Jodhi May: The reluctant celebrity

For years, she's been stealing the show in TV dramas and Hollywood blockbusters. But in 2006, Jodhi May is finally shaping up as a superstar in her own right. And that's what scares her most.
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Recently, Jodhi May deigned to join the rest of the human race when she caved in to mounting peer pressure and finally bought herself a television. The distinctly cerebral 30-year-old actress had never actually owned a TV before, and saw no reason to get one. The temptations of Celebrity Big Brother were presumably lost on one who studied English at Wadham College, Oxford, but the playwright Stephen Poliakoff, in whose drama Friends and Crocodiles May recently acted, insisted she get one in time for the programme's mid-January screening on BBC1. And so, a few weeks back, she took the plunge.

"Stephen did think I was crazy to be without one," she says, tilting her face down until all I can see is the outline of her nose and the beginnings of a blush beneath some impressive cheekbones. "Obviously, he wasn't the first to think that, but I suppose he was rather more persuasive than most. He told me he watched a lot of television, and that so should I."

And just how has life changed now as a result? "Well, I can't say that it has, really. I do turn it on sometimes, but mostly not. To be honest, I don't even notice that I have one most of the time. It's quite a small and discreet set. It's not one of those home-cinema screens, I'm afraid, so it rather tends to go unnoticed."

She did manage to fulfil the director's other request, though, and a few weeks back, tuned into Friends and Crocodiles, a lush, lavish and quintessentially Poliakoff production which traced the lives of a wilful millionaire and his secretary over the course of many years and countless crimes of fashion. May was quietly wonderful as the dutiful Lizzie, and the reviews her performance garnered were almost universally positive. Not that she herself was aware of any such praise.

"I've never paid much heed to [the critics] before," she says. "When I finish a job, I surrender it completely. I have to, because after that, it really is out of my hands. To place any kind of importance on what other people think would be ... well, it would send me down a rather dangerous path, don't you think?"

Her face tilts back up again and her smile, when it comes, reveals more warmth than perhaps either she or I had previously expected. We've been talking for almost 20 minutes now, and things are going well.

This wasn't part of the script at all. Jodhi May, you see, seeks neither praise nor attention. While the actress, who first came to public prominence 19 years ago in the political thriller A World Apart, loves her job, she loathes its attendant baggage. The very notion of celebrity appals her, and she does whatever she can to avoid it. Consequently, interviews such as this are a rare occurrence, accepted only under duress. And while she concedes, "I'm aware fame has a certain currency in our culture, and that promotion is part of the business," she'd rather let her work speak for itself. Mostly, in costume dramas such as Tipping the Velvet and Daniel Deronda (few impress more in costume dramas than she) her work does just that. But May is about to make her West End debut in a play called Blackbird, whose subject - the consequences of paedophilia - won't exactly see it competing against The Lion King. A little publicity, then, becomes a necessity.

I'd read previously that among her favourite topics of discussion were the merits of Chekhov, a writer whose work I am not (perhaps shamefully, possibly not) much acquainted with, and thought her apparent ignorance of popular culture would give us no middle ground whatsoever. But her reputation promptly vanishes upon our introduction at her agent's London offices, this apparent ice maiden greeting me with a warm and welcoming smile. Tall and elegant, with long brown hair through which chocolate-drop eyes occasionally peek, she seems friendly enough, and while her well-bred accent knows its way around a rounded vowel, she is anything but hoity-toity.

We repair to a small room three flights up, and if we overlook the attendant body language - she keeps her coat on throughout, her legs and arms crossed - and the fact that whenever I stray on to personal matters, she lapses into the third person as if to further illustrate just how uncomfortable she is with personal pronouns, she seems almost happy to be here.

"We-ll," she concedes slowly, "you basically try to do the bare minimum you can get away with, don't you? And that, I suppose, is what I am doing here. I think that Blackbird is an amazing play, and I want people to know it's out there."

Co-starring Roger Allam, and written by David Harrower, Blackbird is a powerful two-hander about the reunion of a middle-aged man and a now adult woman who had an affair when the latter was just 12 years old. The man, having served time for his crime, has since assumed a new identity and is rebuilding his life when the pair unexpectedly meet again. Hardly the sort of thing you'd normally see in the West End. May says: "Oh, it's a very daring show, extremely provocative and challenging and exciting. I can't wait for it to begin."

She says, in the manner of a quintessential luvvie, that she "loves" the theatre.

"I do, I really do. I enjoy the stamina of it, the discipline, and finding something new in each performance. It's so invigorating."

And it will surely consolidate what is already becoming a rather industrious 2006 for her. Following the Poliakoff and Blackbird, she will next be seen in the film Land of the Blind, alongside Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, raising her profile all the while.

"Yes, well, I tend not to focus on that side of it," she says, suddenly awkward, "and best not to, really. You don't want to end up living a horribly narcissistic life, do you? And everything about fame and celebrity sort of suggests that kind of fate. As an actor, I think it's really important to be as anonymous as possible. It's your job to convince people that you are somebody else, and so any recognition I'd get away from the screen - well, it's not something I actively seek. To be honest with you, I'm surprised anybody does."

But that's precisely what the majority of actors do seek, I say.

"Oh, I'm not judging my peers. I'm speaking purely subjectively here, that's all. Nothing more."

Jodhi May was just 11 years old when her life suddenly took its unexpected course. The director Chris Menges, a former cameraman of naturalistic director Ken Loach, was in the process of casting for A World Apart, a film about apartheid in South Africa. Because he didn't want a professional actress in the role of Barbara Hershey's daughter, through whose eyes the story unfolds, he sent his casting director to north London's renowned Camden School for Girls to find somebody appropriately fresh-faced and precocious-free. May was duly chosen, and spent three months on set in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (it was forbidden, in 1987, to film in South Africa), perfecting her new craft as well as a highly convincing Afrikaans accent. Her performance was revelatory and, a year later, she was awarded joint Best Actress (alongside her screen mother, Barbara Hershey) at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now this, of course, would have gone straight to the head of a lesser soul, transforming them into an insufferable young brat in the mould of a Macaulay Culkin or a Drew Barrymore. Not May. While her American equivalents were busy pulling on their first funny cigarettes or employing lawyers to estrange them from their parents, she returned home, and to school.

"There was never any question of me leaving education," she insists. "Not even for a moment. I've always enjoyed school and have always been very academically driven."

But surely, if only from a social aspect, life must have become very difficult? For a while, she had paparazzi trailing her every move.

"Well," she says, with another blush and a further tilt of the head, "I suppose it does single you out to some extent, but you just have to deal with it in as sensible a way as you can - and simply wait for the attention to pass. And it did pass, pretty quickly, too."

Furthermore, she adds, her mother had created a highly protective environment around her, perhaps because she was, by now, a single parent. (May's German father, and her continued lack of contact with him, is a subject she won't broach.) And so she continued to thrive at school, doing more films but only during the summer holidays. Resisting any offers to do typical teenage fare, she plumped instead for more politically driven work: a television film about Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal called Max and Helen, and Eminent Domain, a Cold War thriller starring Donald Sutherland. At 16, she was mesmerising as the virginal young daughter of a besieged British colonel in Last of the Mohicans alongside Daniel Day Lewis, after which she opted not for Hollywood but an English degree at Oxford.

"I simply loved education," she says, as if in mitigation. "I mean, I always loved acting as well. It really was a major passion for me, but one I felt I could only fully explore once I'd completed my degree."

Ever since, she has built up a quietly formidable body of work that ranks her more alongside the likes of Miranda Richardson or Judi Dench than anyone in her immediate peer group: if May's name appears on the credits of a film or television drama, you can be sure it'll have "worthy" stamped all over it. A journalist once asked her if she'd ever consider doing a sitcom. Her response was emphatic: "Definitely and absolutely not."

And so she continues to sidestep celluloid and televisual dross, much like she does press intrusion. So little is known about her private life that she remains, essentially, a closed book. She is believed to be currently single, and lives in an unstipulated corner of north London in a nicely decorated house lined with books and, in the corner of the living-room, an underused shiny new television.

"I think it's important to keep things private," she explains, "and there are certain boundaries I feel very particular about drawing. It may seem fastidious, but my experience of talking to the press is that I need those boundaries to remain very clear."

I ask her if she is aware that she is cultivating an enigma around herself which, if anything, will make people more curious still. Her response is incredulous laughter, and not just a little shock.

"Well," she cries, breathlessly. "That's ... that's not what I'm setting out to do at all, certainly not! And it's really not something I think you should give a lot of thought to." She's frowning now. "If you did spend too much time thinking about that sort of thing, then you'd be using up a lot of valuable database that would be better used elsewhere, don't you think? My instincts," she considers, "tell me that you will spiral into a very unhealthy place if you start pondering about how other people think about you and, quite frankly, I don't want to go there. I suppose that's why I find these things [interviews] so awkward. I could witter on endlessly about the work I do because I love it, but you'd probably find it ever so boring. The thing is, that's what I'm most comfortable doing, I'm afraid."

In 2002, May branched out into writing and directing her own short film Spyhole (based on a story by Raymond Carver), about a couple whose sex life is reawakened when they are asked to look after their holidaying neighbours' house. The experience gave her, she says, a newfound respect for directors, and a taste for it that she might well want to develop in the future. But not just yet. Right now, she is committed to acting and, among other ambitions, wants desperately to appear in a Woody Allen film.

"Oh, I'd just love to work with him," she coos. "I'd die to be in one of his films."

Presumably, she is working on making this dream a reality?

She giggles self-consciously. "I don't even know how you would go about doing that, to be honest," she claims. I tell her that that is why actors have agents. She shrugs her shoulders, and simply says: "I suppose I'll just wait and see if he asks, and hope that he does."

At that, our conversation draws to a natural conclusion, and we leave the interrogation room to rejoin the human race. With a practised sincerity that, perhaps because it's a Friday, I choose to believe, Jodhi May says it has been "an unexpected delight". She, skilfully slippery but beguilingly so, has been likewise, and I tell her. She emerges back out into the late London afternoon safe in the knowledge that her enigma remains intact and blends effortlessly in with the crowd, as unshowy an actress as you could hope to meet, and one of the country's finer ones.

'Blackbird' opens at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 on Tuesday