Not just a pretty face

How boring: another model has turned to acting. And she goes out with a top director. Except, this one can act. And is politically aware, having spent her teenage years as a socialist activist. Perhaps that is why Saffron Burrows is causing such a stir
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The Independent Online

Six-foot-nothing in bare feet, slender as a Hokusai bulrush, pretty as a Fragonard pousseuse, hazel eyes a-gleam with Edinburgh sunlight, dyed-blonde curls dangling like tendrils of honeysuckle, huge mouth as soft as an almond croissant, Saffron Burrows is, basically, the Home Counties' answer to Elle Macpherson. A former catwalk model turned actress, she radiates the same sharp independence, even while you're gazing in rapture at her gangling, willow-wand proportions. And like the Australian super-babe, she seems to be everywhere right now.

Six-foot-nothing in bare feet, slender as a Hokusai bulrush, pretty as a Fragonard pousseuse, hazel eyes a-gleam with Edinburgh sunlight, dyed-blonde curls dangling like tendrils of honeysuckle, huge mouth as soft as an almond croissant, Saffron Burrows is, basically, the Home Counties' answer to Elle Macpherson. A former catwalk model turned actress, she radiates the same sharp independence, even while you're gazing in rapture at her gangling, willow-wand proportions. And like the Australian super-babe, she seems to be everywhere right now.

You might have seen her lately playing Karen, a tough guy's moll, in the blood-drenched Gangster No 1; or as the feisty Dr McAlester, a genetic scientist who becomes a sharky snack in Deep Blue Sea; from 1 September, you can see her as Strindberg's stricken aristocratic flirt, Miss Julie. Tonight she's in the Scottish capital for the premiere of Time Code, the split-screen cinéma-vérité folly directed by Mike ( Leaving Las Vegas) Figgis who has the considerable and, let's not beat about the bush here, deeply enviable honour of being her boyfriend.

Unlike certain model-turned-actress types, Ms Burrows can act a bit. Her first appearance in Miss Julie is like a dervish descending; she storms into the manorial kitchen in her grubby frock, hair in disarray, red anger-spots on her cheeks, interrupts the flirty badinage of Peter Mullan and Maria Doyle Kennedy (as the footman and the cook), smacks Mullan round the face and upbraids him for having refused to dance with her. Imperious, sexy and awe-inspiringly bonkers, she sets the tone for 100 minutes of emotional savagery and, along with Mullan, offers one of the best celluloid performances of the year, provided you can stand the lava-flow of hatred dripping down the screen.

"Someone who saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival said it was the most violent and sexual film they'd seen, but without a gun or a breast in sight," said Burrows approvingly. "It's an incredibly daunting role, but there are very few things in modern drama that absorb me like that play. You don't often read things, then go home and think about them for hours and talk about them for days."

Strindberg's heroine is a headstrong proto-feminist whose mother taught her about sexual equality and women's rights. Why should she throw herself at a servant? "There are lots of reasons, but mostly its class awareness," said Burrows. "A desire to be one of the proletariat."

Burrows psyched herself up for the part by reading Sylvia Plath. Did she have to upset herself to get in character? "We were all incredibly focused on set," she says, with a hint of asperity, "working in 18-minute takes on Super 16 film, completely involved and specific. Everyone was there because they wanted to be - there wasn't much money involved. So we didn't have to play those games..."

Whoops. At some moments, Saffron sounds like she's running a director's masterclass, at others a class in O-level politics. You can detect the influence of her parents and Figgis (who also directed Miss Julie), but also a desire not to be taken as a simple thesp who gets the lead in Hollywood shark movies because she's dead pretty.

While happy enough with all the privilege attendant on working in LA, she remains clear-eyed about the oddness of Hollywood. "By the end of the day, you feel like you've drunk too much coffee. You've had a series of encounters and can't remember what they were all about - small battles occur every day. And because often the script isn't as exciting or radical as it might be, you find yourself absorbed in tiny details. Or you feel like a kid unable to get to sleep after a long day at the fairground, dazed by all the gadgets, the explosions, the strange excitement of it all. It is pretty exciting to think you went to school in Stoke Newington and now you're playing a top scientist in a laboratory in Mexico. You think, 'How did this happen?'."

Saffron's parents were left-wing activists in north London. They took her on protest marches and housed homeless miners during the 1984/85 strike. So had she identified with the struggle? "Oh yes. Like a lot of middle-class girls growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, I was aware of Marxism, I hated the class structure in England, and thought it was much more interesting to be working class. It lasted all through my school years." Was she attracted to working-class lads? Did she meet any? "I went to school in Hackney," she said. "I didn't really mix with middle-class boys."

She was always unfeasibly tall. "I left school a year early because of my height. At four I was moved up a year because I was surrounded by these tiny kids. So I ended up leaving primary school at 10. I felt terribly out of place and not at all attractive. I was tall and rather podgy until I reached 14, when I suddenly went all lanky like my dad."

She must have been some sight at the meetings she attended, all miners' benefits and radical agendas. "I'd go to meetings after school, and sit at the back with my homework and feel pissed off with all this union activity. For a while I was pretty annoyed with the whole thing - and because I was an only child, it made it worse. Then my mother took in these two Nigerian children whose mother had deserted them, and we became very close, like a family together, and I started to realise I had a pretty interesting life."

At 15, in a scene from some teenage dream comic, she was talent-spotted in the street. Beth Boldt, an American model agent working for a London agency, saw her in Covent Garden with her family. "She said, 'Oh my Gahd, you've just gotta be a model'. I thought she was nuts. She whisked us up to her office. I didn't know what she was talking about." Saffron later discovered this was a well-worn ploy. "She did it all the time. She'd grabbed Naomi Campbell in Covent Garden a year earlier."

For the next five years, the young clothes-horse jetted between Paris and London, modelling for Chanel, under the tyrannical Karl Lagerfeld, and Yves Saint Laurent. "He was terribly bossy, Yves. 'Poot on zis, zis and zis, and take off zem'. He was rude about my French. I speak it fluently, but he said it was like listening to a Parisian guttersnipe."

After five years sashaying and teetering, she'd had enough of it all. "What I found most objectionable was this obsession with the ideal of the body. It's an obsession I don't share; in fact I find it nauseating. And it irritates me, since I know a lot of disabled people and parents of disabled children."

It's typical of this appealing and canny woman to take up the cudgels on behalf of the physically ill-favoured when she herself is so generously arrayed by nature. She has, I suspect, a desire to be all things to all men and women: the aristocrat in the drawing room, but also (like Miss Julie) the slut in the kitchen. The privileged movie star and the political engagée. The Hollywood-studio darling and the art-house avant-gardiste. Even her voice, a gorgeous chocolatey growl, goes through several class-registers, from Hackney Marshes to Hampton Court, in the course of an hour. And while St Laurent found her common, Woody Allen decided she was too much of a lady to stay in the movie Celebrity.

"I worked with him for five weeks on the film," says Burrows, sounding a little peeved. "We'd shot all but one scene. I'd been warned that Woody fires people. And when he did, he just said: 'You have a purity the camera cannot hide'." She laughed. "My girlfriends said, 'Well he obviously hasn't spent an evening with you, Saff'."

The one thing she will not talk about is her relationship with Mike Figgis, though it's an extremely well-documented convergence of muse and mentor. All she'll say is that they met (or "became chums") six years ago. At the time, she was engaged to Alan Cumming, the sinister, mercurial actor with whom she worked in Circle of Friends. But the films Burrows and Figgis have made together suggest strong artistic bonds and a shared need to push the boundaries of acting and directing a few yards.

At 27, Ms Burrows need not worry about the trajectory of her career: just stand beside her for two minutes and you instinctively cast her in several dozen movies involving vulnerable, melancholic beauties in need of rescue, and tough leading ladies in search of a harpoon gun. But will she be sucked into the Hollywood whirlpool or stay in the palace of art? No contest, apparently.

"It takes a certain confidence to acknowledge your instincts and say that the things I've found most exciting were making Miss Julie, and the time I did a play at the Bush called Two Lips Indifferent Red by Tamsin Ogilvy," she says, with sudden firmness. "I've rarely been happier than I was coming home each evening after that. I think we all know what makes us happy. It has to be the most absorbing thing you can work on. And the most daunting."

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