's forthcoming adaptation of Vanity Fair is gnawing at her a little.

Born in Newcastle, Woof studied English at Oxford (where she first started writing and performing), before training in physical theatre with Parisian guru Philip Gaulier. Her first one-woman shows, Sex, Sex II and Sex III saw her launching herself from an upright piano, not a flying trapeze. They also launched a career that has showed little sign of slowing down ever since. Looking back, she says, it was a "manic" few years.

"When my solo show took off, it fed me into the slipstream of international festivals," she explains, "and I got known for doing that kind of work: very visual, collage-like theatre." Woof continued with image-based theatre for a while "because that's what people wanted and expected," but has recently turned her talents to film acting which, with its discreet style, seems a different discipline altogether.

"It's true that the ability to do a backward somersault didn't come in handy when I was playing Grace," she smiles. "Phil's line was 'Keep still. Don't nod. Don't put your head on one side'. Straight after filming I went into The Full Monty (playing Robert Carlyle's ex-wife), and it was a real shock doing something so naturalistic.

"Everyone was really relaxed, but I was still in 19th-century Dorset with a corset on." Going from complete artistic control to receiving direction has also been what she describes as "a painful learning curve". "I found it really tough. I was giving a lot of feedback. All the time. It was difficult for me to let go of absolute responsibility, because it's so fundamental... I've never known what it's like to not be totally in control of my material, and the fear, the panic that I'm caught in this celluloid and I've no way of controlling where it goes or how it's used..." Woof sounds genuinely horrified for a minute, before assuring me, and perhaps herself, that she's "learnt to accept that now."

While Woof may have come to trust her directors, she still jokingly retells a story from the other side of the star equation. "Someone was telling me the other day that if you're a big enough star in America, you go through your script crossing your lines out so you get all the reaction shots. That kind of thing makes you aware how manipulative an actor can be in that situation," she muses. "I suppose that can become part of your skill. Knowing the medium, and almost being aware of the edit before it happens. Otherwise you have no power."

I suggest that such schemers must have found their characters left on the floor of the editing suite once or twice. "That happened to me with this Lynda La Plante TV series," admits Woof. "It's called Killer Net. And it's broadcast in May, but my part has been, how shall I put it? Significantly diminished. It wasn't a character that I really identified with or enjoyed playing. I just did it as a job. It was the first role that I'd taken like that, but it was useful because it made me realise that I don't ever want to do that again. I don't think I could ever be a 'jobbing' actor. I'd rather write something myself."

Perhaps as a reaction against the kind of cool brilliance of fellow Oxford graduates like Marber, or perhaps because she's "going soft", Woof is at a point in her writing where she "wants characters to go on a real emotional journey which moves towards some kind of redemption." While adapting Revolver she has, she says, recently added in a "really lovely" new character. "That's the difference between where I am now and where I was when I wrote the play."

'The Woodlanders' is now on general release