At 33, Neve Campbell is a well established film actress. Her big movie break, the 1996 hit Scream, redefined the teen slasher genre with its mixture of gore, scares and self-referential humour. Since then she has starred in movies including thriller Wild Things, clubbing drama 54 and comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years. Matthew Amer chats to one of Hollywood's least assuming actresses as she prepares for the opening of her new play Love Song.
Earlier this year, Neve Campbell chose to make her stage debut at the Old Vic in the Robert Altman-directed Resurrection Blues. Baptism of fire is a phrase that could have been coined to describe that choice of project. Critically panned and surrounded by rumours of unease within the cast, it topped off a torrid year for the Old Vic's under-fire director Kevin Spacey.
Not put off by that experience, and eager to get back on the theatrical horse, Campbell has returned to the West End just seven months later, taking a leading role in the European premiere of romantic comedy Love Song, which opens at the New Ambassadors on 4 December. "I didn't really get the experience I'd been hoping for out of Resurrection Blues," she admits, "so I really wanted to jump back in and find that again."
She talks enthusiastically about the new production, which features an A-list cast: 'next big thing' Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who recently played the psychotic Scarecrow in Batman Begins; Golden Globe winner Kristen Johnston, who made her name in American aliens-on-earth comedy Third Rock From The Sun; and Michael McKean, who has a ridiculously long list of credits including the seminal comedy rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
"It's very funny, it's very witty, it's very smart," Campbell says of the play before adding of the characters, "you become moved by them: they're quirky, they're different and they're all flawed in their own ways. But they're rich… they're very rich characters."
"It took my childhood and my adolescence"
Campbell plays Molly, the love interest of the eccentric Beane (Murphy). Johnston and McKean play Beane's sister and brother-in-law, who find it difficult talking to him at the best of times, let alone trying to understand why he is so happy to find his apartment has been burgled. Campbell won't give too much away about Molly, describing her only as a strong, revolutionary burglar.
The rehearsal room has been full of frivolity for the past few weeks, as befits a comedy. Away from the laughter – and if the conversation I have with Campbell is anything to go by, there is certainly a lot of it – director John Crowley's creative process is one that is both new and pleasing to the actress: "I don't know that I've ever discussed text with anyone in the 19 years that I've been doing this," she laughs. "I'm serious. It's been a pleasure, to be honest, to properly discuss text, discuss words and the point of words."
Campbell talks with such enthusiasm about the project that, following the low of Resurrection Blues, you find yourself rooting for this to be a much better experience; for theatre to be something that she can really enjoy. She is diplomatic when discussing her previous foray. She spots the barely disguised 'cast unease' question coming and calmly parries it like a nonchalant fencer: "I had a good time and I got along with everyone," she says, though at this point she allows herself a knowing laugh. "That's all I'm going to say."
Resurrection Blues may have been Campbell's London stage debut, but it was not the first time she had performed in the theatre. At 15, she joined the cast of a Canadian production of The Phantom Of The Opera. Though 15 is extremely young to be in such a position, she had already been training for it for the best part of a decade.
Campbell started ballet dancing at six years old. By the time she was nine, she was training at the National Ballet School of Canada. Five hours of dancing each day, plus academic lessons, instilled discipline in the young Campbell, whose first ambition was to make dancing her profession. At 14 the pressure, the back-stabbing and the competitive nature of the school became too much to take, and she quit; possibly one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. "It took my childhood and my adolescence," she says of dance. "I gave a lot of myself for that art form, so for a while it was difficult."
She did not leave without gaining a great deal. If nothing else she has an impressive list of dance-induced injuries that includes arthritis, snapping hip syndrome, tendonitis and shin splints. Her education has also instilled a discipline in Campbell that comes through in her adult choices. She is not afraid of working hard, a trait no more obvious than with her 2003 film The Company, which she produced, helped to create and starred in.
The film is based around a group of dancers, with Campbell's character poised to make the step up from company member to principal. Though it took years to bring together, Campbell never found the project taxing. "When you love something as much as I did," she says, "it doesn't feel like a lot of work." The process was also a cathartic one, helping her to find closure on the dance dream that was left behind.
Following her time in Phantom, Campbell spent a couple of years modelling before giving acting a go. With a few small Canadian roles behind her she auditioned for a new teen drama, Party Of Five. She didn't have particularly high hopes when she was offered the part of angst-ridden teenager Julia Salinger, thinking: "I'll do the pilot and get my green card, and then it'll be cancelled and that'll be perfect." It wasn’t cancelled. In fact the drama of five siblings looking after each other won a Golden Globe in its very first year.
Instead of relaxing and wallowing in the glory of a highly successful television drama, Campbell used a break in filming to make Scream. Again, she didn't expect much to come of it. "None of us were big names; Courteney Cox was in the first year of Friends, it was my first year of Party Of Five, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Matt Lillard… nobody was big yet. So we were all having fun, it was like summer camp and hanging out. We did say to each other 'imagine if this actually does well, what if there's a Halloween costume?'" Like Party Of Five, it did do well. It won a handful of awards including the Best Movie at the MTV Movie Awards, led to two sequels and spawned one of the most popular Halloween masks around. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you will surely recognise the ghoulish white mask, a pastiche of Munch's The Scream. A couple of trick-or-treaters turned up at Campbell's North London home this year wearing the masks, but were too young to recognise the film's serial killer-dodging heroine when she opened the door.
"You can either choose to be in the public eye or choose not to; I just choose not to"
She lives over here now with fiancée and fellow actor John Light. With a Scottish father and Dutch mother her European roots reach deep, and she is more comfortable in London than she was in LA, a town she hated. "I'm not saying 13 years were miserable," she explains, "but as a city for living, it's not the kind of place that I want to live in. I'm from Toronto, and Toronto is more like London in that it's very multicultural, there's a lot going on, and it's a walking city, a proper city. Los Angeles isn't."
You don't have to speak to Campbell to guess that she is not a fan of the fame game. Just look in the papers; she is conspicuous by her absence. For an A-list American film star living in paparazzi central, she is almost unbelievably low key. "You can either choose to be in the eye or choose not to," she states in matter of fact fashion. "I just choose not to. I think it's fairly simple; if you're going to The Ivy every night, there is going to be paparazzi around. If you go to certain clubs in London, there's certainly going to be paparazzi. There are people who chase that and there are people who don't. If I don't want to be bothered I just don't go to those places."
This grounded attitude also applies to her choice of projects. Following the success of Scream, she was offered a selection of horror movies but turned them all down in an effort to avert typecasting. It is rumoured that she also turned down the lucrative role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider; a wise artistic choice. She is in a position where she can pick and choose the roles she wants to take, and pick and choose she does: "When I read a script I just have to ask myself whether I could actually say the lines, whether they're worth saying, whether they're good enough, whether there's anything in it." If the answer to these questions is no, or if the project takes her away from home for longer than she fancies, then she passes.
Though the LA lifestyle is not for her, she doesn't seem to enjoy being in the limelight and she chooses her projects with a mature integrity, she does let slip one Hollywood secret that hints at wilder days: "If you've been partying or something, and your face is swollen," she laughs, again, "stick your head in a bucket of ice for a few seconds. It does work if you're ever in that position… not that I ever have been."