Imogen Poots: A bright young thing who won't suffer for her art

She's brainy and beautiful, and a rising British acting talent with a clutch of upcoming risqué roles, but don't expect a tortured soul with cigarette in hand. Rachel Shields meets Imogen Poots.

Incest, one-night stands and sex with men three times your age. Such talk, from that mouth! Obviously, her looks shouldn't make any difference. But let's not beat around the bush here – Imogen Poots has an angelic face: wide-set blue eyes, long lashes and peaches-and-cream complexion. And to hear such things emerging, so nonchalantly, from that face is, well, shocking.

And to be fair, these aren't candid revelations about her private life – the stuff of a tabloid newspaper editor's dreams – but topics the actress, at only 20, has tackled in a range of upcoming film and TV roles that will almost certainly transform her from a vaguely familiar face into a household name.

First up is Solitary Man, released this week, which sees Poots seduced by Michael Douglas, her mother's errant boyfriend in the film. "I'm sure a lot of people will perceive it as something seedy," she says earnestly. "But it shows two people coming together and finding a connection despite the age gap, and I do believe that age gaps are irrelevant. In this business you work with so many people who are double your age, or you are double theirs, and you connect with them."

Set in New York and also starring Susan Sarandon, the film plumbs the murky depths of modern-day relationships and sexual mores. "It is a one-night fling," she says of her character's relationship with Douglas. "Which is an interesting concept."

The actress will also explore sexual boundaries in an upcoming ITV remake of risqué drama Bouquet of Barbed Wire, which shocked 1970s audiences with its depiction of a father's incestuous obsession with his manipulative daughter.

"In terms of the remake, the incest isn't as obvious as in the original," she says, stirring her latte. "Trevor Eve, who plays my character Prue's father, just doesn't want to let his daughter go. Their relationship is not explicitly sexual, but it is still enough to make you go, 'Hmmm?!'"

She is comfortable tackling risqué roles but equally, she is also keen to avoid being typecast as the young love interest. "It is a difficult one, as you get scripts where women are just objects. If a role has been too one-dimensional I have turned it down. I still try to be a feminist in some tiny way," she says, in a an accent produced by west London's leafy Chiswick and an education at some of the city's best private schools. "There is more for women in terms of character roles now." She cites Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith as acting inspirations. "They have constantly changed over the years and challenged themselves with different roles," she explains. "That's impressive."

Best known so far for her role in the 2007 horror film 28 Weeks Later, and with an eclectic range of films on the way, the chances of her being typecast at this early stage seem unlikely. Her English-rose looks will be used to good effect in a new film adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel, Jane Eyre, which she is currently shooting with American director Cary Fukunaga. The actress plays Blanche Ingram, a socialite with whom Mr Rochester flirts to make Jane jealous. While in the novel the character is an unsympathetic gold-digger, it seems that Blanche has been given a make-over for the unnaturally nice Poots. "Blanche is genuinely flabbergasted that Rochester doesn't want to marry her. She is nice, and innocent."

The daughter of a BBC journalist and a voluntary worker, she is – at the risk of slipping into cliché – a brainy beauty. Three As at A-level and a place waiting for her at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Having deferred for two years to act full-time, she is finding it difficult to take a break from her rapidly snowballing career to return to academe. "It is a hard one," she sighs. "You have to think about what you want to do. There is nothing to say that you should study from the age of 20 to 23. I learnt more on a film set at 17 than in the classroom."

She describes her breakthrough role in 28 Weeks Later as "like a first love", explaining: "It was the first substantial role I'd been offered, and there are so many people from the film I'm still friends with. It opened up more doors. I got to meet people I wouldn't have met otherwise and that helped to move my career along."

When not busy with that career, she is keen to continue drawing and painting, and recently bought a flat in Fulham, west London, with room for a studio. But despite these artistic leanings and her burgeoning acting career, Poots is refreshingly down to earth. "I love art, but not in a clichéd, luvvie way," she says, rolling her eyes and adopting an affected pose. "I've met actors who have been all 'actory', who you would never go out with, and some who are great. It's the whole cigarette-in-hand, tortured-soul thing that gets me."

While she may not like the "luvvie" scene, she counts a number of "bright young things" of British acting among her circle of friends. These include Aaron Johnson, with whom Poots stars in the upcoming British-Japanese thriller Chatroom, which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on 14 May. Johnson's stock increased after he starred in the recent biopic about John Lennon, Nowhere Boy, and becoming engaged to its director, the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, who, at 43, is 24 years his senior.

"You collect people to take with you. Some people change, other people don't ... it's wonderful because I've met some incredible friends. There are some young British actors who are just great. I was really friendly with Matthew Beard, and Aaron is lovely. I've known him a long time," she says.

Poots seems to collect handsome leading men. Along with Johnson and Douglas, she also stars opposite US hit TV show The Wire's heart-throb, Dominic West, in the Roman action film Centurion, in which she plays a tattoo-covered wise woman. But she has resisted the trend for hooking up with a co-star, and is in a year-long relationship with a boyfriend who works "behind the scenes" in the music business.

By now, her youth, looks, success and talent should be grating. But she somehow has an unstarry knack of undermining it all in a way that makes her less grating than someone with fewer gifts but who tries too hard.

She insists she is no hothouse flower and that she fell into acting almost by accident: "I'd always enjoyed acting at school, and a brother's friend was going along to an acting workshop at Riverside Studios, so I went along. I thought it might be fun, and a good way to meet interesting people."

Despite all the work she is doing, she says that she is hardly ever recognised by fans, and described how embarrassed she is when she meets her own screen idols: "I remember filming Chatroom and Ricky Gervais was filming Cemetery Junction next door. I walked past him beaming, and shouted "Hi!", then realised I didn't actually know him at all, I'd just seen him on TV. I went bright red."

One almost wants to hug her. This, perhaps more than anything else is the key to her appeal; why she deserves to be a star. Imogen the actress embraces the gamut of thorny, adult roles without missing a beat. But take away the camera, and she blushes like a schoolgirl.

Curriculum vitae

1989 Born in London to journalists Trevor and Fiona Poots.

2006 Scores her first, minor, film role, in V for Vendetta.

2007 Stars as Tammy in zombie-horror film 28 Weeks Later, sequel to the international hit 28 Days Later. She describes the role as being "like a first love".

2008 Returns to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith to take her A-levels, in which she achieves three A grades.

2008 Is offered a place to study history of art at the Courtauld Institute in London, which she defers for two years.

2008 Appears in Miss Austen Regrets, inset left, as a favourite niece the writer tries to marry off, alongside Greta Scacchi.

2009 Begins filming remake of taboo-busting 1970s TV show Bouquet of Barbed Wire, alongside Trevor Eve, to be screened this summer.

2010 Stars in Roman epic Centurion, appearing as a tattoo-covered wise woman alongside The Wire's Dominic West.

March 2010 Begins filming a new adaptation of Emily Brontë's Jane Eyre.

May 2010 Solitary Man, in which Poots acts opposite Michael Douglas, is released.

May 2010 Chatroom premieres at Cannes Film Festival. Poots stars opposite Aaron Johnson in the Japanese thriller directed by Hideo Nakata.

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