Film: Keeping her head above water

British actress Minnie Driver is kicking up a storm in Hollywood. Ivan Waterman talks to her about her new film `Hard Rain'.

What is it about Minnie Driver which inspires such extremes of emotion? American actresses of the La La Land variety are not among her greatest fans. In fact, they probably wish she'd board a plane straight back to Blighty.

Forming a dangerous Renaissance grin, her lip curls up, deep brown eyes narrowing before focusing on you. She knows who they are, and she can handle them. She is well used to the fake smiles of support from the valley of the super-vixens.

The Brits, so Colin Welland once warned Hollywood in an infamous address linked to Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire sweeping the Oscars' board, were "coming". Well, some 18 years on, it seems they have finally arrived, at least in female form.

The luscious, amazonian Driver is grabbing as much attention as she can lay her hands on, along with Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham-Carter waving the wretched Union Jack.

"The competition is intense," Driver concedes. "I'm glad we're getting a chance. A lot of us can do `American'. But I do know a couple of American actresses who have been extremely pissed off by that, and very disparaging.

"I would love to tell you who they are, but I can't. You can hear those tongues wag. `How dare they come over here and steal our jobs!' If we can do it, then too bad."

Is she matey with Kate? Do they have a good laugh? "I don't really know any of the British actresses," she insists. "Emma Thompson is wonderful. But if I could emulate a career, it would be De Niro or Streep. But I want my career. I want `The Minnie Career'."

She knows what she wants, and how to find it. Heads turn when she cruises through a hotel lounge in a fabulous Rodeo Drive trouser suit. Her amazonian limbs were barely concealed by the tiniest of mini-skirts when she was doing promotion rounds for her cute breakthrough movie Circle of Friends, capturing our hearts as the sexually clumsy Irish co-ed Benny Hogan.

But this is Beverly Hills. And so her once dazzling red, pre-Raphaelite curls have been combed out to make way for a sharper, on-the-shoulder business look. She oozes control and confidence. At 5ft 1O, and with that striking jawline, she's power-packed.

We're at the Four Seasons Hotel to talk about Hard Rain. It was originally entitled Flood, but the common or garden eco-disaster epic is now dressed up as thriller. Cerebral stuff it isn't. All-action Driver is girl in the eye of the storm, up against a gang of marauding villains, led by Morgan Freeman, trying to hi-jack a security van containing pounds 2m in cash.

Now here's a hoot. Of all the actors in the West to be waving the law and order banner, enter Christian Slater (just released from jail for assault) as security guard, taking her under his wet cape when a bursting dam sinks the small town community.

The cast was indeed an absolute shower. Director Mikael Salorman took the all-star mob to an aircraft hangar, immersing them for much of the filming in a five-foot-deep tank of around five million gallons of water. There were few smiles as they sipped their late night cocoa.

The word was that Minnie threatened to get heavy with lawyers because she was being forced to work 16-hour-days in freezing conditions. Feisty Driver now admits to behaving like a spoilt babe.

"It's very stressful when you are so cold and trying to function," she says. "I wasn't happy at all. You want to say `Enough is enough', but everyone else was just getting on with it, working such long hours, coming back for more. The rest of them dealt with it far better than I did. I got an ear infection, very dry skin and my hair fell to pieces. But believe me, I got off lightly!"

Hard Rain is a personal landmark: nobody will be taking liberties with her again.

Minnie - real name Amelia - was brought up in Barbados and Hampshire with her elder sister, Kate, a former model, who is now her personal assistant.

Their father, financial tycoon Ronnie Driver, and mother, former model Gaynor Churchward, parted when she was seven. She was sent to board at Princess Anne's old school, conveniently close to the family's country pile in Petersfield.

Being trapped in the dorm with a pack of junior debs was not to her liking. A free spirit, she was more used to roaming beaches in the West Indies.

She was so fed up by the age of ten, she made a run for it. "I was miserable and confused," she says. "Mother was taking me back to school, and I didn't want to go. I hid somewhere but she found me, drove with me screaming out of the window: `I am being abducted - save me!'"

She left Bedales at 16 in a huff, her education polished off in Paris and Grenoble before she hit the acting trail. She says she had a torrid affair with "a much older man". She was 20 and it was her first real experience with the opposite sex. She was cruelly used. "But he had given me a lesson, an initiation."

Now, lovers simply fade away. There was the cerebral John Cusack, creator, director and star of the superb black comedy Grosse Point Blank; and the laddish Matt Damon, co-writer of the weepie Good Will Hunting. She curtly dismisses him, wishing him well "on his next ego trip, wherever that might take him."

This is Minnie's era. At the age of 28, she's still `feeling the quality' of screenplays. She returned to Britain to make the low budget drama The Governess, her first film here since casting herself into the Californian spider's web four years ago.

So far, so very good then for the girl called Minnie who actually drove a Mini as a teenager. "My father had quite a sense of humour," she says. "He nicknamed me Minnie and my sister Kate was called Lori. Geddit? Super- vixens in La La Land go blank. They just stare and say politely: `Excuse me...?'

"But England's odd. I was working there for four years, doing good work but then...nothing. They want you to pay your dues, show respect. They don't like girls who get success too early. People would sooner cross the street than make any positive comment about your work. But I will never be an `insider' in Hollywood. Culturally, I will always be 7,000 miles away."

"Friends" have been crawling out of the Sunset Strip woodwork to make contact. "It is bizarre, this fame thing," she says. "People you haven't seen for years suddenly appear. If I say I am in the bath, they more or less say `What a snooty cow, she doesn't have the time of day for us now.'

"What do you do? Become blanket nice; a generic idiot? It does get weird...people want to give you such a hard time."

Just as well she literally towers over most of them.

`Hard Rain' is released on 17 April

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