Acting is a strange and intoxicating profession. Take Rosamund Pike. Today the ethereally pretty actress got "dressed in the dark" in sky high, silver Alexander McQueen stilettos and an impossibly alluring chocolate silk print dress that flutters and shimmers when she moves.
Why? So she could go on breakfast television and radio and talk intelligently about genetic engineering, flesh-eating zombies - oh and let's not forget her genuine intellectual curiosity for the intricate workings of the human body.
These are all topics for discussion in her first action film since her role in Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan's final outing as James Bond. In Doom - a blood-soaked science-fiction caper based on the legendary computer game of the same name - Pike plays a forensic archaeologist, Dr Samantha Grimm. There is so much blood spray-painted on the walls and and so many chewed body parts clinging to space-age computer gadgetry that I convince myself between half-closed eyes that they almost look decorative. Like wallpaper. Pike defends the gore factor. "The violence is very hammy and tongue-in-cheek," she suggests soothingly. The film has been a huge success at the US box office, taking $16m in its first weekend.
In one of the most memorable and uncomfortably funny scenes in Doom, Pike's character coolly steps in to perform a hideous autopsy on a worm-infested genetically engineered "super being". Somehow, she manages to deliver a detached lecture on genetics as she expertly removes the heart, liver and a kidney while the tough men around her look like they might go AWOL or cry. Pike is lucky. She genuinely isn't squeamish. In fact she rather enjoys looking at dead bodies.
"Did you know that the nerves that transport electricity around the body are only 4mm thick?" she asks. During filming, she talked her way into a dissection class at Prague University. "Getting to look at the human body is fascinating," she says. "I just felt very privileged. You discover the most amazing things. Like the size of the liver. I had no idea how big the liver is. Suddenly, I developed this morbid interest in varicose veins, blood clots and cirrhosis of the liver. Now disease looks f very interesting! I looked at a pair of lungs and thought they must be the lungs of a smoker because they were completely black. But they were just the lungs of a city dweller. It was fascinating."
So what are you scared of?
What about spiders?
"No. I am fine with spiders. I'm fine with things that bite, really."
OK, we've established that Pike is tough and resilient, despite her alluring and girlishly slight exterior, and that she doesn't scare easily. Still, a violent splatter movie seems an eccentric choice for a serious actress who "loves the nuance of language" and has recently given a heart-breaking portrait of love and loyalty betrayed as the stoic consort of Johnny Depp's Rochester in The Libertine, and a supremely intelligent performance as Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Maybe it's very simple: she did it for the money and a nice bit of dissection on the side. So I ask her and at first her answer is too cute and disingenuous.
"Oh, after Pride and Prejudice it just seemed so exciting to be offered this big American action movie. You know I have to fight for every part," she teases. Then she gets serious and surprisingly honest. "I did it because I want longevity in this industry. I want to be acting in 30 years time and yes, I like to look after my bank balance too. I don't want to be typecast. I don't think people are going to stop asking me to do Jane Austen because I have just made an action movie."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Doom is the way Pike's central female character is treated. In the rush to make her oh so smart, the director forgot to make her human, and she isn't allowed to be sexy either. And that is quite some feat.
After all, she's certainly worth looking at. Her clothes are sensual and cute, but her features tell a different story. Hers is a ghostly, unreal kind of beauty. She does look as if she needs to get out more. Her skin is the colour of chalk and quite flawless. She has full lips which are equally pale and colourless. She tells me she doesn't like the texture of lipstick. It is only her huge green eyes which suggest that her personality is less than glacial.
What a shame then, that in this blood-soaked outing on Mars she isn't given much to work with beyond a white coat, a lonely dedication to the job which isn't properly explored and plenty of scientific jargon.
Pike is, of course, obliged to say this is a good thing. "If you think of Doom as a cynically made Hollywood action film designed to make money, then it is quite brave of the film-makers not to make my character either the love interest or a sex symbol," she says. "In fact Sam is quite dowdy and she is the only character who doesn't carry a gun."
That's the problem. If only she were allowed to be interesting and dowdy, or evil and sexy. Her character is one-dimensional, which is a waste of her considerable powers as an actress.
Still, there are compensations. She is probably a lot richer now and I can forgive her anything after seeing her play the insipid goody-goody Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice with such subtle reinvention. And upstage Keira Knightley with just a look. In Pike's hands Jane shimmers with optimism, with longing and loveliness. She isn't just Elisabeth Bennet's sickly sibling who is far too good for this world.
Pike seems genuinely thrilled that I loved her portrayal of Jane. "I was determined not to make her so dull and irritating next to the feisty and dazzling character of Elisabeth," she says. "I wanted her to be at ease in her own time and to shine. I love the fact that this film is so much more vivid. The Bennet household is a muddy, dog-filled, boisterous, shambolic place and it is far more real."
Despite her claims that she has to fight for every role, Pike's talents are clearly in demand. In January she returns to the US to start work on a "clever, tight psychological courtroom drama" alongside Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling.
IT'S ALL a long way from the National Youth Theatre, which she joined in her teens, playing her first lead in Romeo and Juliet at the age of 18. Pike, the only daughter of opera singers, didn't go to drama school, but read English at Wadham College, Oxford, where she continued to act and got a small role in A Rather English Marriage, which starred Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Then came the 1999 mini-series adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, with Pike cast as Lady Harriet Cumnor, and two years later the role of Fanny in Love in a Cold Climate, based on the Nancy Mitford novels.
Just as she must have begun to wonder if she'd ever escape costume-drama stereotyping, she was offered the chance to play a Bond girl. Her role as Olympic fencing gold-medallist - and double agent - Miranda Frost catapulted her into the big league.
For the moment, though, Pike, 26, still lives in the same flat she has had for years in London, although her work and back-to-back film projects mean she is rarely there. "I like living out of a suitcase. I don't know why, I guess I am just a gypsy. But I find it easier and more relaxing to be constantly moving on. I am not very good at real life," she confesses in a whisper. "I run away from that. I don't even open my post. I am not very good at being in one place and having to be organised. I was thinking about this the other day and I realised there isn't one thing that I do every week. I don't have any kind of routine. Do you have a routine?" she enquires forlornly.
Pike's sudden introspection is interrupted when I ask her if she is tempted to live in America. "I could live in New York," she replies. "In fact I would love to live there. I find it intensely exciting and relaxing. I love the fact that whatever mood you in, you will be taken out of it as soon as you step outside your door. You get this instant hit of something - the place just grabs your attention. I find it easier to read and to think and be inspired."
But she's not seduced by the smart uptown gloss. "I didn't get New York the first time. I don't really get the skyscrapers. I love the change over when the skyscrapers give way to warehouses and factories and places where people live. I like the jumble of buildings in SoHo and Chinatown." f
Pike then proceeds to give me a description of her last Christmas in New York, which is worthy of Truman Capote's heroine Holly Golightly. "On Christmas Eve we ended up in a dive bar on East Houston Street and then it was Christmas Day and we were all sparkled up for a polished pony and trap ride round Central Park." I can't help feeling that the distinction between real life and fantasy here is blurred. But perhaps it's all for my benefit.
Anyway, Rosamund and her boyfriend wanted Christmas dinner and never mind that it was now three in the morning. "We had turkey burgers at the Waverly Diner," she continues. "Unfortunately, I could still taste the fried onion rings when I woke up the next day. They seemed such a good idea at the time."
Pike is relaxed and insouciant, and mentions the boyfriend all the time during our chat, although she doesn't say his name (previous relationships frequently attracted diary-column attention). She even tells me he is the reason she got dressed in the dark and reached for the silver stilettos this morning - "so impractical, that's why I teamed them with my woolly tights," she says cheerfully. "But my mother told me years ago that I could never be an actress if I couldn't walk in heels."
Pike is very engaging and kind, and quite unlike many of her contemporaries. She hasn't reached that stage where she finds it a kind of exquisite torture to give little vignettes of her life outside acting. Her prize possession is her vintage Citroën.
She loves the old-fashioned concept of motoring. "The idea of taking a road trip, not hurrying to get anywhere ... It's an adventure and the map provides the clues," she reveals. "My boyfriend's sister says, 'there is no right direction', and I think that is a lovely idea."
During the summer she took off to France and Italy and would go camping by lakes and fields one night and then turn up in flip flops to stay in haute splendour at the Villa D'Este the next. Clearly she is a girl who likes contrast in her life. Maybe that helps to keep her feet firmly on the ground.
Sometimes, it's hard to get an actress of Pike's calibre and success to talk about anything beyond the work and the usual superficial razzmatazz of fame. But she comes across as rather likeable and down to earth. She likes to cook (especially "slow-cooking coq au vin dishes") she's interested in photography (she's just bought an old plate camera) and she would love to make things and work with her hands. "My grandfather was a wood turner," she says, "and I would love to do something like that."
But back to her career. While her role as Dr Samantha Grimm won't garner her an Oscar, it isn't a turkey either and will earn her a lot of cred with boys who love computer games. She will, though, be remembered for her haunting portrayal as Elizabeth Malet in The Libertine long after people stop talking about Doom.
"It is a tremendous part, because the relationship between Rochester and Malet is so real. This woman really understands the man she loves. But she also knows that in order to keep him she has to let him go. She knows that no one can ever be enough for him. She knows he will sleep with whores and she lets him do that because she doesn't want to lose him. It was tremendous to work with Johnny because he is so inspiring and so free. You felt you could do anything in a scene. I get to do one of the longest dramatic scenes I have ever had to do and with properly good words."
Looking once again at her heart-stopping features I am reminded of her role two years ago in Terry Johnson's acclaimed play Hitchcock Blonde, with its infamous 10-minute nude scene. Although a national newspaper smuggled a photographer into the Royal Court theatre, much to her distress, her performance was good. In fact she was great. But it would be exciting to see her play the real thing.
"That's funny because I have just been watching Rear Window again. What a brilliant film. I like the use of language; every word counts. Grace Kelly's character is so brilliant. She is a very strong personality, but she manages to keep her femininity in a man's world and that makes her interesting."
Pike says that her own ambitions are very simple. "I just want to keep working," she says. But there is a character she would love to make her own. She is a big fan of the novels of F Scott Fitzgerald and dreams of playing Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night.
"There is so much beauty and sadness in that story - and I am drawn to characters who are both rotten and beautiful," she says with a smile.
'Doom' is on general release
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