Pollyanna McIntosh on being happy in her own skin

Scots actress Pollyanna McIntosh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Scots actress Pollyanna McIntosh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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With risque roles in Filth and indie drama Prevertere, it’s just as well Pollyanna McIntosh is comfortable in her skin. But it wasn’t always so for the former model now trying to write herself the perfect part, finds Ruth Walker

Pollyanna McIntosh is running late. She’s on a delayed train from Manchester, where she’s been filming, to London, where she’s been living, and texts to apologise. When she blows in the door ten minutes later, all windswept and dressed down in a waterproof jacket, she’s almost make-up free bar a statement flash of blood red on that splendid pout. (She assures me she’s also covered in bruises, a result of running, faux terrified, through the Manchester woods which are doubling as the Borders of Scotland for her next film, White Settlers).

The attire is not, perhaps, what you would expect from one of Scotland’s most stylish women. Nominated in the category for tonight’s Scottish Style Awards – alongside actress and Burberry model Sophie Kennedy Clark, racing driver Susie Wolff, presenter Arielle Free, and Noel Gallagher’s wife Sara MacDonald – she’s a little embarrassed by the honour. Delighted, but embarrassed.

Her sense of style comes, at least in part, from her former career as a model, but for a long time she shied away from even talking about fashion for fear of being typecast. “It has held me back, definitely,” she says. “I think ‘ex-model,’ especially in the UK, smacks of being shallow and stupid and having no soul.”

But there have been benefits too. “You’ve been used to the rejection; the constant castings; and you’re used to waiting for a job and being self-employed and the vulnerability of that. So in that sense it has been very good for me.”

The Scots-born actress hasn’t had to cope with too much rejection lately. There have been roles in John Landis’ Burke and Hare and Land of the Lost with Will Ferrell; a leading part in horror flick The Woman; plus appearances in Casualty and Waterloo Road. Fresh from Irvine Welsh’s Filth, in which she played the raunchy Size Queen, her latest job description calls for even more getting down and dirty for the camera. Prevertere premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London in September. “I love the tag line,” she laughs, “which is ‘a pervert’s quest for love’. It’s about a guy who wants it all: he’s got his girlfriend but they are on again, off again; there’s his f*** buddy, which is me; and this woman whom he’s sleeping with casually and she thinks it’s a lot more than that.

“It sounds like a character you wouldn’t really like – especially as a woman – but Brian McGuire has this brilliant skill with dialogue and as a director where you really get an understanding of his fears and where he’s coming from, and you’ll see his guilt and see him grow through the film, and I just really enjoyed making it.”

Nor is she a stranger to that kind of no-strings sex portrayed on screen. “Yeah, I’ve had that relationship before,” she says. “I think it can be great fun. Now I’m at an age [she’s 34] where it doesn’t interest me so much, but there are always times for casual sex,” she laughs.

As far as filming between-the-sheets action is concerned, she’s equally comfortable. “I like acting, and if I’m doing a scene I believe is integral to the film, it’s all part of the same thing to me. I like having a laugh, I like feeling really comfortable on set, so with a sex scene, it’s always really planned out for me beforehand.”

Nudity though, as opposed to sex – that’s another matter, and she has been known to argue it out with producers over the nipple count in a movie. “I feel that nudity can sometimes be quite distracting and take something away from a film because we’re not used to seeing it.”

She adds: “I’m a total Scottish heathen. I’d run around in the street naked if I could and if nobody else objected. I don’t care at all, I’m not shy or anything, but I do need to keep a business head on and I also always want the best for the film as a whole. I want the audience, women and men, to think, ‘There’s a story in there.’ They’re in the moment, they’re not just seeing an actress get her tits out, so their intelligence isn’t insulted.”

The nudity in Filth, however, was never an issue. It was the second of Welsh’s productions she’s appeared in – she played a stoner in Acid House in 1998 – and, she says, she’s been reading his books since the tender age of 12. There was no Nancy Drew for this girl.

“I was a bit of an early starter in many things,” she says, “and I always loved his writing. I moved down to London at 16 and Irvine Welsh’s writing was one of the things I held on to; one of the things that kept me Scottish. I remember getting stuck on a Tube for about two hours once and I had Ecstasy with me. I came home and all my English flatmates were saying, ‘Have you been to Scotland?’ because my accent completely changed back.”

She switches to Weegie ned: “Ya alright? Ya f***in’ bunch of bastards.”

That move to London was prompted by winning a modelling competition in 1995. “I got to travel, and made great friends who I still have now. But, like many girls, I was struggling with my weight for most of the time,” she says. “It was a real challenge to be that young, to be away from home, and to want to succeed. So I was anorexic for a while. It was, like most things in life, an experience that has taught me a hell of a lot and I’m now very happy with my body. I think this whole thing about ‘what do you hate about your body?’ – that typical question women get asked – it’s so unhealthy but I can honestly say, ‘Nothing.’”

It took about a year and a half before she realised something had to give. “I was either going to become very sick or I was going to have to get out of it. I was auditioning for drama school and didn’t have enough energy to get through that process because I was passing out all over the place. So I decided to chuck it in, came home for a time and then I started studying.”

Ironically, the need to earn money while at drama school took her back into the world of modelling for a while – but this time without the pressure to be skinny. “I was the measurements of Cindy Crawford and I was doing plus size,” she says, shaking her head, “because the industry had become so crazy.

“People like the photographer Nick Knight were very supportive of me at that time and I shot 16 pages for British Vogue as a size 14, which hadn’t been done up to that point. And I did the Pirelli calendar. So I feel quite proud of that stuff. But it was a weird position to be in, to be a model and told by women, ‘You’re doing us a service because you’re not skinny.’”

For the industry to change, she says, women need to get smart with their cash. “We are consumers, and we need to start making decisions with our money. I don’t want to buy those nasty-ass, gossipy magazines that talk about who’s too fat and who’s too thin. I don’t want to support the industry that makes us all paranoid. Because it’s all about money in the end.”

Born in Dumbartonshire, McIntosh’s family moved to Portugal when she was two and she spent three years there before moving back to Edinburgh at the age of five. They were soon on the move again, this time to Colombia. “People ask me why I was there and I often tell them my dad was a drug dealer,” she laughs. “Quite often they are convinced, which is fun for a while until I have to tell them the real story. My dad was an actor when he was younger” – David McIntosh starred as Lucifer in the Richard Burton film version of Doctor Faustus – “but he was a businessman throughout my life, and he worked for a thread company. He gave up acting so he could have some sort of stability and get married to his girl and have tons of children – I have three sisters. He recognised a lot of people could do it for bread and water but he couldn’t survive like that.”

The shock of moving back to Scotland from South America at the age of nine could hardly have been tougher. “I went to St George’s School for Girls and I got bullied something chronic,” she says, “They were quite vicious.” But, if nothing else, she came out of the experience speaking fluent Spanish. And she can now adapt to pretty much whatever surroundings she finds herself in. “I never miss where I’m not. I’m always quite happy to be shifting around a lot,” she says.

She moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and now divides her time between the US and London. But she makes it back to Scotland often – recently filming Bob Servant Independent opposite Brian Cox, CBBC’s MI High, and Waterloo Road – and almost gets teary when waxing lyrical about her homeland.

“My family and I used to go up to the Highlands, to Ardtornish, on holiday and I love it there,” she says. “I always feel like if I just say that line from Rabbie Burns: ‘My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, my heart’s in the Highlands chasing the deer,’ it makes me cry for the camera. I miss the lyricism and the musicality of the people, I miss the gallows humour. But I really miss those hills as well.”

Her accent, though, crosses borders, a bonus when it comes to work. “Having grown up in Scotland when having a Scottish accent perhaps wasn’t the best benefit, my mum wanted to ensure I had a neutral accent. So when I was at home, if I sounded too Scottish, I’d be in trouble. But if I was at school and sounded too English, I’d have got my head kicked in. So I had these two survival accents. Then when I moved to London at 16 the English naturally took over.”

Both her mother and father have been enormously supportive of her career – if a little shocked, perhaps, at some of the things she’s done on camera. “I have to make the choices I make for myself first and foremost,” she reasons. “I do try to do work I believe in and things I’m going to be proud of. And even though I do things I know are going to shock my mum, she’s a woman of the world. She did go to see Filth. But she didn’t like it.

“You’re a mum for life,” she adds. “My mum will still berate me about keeping warm enough in the winter and staying safe at night but she doesn’t tell me what to do with my career and I really appreciate that, because I know some of these things are hard for her to see.”

As for a plan B, she says: “I’ve had to do other jobs. I did PR for a while, I’ve taught children, I’ve nannied, I’ve worked in restaurants – in so many restaurants. I’ve designed and sold jewellery, I’ve done burlesque. I thought for a while I was going to be an educational psychologist. I also worked in jails in LA with teenage guys, teaching them how to put a play together and that’s really satisfying. But I’ve never thought, ‘If this doesn’t work out I’ve got this other career,’ because I can’t allow myself to think like that.”

Her next films include I Do, which was made in the US and focuses on the Defence of Marriage Act, then White Settlers, a thriller about a couple who move from the city to the Scottish Borders and discover life isn’t as idyllic as they had hoped.

“I really want to do more comedy, and I’m writing something that is about ten pages away from being finished, so I’m really excited about that,” she says. “I’ve got a producer attached, I’ve got directors interested, it’s looking like it’s going to move forward next year. It’s about a perfectionist comedienne who is incapable of living in the moment because she’s always thinking about where her career’s going to go next, and where she wants to be rather than where she is.

“Her sister, who already has a toddler, has a premature child, so she has to go and help out and in the time she spends with the toddler and in her sister’s chaotic life, she learns that she’s perfect the way she is.”

It’s a lesson McIntosh has had to learn herself, and she has written the lead role for herself. “I’m going to have to research it and go and do stand-up, which is horrifying. I’m sure I’ll die horribly.”

But she’s so entertaining and genuine, she’ll probably be perfect.

Prevertere had its European premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London in September; The Scottish Style Awards take place tonight in Glasgow.