An interview with Indie actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes

Deirdre Reynolds talks to indie actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes, who play a leading role in The Canal and who has scooped a Shooting Star Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

As Ireland’s reigning queen of independent cinema, Antonia Campbell-Hughes has done some pretty extreme things in the name of art.

First, she attempted to stay awake for three months straight to play a chronic insomniac in psychological thriller The Other Side of Sleep.

Then the Derry-born actress holed up in a 5 sq m steel cellar to get inside the head of kidnap survivor Natascha Kampusch for biopic 3096 Days. By the time she jetted into drizzly Dublin to film new homegrown horror The Canal last year, it must have practically felt like a holiday.

“There was a time a couple of years ago where I worked in Ireland quite a bit,” says Antonia, who stars alongside Rupert Evans in director Ivan Kavanagh’s old-school haunted house flick, which is in cinemas now. 

“And I was really hungry to be able to do something here again.

“The Canal was something that just kind of came up out of the blue. I wouldn’t say I did it because I wanted to be in Ireland,” jokes the 32 year-old. “I did it because it was a wonderful piece — but it was lovely to be working here.”

With her pan-European accent and waifish beauty, it’s no surprise that the NCAD graduate is one of the busiest double-barrelled names in arthouse movies today, with Kelly + Victor and Albert Nobbs among her most unmissable roles.

Although she only spent four years in Dublin as a teenager, speaking from her mother’s home in Sandymount, the writer and actress says she’s happy to be claimed as one of our own.

“Legally, I’m British-Irish, but it’s quite funny because I feel very Irish.” Her mother is from Donegal and her late father was from Liverpool. “I moved to Dublin when I was 16 and it had quite a profound impact on me — maybe because my mother is Northern Irish.

“Because we moved around so much when I was young I had a desire to be Irish — to fuel your roots or whatever.”

Growing up in Switzerland, Germany, and America, where her dad’s job with US chemical company Dupont variably took the family of three, the bilingual star admits she didn’t have a clue what she wanted to be — until she saw Andrew Birkin’s seminal drama, The Cement Garden.

“When you move around a lot, you change schools, you are kind of slightly differently wired,” reckons Antonia, who’s just finished shooting French-language drama Les Cowboys opposite John C Reilly in India. “I wasn’t, like, a loner or whatever, but I read constantly.

“When I was very, very young, I saw The Cement Garden with Charlotte Gainsbourg and I saw somebody I could relate to because she had a funny accent. She didn’t sound English, she didn’t sound French; she looked sort of boyish but girlish.

“When you’re in your teenage years, it’s something that you can grab onto and go, ‘I can see that path for myself’.

“I never said ‘I want to be an actor’,” she adds. “I was just obsessed with finding ways to tell tales, and I think that’s still kind of how it is.”

Awards magnet Antonia has already been named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow and scooped the prestigious Shooting Star Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

But the Bafta-nominated actress reveals she’s most proud of her punishing turn as Natascha Kampusch, the kidnapped Austrian schoolgirl who escaped from eight years’ imprisonment in a cellar in 2006, and concedes she was disappointed that her gaunt appearance at the London premiere dominated the headlines instead.

“Yes, very much so,” says Antonia, who reportedly plummeted to just 37kg to portray the agony endured by Kampusch at the hands of Wolfgang Priklopil. “Every single role I do is a learning curve.

“For that role in particular, the fact that it was a true story and it was a real girl, there was no choice but to give it every single part of yourself. There was a lot of pressure on it.

“It was a confused end product, but as a performance I’m deeply proud of it.”

Fast becoming Hollywood’s go-to girl for anguished androgyny, it’s easy to forget that the former fashion designer actually got her big break in comedy, playing Jack Dee’s deadpan teen daughter in hit BBC series Lead Balloon.

Almost a decade on, she’s about to return to her comedic roots — as well as her sartorial ones — at Broadcasting House.

“I’m in development with the BBC on a comedy series about my time as a fashion designer,” tells Antonia, who’s set to write and star in the as-yet untitled project.

“Lead Balloon was my first sort of big role. It was, like, five seasons — that’s five years of your life. You do one comedy series and you get offered other comedy jobs.

“But then what I realised was I started acting because I really loved independent cinema growing up. The more you’re known for comedy, the less that door’s open to you, so I stopped doing comedy altogether.

“It’s not that I went out seeking dark films — but independent cinema can be quite edgy.”

Now though her big-screen career could be about to take off as an airborne badass in the hotly anticipated sci-fi blockbuster DxM, starring Sam Neill.

“I guess it’s sort of modelled on the X-Men type of model,” explains Antonia, who plays Agnes in the franchise due for release next year, “except it’s set in a university and they’re all quantum physics students or have a superpower depending on what science they’re studying.

“It’s funded by Red Bull [film production label] CineMater so it’s big budget — lots of action and green screen. That was the first time I’d done something of that scale.”

And it seems Red Bull does indeed give you wings, she continues: “My character sort of flies and so it was a lot of time doing the same half shot over and over and over attached to wires.

“There’s a lot of hope riding on it, but it’s not Marvel so we’ll see.”

After being dropped by US network Showtime before it even began however, Campbell-Hughes confesses that Ridley Scott’s controversial TV drama The Vatican — in which she was due to star alongside Anna Friel — hasn’t got a prayer.

“That was just flat out incredible,” she says of working with the Oscar-winning director on the ill-fated pilot in 2013, “mainly because we were shooting at the Vatican, which is just one of those special moments where you go ‘I can’t believe I’m actually here’.

“It was just one of those wonderful experiences and quite heartbreaking that it wasn’t picked up.”

As a self-confessed workaholic, meanwhile, Hughes admits there isn’t much time for romance between wraps.

“I’m mean, I’m pretty solo,” she says, having previously dated Babyshambles bassist Drew McConnell. “But I’m curious!”

When it comes to her first love, acting, the in-demand star insists that she won’t be seduced by the bright lights of Hollywood.

“I go back and forth to LA quite a bit,” says the London-based actress, “but I always keep it quite brief. I’ve been going back and forth to LA since I was 20 for various reasons [so] it’s not like ‘And now I’m getting on the boat to move forever’.

“I know so many American actors that are desperate to break into Europe because there [are] much more exciting films happening here. So I think it’s more like ‘when are the Americans going to make the leap into Europe?’”

City of Angels or the Big Smoke, what remains however, is that Ireland will always be home,

Antonia maintains: “I spend a lot of time in Ireland because my mother lives here most of the time now.

“It’s quite nice, in the past few years, to be able to kind of try and set down roots a little bit — until the next challenge comes along!”

The Canal, starring Rupert Evans and Antonia Campbell-Hughes, is in cinemas now

But then what I realised was I started acting because I really loved independent cinema growing up...... it’s not that I went out seeking dark films


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