Trudie Styler: 'Shakespeare gave guys the best roles'

The producer and activist, whose film 'Filth' is up for five British Independent Film awards, is tapping into the industry's neglected female talent. Adam Sherwin meets Trudie Styler

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The Independent Online

Most movie producers would be happy with five nominations for their latest hit at tonight's British Independent Film Awards – but Trudie Styler is still not satisfied.

"Why isn't Filth nominated for best film too?" the film-maker and environmental activist asks of the controversial Irvine Welsh adaptation, which stars best-actor nominee James McAvoy as a bullying, sexually abusive detective. "It's been a huge box-office success, but in the end I think they wouldn't like to see it win Best Film because of its gritty, boundary-pushing nature."

Pushing boundaries is something Styler doesn't shrink from, whether urging governments to recognise the rights of the Amazon's indigenous peoples, in her campaigns alongside rock-star husband Sting, or challenging the yawning deficit in women who wield studio power in Hollywood.

Women make up 25 per cent of producers and only 9 per cent of the directors on the top 250 US films of 2012. In the field of cinematography, the figure is barely 4 per cent. Which is why Styler, 59, and Celine Rattray, an Oxford maths graduate who ran the Mandalay Vision production house in Hollywood, teamed up to form Maven Pictures, an independent company seeking films which primarily showcase female talent.

"There is a paucity of women in film, and Celine and I seek to redress that," said Styler from Maven's London offices, based in an elegant £5m townhouse overlooking St James's Park. "We need to encourage more women to write roles for other women. The great substantive roles aren't being written for women, and aren't being produced and directed by women."

Shakespeare is partly to blame. "It's a historical problem. He wrote the best roles for the guys. I went to see [Jude Law's] Henry V last night and there is barely one and a half scenes with women in amid these fantastic male roles."

Ageism and sexism are mutually reinforced. Ms Styler said: "There's still this idea that women are over by the time they are 40 so that they can't play the love interest opposite a 50-year-old man. George Clooney is 52 but he's always on the arm of a thirtysomething actress. He gets Vera Farmiga. You don't get a 50-year-old woman on the arm of a 30-year-old guy."

Styler reels off a slate of Maven productions in the works with an array of leading ladies. "Amy Adams [Bafta-winning actress] brought me Object of Beauty, a Steve Martin novel. We're developing it with Amy, and Steve will be in it."

"Sarah Jessica Parker came to us and said I want you to think about something for me," she says and the result is A Fair Marriage, which will star the Sex and the City actress as a wife who finds a new online identity when she discovers her husband's adultery. Cate Blanchett is lined up to star in Cancer Vixen, the true story of a Manhattan cartoonist for The New Yorker who was diagnosed with breast cancer just as she was about to get married. Julie Delpy will write the screenplay.

Independent films struggle to get the green light (Rattray, a former McKinsey & Co consultant, handles the minefield of financing) and may never produce huge returns. But Maven lures talent with the promise of something more elusive – Oscar gold. "[Distribution company] Fox Searchlight is always looking for smaller films with awards potential," Styler said. "Your big movie stars who've been in blockbusters generating a lot of dollars are looking for the meatier, substantive roles that they think will make the awards season."

Filth, for which Styler is up for the Production award on Sunday night, is, she admits, a rare shot of testosterone in the Maven schedule. "Filth is not female-driven, but I've always liked bad-boy movies. We had a hilarious time getting Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels together with Guy Ritchie."

Styler, born in Worcestershire, studied drama at the Bristol Old Vic before acting in repertory theatres then winning roles in television series including Poldark. She carved a career in production after meeting Sting, with whom she has four children, including a daughter, Mickey, who is an actress. She helped launch the careers of Ritchie and the Bafta-winning Duncan Jones (Moon) at her first company, Xingu Films, and remains a hands-on producer.

"I'm very good at keeping my eye out for actors. With Filth I helped in the post-production, I did the film colour correction and sound design in Germany. As a producer I'm quite nurturing, I like working with inexperienced, unseasoned directors."

She mentors the interns who work at Maven's New York office, telling them "go out and make your own films. The internet has made it so much easier to produce and make films for tiny budgets."

Her campaigning and celluloid worlds combined in Crude, a 2009 documentary chronicling a group of indigenous people in Ecuador that have had their homeland devastated by oil drilling. Styler regularly travels from the couple's New York base to Ecuador to help in a Rainforest Fund project to build safe access to drinking water for families in the oil-affected areas.

She is an ambassador for Unicef, and admits it can be "a very useful thing to have fame and celebrity" for awareness-raising. "We can all sneer at Katy Perry [appointed a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador last week] and say, 'What does she know?' That may be something that's been applied to me in the past, but 30 years on I'm still doing what I can to help the indigenous peoples with their campaigns versus their respective governments."

There remains unfinished business on the stage, however, for Styler, who appeared in a New York production of Chekhov's The Seagull in the summer. She is hoping to play Guinevere in Savage Love, a feminist reinterpretation of the Camelot story by Pam Gems, a friend of Styler's who died in 2011. Guinevere is at war with husband King Arthur and on trial for her life over her affair with Lancelot in the play, which Styler plans to stage in the UK next year.

Sting and Styler first met in 1982, their ensuing relationship ending his marriage to actress Frances Tomelty. Since then, the couple have become one of the longest-standing partnerships in showbusiness. Do they critique each other's work? "I'm not a musician but I offer him an audience, a pair of ears," she said. "He's written a musical [The Last Ship] so I've got a bit more to offer on that."

Sting became a regular at The Seagull. "He came to see it about 10 times. He had been playing at the New York Public Theatre nearby. He would sit in all areas of the theatre. So if he was right at the back next to the speaker he would say, 'On this line you might want to pitch it up.' We do listen to each other and are delighted to support each other."

Might Maven Pictures snap up the movie rights to The Last Ship, Sting's Tyneside-set musical now headed for the Broadway stage? "That might be a step too far," she laughs.

Curriculum vitae

1954 Born on 6 January in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Studies drama at Bristol Old Vic & becomes leading actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

1977 Wins role in BBC Poldark series.

1982 Begins relationship with Sting. They marry in 1992.

1988 Launches the Rainforest Foundation (now Rainforest Fund), devoted to protecting rainforests and their indigenous peoples.

1998 Produces Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (2000).

2000 Wins Human Rights Champion Award from Amnesty International.

2005 Appointed Unicef Ambassador.

2011 Forms New York-based Maven Pictures with Celine Rattray.

2013 Filth nominated in five categories at the British Independent Film Awards.