Daniela Nardini: This life... and the next

It's 10 years since Daniela Nardini made her name as a bad-girl barrister; now she's maxing out the plastic playing a shopaholic. All credit to her, says James Rampton
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A decade ago, Daniela Nardini couldn't get arrested. Looking back now on a career that at the time seemed as barren as the Gobi Desert, the Scottish actress admits: "I was at the end of my tether. Nothing was going on in my life. I was working very spasmodically, doing the odd day of telly and theatre tours around the Highlands. We went to some pretty remote places. I'd walk on stage and think, 'There are two people in tonight and seven sheep'. During the pregnant pauses, all I could hear was baa-ing."

For half a dozen years after graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1989, Nardini recalls that she was "flooded with no offers". She jumped at the chance of doing walk-ins in Taggart, Dr Finlay and Take the High Road because it seemed the only means of escaping a lifetime of working in the family ice-cream parlour at Largs on the West Coast of Scotland.

When Nardini did land some film roles, they were invariably of the "blink and you'll miss her" variety. "I would have six months without work before getting one line in something. It was soul-destroying. As a young actor, you have to be able to handle frustration, lack of respect and having to borrow from your parents, but I was sick of it, so I got an application form for teacher training. I came quite close to ruining some children's lives."

Fortunately, in 1996, Scottish youth was saved from such fate by a zeitgeisty BBC2 drama about a group of young lawyers and their - at times drug-fuelled - amorous and professional entanglements. This Life turned round Nardini's life. Out of the blue, the actress was offered the career-defining role of Anna, a barrister with a healthy interest in all kinds of briefs - and she has never looked back. Anna was an unstoppable character who left a trail of men flattened in her wake.

Nardini reckons that she was "the first sophisticated bad girl. She had sex, smoked and drank, and had a mind of her own - a woman like that hadn't been represented before on British TV in such a frank way. The writers gave her all the best lines. She was a gift for any actress".

"Anna was particularly popular because she was a bit of a fantasy. Part of everyone wants to behave quite badly, say what they think and be mouthy and crude. As an actress, I was given the opportunity to say all those dreadful, wonderful things. But in reality, people wouldn't have put up with Anna. They'd have said, 'Get lost!

"A lot of 16-year-old girls still come up to me and say, 'Anna is my role model'. And I think, 'Oh my God, she's a gin-swilling, chain-smoking, coke-snorter. I hope I haven't encouraged bad behaviour'."

Those 16-year-old girls will be among many delighted by the news that This Life may well be returning. Almost 10 years after the show made a headline-grabbing exit with a punch-up at a wedding, the series creator, Amy Jenkins, has penned a sequel to the drama that made stars not only of Nardini, but also of Jack Davenport and Andrew Lincoln. "Everyone had reservations about a reunion," the actress admits, "but when we all got together recently to talk about it - the first time we'd all met since the series ended - the camaraderie was there. The dynamic between us was the same. We have a lot of affection for each other, and those characters were the launching pad for all of us. So we thought it was unfinished business - wouldn't it be interesting to see what has become of these characters?"

The one stumbling block may be that - thanks to the boost This Life first gave them - most of its stars are now ridiculously busy. "I won't believe this reunion is happening till we're all on set together," Nardini laughs. "Jack [one of the stars of Pirates of the Caribbean], for instance, seems to be constantly on a pirate ship. I'm not sure I'd fancy that." Although she won't divulge the details, Nardini was especially pleased by What Anna Did Next. "I liked what Amy had done with Anna. It speaks of women's struggles, trying to have babies in your late thirties when you're a career woman." Suddenly taking on Anna-esque outspokenness, Nardini adds: "That very phrase underlines the problem. By calling someone a 'career woman', you're devaluing her. You don't call them 'career men'.

"My image is of a strong contemporary woman," says the actress, who lives in London with her boyfriend, a civil servant. "My name springs to mind when [programme-makers] are casting feisty women. I've never played victims or doormats. All my characters are responsible for their own actions and take the bull by the horns."

But in person, the 38-year-old is far removed from the formidable, even rather scary woman she has portrayed on screen in dramas such as Festival, Big Women, Reckless, Undercover Heart, Rough Treatment, Quite Ugly One Morning, Sirens, Outside the Rules and Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.

As we chat in a so-hip-it-hurts offal restaurant by Smithfield Market in London - you may be glad to hear that she opts for tea rather than tripe - she reveals herself as appealingly diffident. Dressed down in a blue shirt and jeans rather than an ostentatious outfit that shouts "look at me", Nardini seems not man-eating but modest. Every so often, her whole face breaks into a shy smile.

For all that, the actress has, once again, been cast as a ball-breaker in her latest drama, Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole in My Heart. In Marc Munden's affecting, semi-improvised one-off film, which goes out on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday, Nardini plays Maya, a brittle, wealthy shopper who hammers her credit card as if it were a blacksmith's anvil. Maya is befriended by Nathalie (Sally Hawkins from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Fingersmith), a bright, likeable woman who earns her living as a personal shopper at an upscale department store in Manchester.

High on the glitzy ambience in which she works, Nathalie starts attempting to emulate Maya's affluent existence. But before you can say "severely overdrawn", Nathalie's spending is out of control. Suffering from what is known as "Madame Bovary Syndrome", she turns to Maya for aid but to no avail . "After Maya witnesses one particularly out-of-control shopping binge, she realises that Nathalie is ill and needs help - but not from her," Nardini says. "Nathalie considers Maya one of her best friends but Maya isn't interested in Nathalie other than as someone who helps her buy the best. She's not the caring type.

"You know, there's something about me that just doesn't come over as fluffy. I can't even do a voice-over that's light - the last two I did, one was about a pathologist and the other one was about cemeteries."

Nardini admits that when she first learnt about the subject-matter of Shiny Shiny..., she struggled to take it seriously. "When I heard it was going to be about shopping addiction, I laughed because every girl thinks she suffers from that," she says. "I found it hard to believe that you could get addicted to shopping in the same way that you can to alcohol or drugs.

"But the more I researched the subject, the more I realised how easy it is to get hooked on shopping. You became dependent on the adrenalin rush you get from retail. Like any addiction, it affects the people around you as much as it affects you."

Shiny Shiny... dramatises the nature of psychological dependency and underlines that many of Nathalie's problems stem from the fact that she has a fundamentally addictive personality. "If she hadn't become hooked on shopping," Nardini reckons, "it would have been something else. What makes one person an alcoholic and another merely a social drinker? Nathalie also has an eating disorder. She is needy and has unresolved issues."

The actress continues that even though she has never been prone to addiction herself, it is still "a subject that really interests me. I'm aware of all that stuff through various friends. Acting tends to attract quite extreme personalities. An actor wants attention all the time and is open to being vulnerable. That balance sometimes tips, and a lot of actors get into drink, drugs or serial shagging. It's rife in our industry, so you're bound to come across the odd casualty".

So, has Nardini fallen victim to a shopping addiction? "No," she smiles. "I do go shopping and get a little hit off it. [But] I've never been in debt. I always know what I have in the bank. I've got a proper streak of Scots in me... I just couldn't spend five hundred quid on a handbag - no way."

She is equally realistic about her own prospects, aware that no actor is guaranteed jobs for life. "The battle never stops," she says. "Helen Mirren said, 'I want to give up the whole game because I'm fed up with the neurosis of wondering if you're going to get a part'. It doesn't get any easier. Now my agent is saying, 'You're up for a film but you're competing against Jennifer Lopez'. There's always someone better or higher-profile."

But cracking one last smile, Nardini concludes: "At least I'm not taking out my frustrations by trying to teach some poor souls. Better still, I'm not on a sheep tour of the Highlands."

'Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole in My Heart' is on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday