Interview: Minnie Driver, actress

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MINNIE Driver's eyes – a lush mixture of brown and green, by the way – have lit right up. Her breakfast has just arrived. "Look at that!" she exclaims, casting an approving glance over the tray, which consists of a fruit platter, a boiled egg and a pot of tea with a side helping of cookies.

"It's going to be time for lunch by the time I've finished breakfast. Fantastic. That's exactly how I like my day to run. I'm not going to fit in the dress tonight." The obedient PR sets the food down on the table before departing swiftly. "Thanks so much, lovely," Driver calls after her.

It's this sort of enthusiasm that immediately warms you to Driver. Not one to stand on ceremony, she starts tucking into her meal as if her life depended on it.

"Oh my God, you've got to," she reasons, in between mouthfuls of runny egg, "when you're travelling and you're working … also, I've got a very, very fast metabolism anyway. So I've always pretty much been able to eat anything. I know if I don't eat, I can't concentrate. I'd just be sitting here looking at you like you were a boiled egg, rather than eating one."

Were these words coming from a Hollywood stick insect, munching on half a lettuce leaf, it might be annoying. But with an appetite in such rude health as hers, it's quite refreshing that Driver isn't driven by her weight.

Her figure is slender but toned – as much to do with her love of surfing and horse-riding as it is the first-rate genes she must have inherited from her mother, Gaynor Churchward, a designer who was a couture model in her day.

With her long and flowing brown hair, pronounced cheekbones and arms sprinkled with freckles, there's something very fresh-faced about Driver, who turns 41 at the end of the month.

Admittedly, as she sits opposite me on a sofa in a plush suite at London's swanky Soho Hotel, it helps that she's come dressed for the occasion.

Never mind the fact it's just after 11am, she's wearing a beautiful black Diane von Furstenberg dress that shimmers in the room's artificial light and a sexy pair of heels boasting a complex mesh of buckles and straps that would fool even the most hardened fashionista.

This is, of course, all for show, she says. "My mum's a designer and I've always loved clothes. But not to a point of …" She trials off, choosing her words carefully.

"I'm a total scruffball most of the time."

Maybe it's all a double bluff, but the woman in front of me bears little relation to the one demonised in her press cuttings. She's been called "the pushiest woman in Hollywood", "venomous" and "attention seeking to the max".

But then, most of these attacks came in the wake of some rather unfortunate and unflattering comments of her own, made back in 2002, when she was reported as saying that in England "we have some of the plainest actresses in the entire world".

Worse still, she singled out Dame Judi Dench as a woman who "would melt into the crowd in a second" if she were in America.

If disrespecting a national treasure was a little unwise, it coincided with a downturn in fortunes in her career. Five years earlier, in 1997, she'd starred in Grosse Pointe Blank (and dated co-star John Cusack) and followed it with an Oscar-nominated turn in Good Will Hunting (and dated its co-star Matt Damon).

Moreover, this heady time came after a spell in Goldeneye and a starring role alongside Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro in Sleepers. Yet by the time this century rolled around, Driver was fast slipping from the A-list.

Jobs became scarce – and those she got (like the dire Mel Smith comedy High Heels and Low Lifes) did her few favours.

In the wake of all this, she relocated to California, leaving Britain behind.

"It's a difficult place to leave – you're not thanked for moving elsewhere," she says.

"In fact, you're somewhat vilified. But I love it unconditionally. I love it. It's my home. It's where I'm from. So I don't really mind all of the rubbish that people say."

And with most of her family living in London, she's back for visits quite regularly.

"I was just here three weeks ago. I'm here all the time," she adds, pausing between each word for emphasis.

"I've always got a sibling getting married. There's always a christening. There's always a birthday. My whole family is here and we're a very close-knit family."

Yet Driver now has family of her own, after giving birth to her son Henry back in September 2008. She revealed she was pregnant six months earlier while she was on Jay Leno's chat show, but to date she has never released the identity of Henry's father.

"Our relationship was very complicated and private, and I honestly didn't want to have to talk about it," she said at the time. The most she's ever said was that he's British – which immediately struck from the list her legion of old Hollywood flames, including actor Josh Brolin, who she was engaged to back in 2001, and even Harrison Ford, who she enjoyed a brief fling with.

Having separated from Henry's father last year, she now refers to herself as "a single mum" and calls her relationship with her ex – who is based in Los Angeles – "all very amicable". As you might expect, much of her focus is on being a mother now.

"That's front and centre," she smiles. "Even when I'm working he's there all the time anyway. He's not in school yet. I have a nanny half-days when I'm at home. So if I'm not working, she comes at 12, so we have our mornings to do our stuff and then I can do whatever I need to do in the afternoon."

And what about her frequent periods away from home? "My lovely nanny goes wherever we go." Last year, she was in Scotland to film BBC1 eco-thriller The Deep (enduring temperatures of minus 11 in an old whisky distillery in Dumbarton) before heading to Wales to shoot forthcoming film Hunky Dory, in which she plays a failed actress-turned-teacher who stages a rock version of The Tempest.

"Not that Henry minds at all," she chirps. "He's an easy, easy boy. Just put his head down … as he has done on many an occasion, slept in bathrooms, cupboards, walk-in closets in hotels, on the floor … he's just a good boy, y'know?"

Still, with just Driver's income supporting them both, returning to the UK on a permanent basis is out of the question. "I couldn't afford to live in Britain right now," she shrieks.

"Are you joking? Honestly, the quality of life I have in Los Angeles … I couldn't have a big house and a garden here, like I would like to, and be near my family in London."

Yet when you live in Malibu, with a view of the ocean, there probably isn't much reason to return to this rain-sodden isle. "Even if you're feeling a bit off, there's always bright blue sky and sunshine, and you're looking at the sea. You can't really feel crap for long."

If there is further reason for some private rejoicing, it's that Driver's film career is finally back on track.

This month sees two new releases, Conviction and Barney's Version. The former, a true-life blend of feelgood and tragedy that plays like a companion piece to Erin Brockovich, was the first film Driver made after giving birth.

"It was perfect," she says. "I'm not the kind of woman who has a baby and gets thin in five minutes flat and you'd never know they'd had a kid. And they didn't mind that I was a ravaged new mum. It was all about the work. It was just a really good moment for me. A moment when you don't necessarily expect to be on film."

While there's something unashamedly straightforward and conventional about Conviction, Barney's Version is a different matter.

Adapted from the novel by Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, it features a titanic turn from Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, an irascible television producer who spends the film reflecting on his three failed marriages. Driver plays the middle of the trio – known only as "The 2nd Mrs P".

An infuriating Jewish princess, she's loud, brash and hilariously funny – certainly the broadest creation Driver has attempted in a career that (with the exception of her recurring role on Will & Grace) has rarely gone near comedy.

So how did she get into her character's mindset? "I'd done all this work on the accent beforehand," she replies.

"I rang the Jewish Community Centre in Montreal and just had these long conversations with people there. I was just listening.

"But it wasn't until I got to Montreal and I met this real estate agent, who was a friend of the producer's and she just was this character … it's also not a million miles from the American Jewish princesses that I know. That spoilt largesse."

She reflects for a second. "I love that character, so profoundly, because she was so difficult to like in a way."

I tell her that of the two films, her role in Barney's Version is the one that will get her attention.

"That's incredibly nice to hear," she says. "I was rather devastated recently in that a lot of what I did in that film has been cut out."

The dropped scenes, she says, show the humanity of her character, as she confronts Barney over his outrageous behaviour – ditching her for his third wife (played by Rosamund Pike) who he becomes infatuated with after he meets her at the reception for his wedding to The 2nd Mrs P.

With the film a retelling of Barney's life from his perspective, it's not hard to see why the scenes were dropped – though it's easy to understand her frustration.

What's more, Driver only found out from the producers the day before the film's screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

"I think it wasn't handled brilliantly – how they presented it," she sniffs, sounding very put out. "I won't see it with the cuts, because it'll make me too sad." She acknowledges that it was done in service of the story, but naturally she seems hurt.

"I can't look it at it purely from the point of view of ego. If they left in all your scenes, and the film doesn't work, then there's no point." In truth, what's left is a brilliant comic turn by Driver – a monstrous creation – even if the "humanity" of her has been left to wither on the cutting room floor.

If she has never been unceremoniously ditched like her character, Driver has experienced her fair share of family trauma. Not least when her own father Ronnie, who died of a heart attack in late 2009 aged 87, was at the centre of a $56 million fraud investigation after his company London United Investments crashed in 1990.

Her own childhood was equally unconventional. Her mother was her father's mistress, while his wife knew nothing of her husband's 'second' family, who would meet up in Barbados during the school holidays. A bizarre set-up, for Driver and her sister Kate it was just the norm.

When Driver was five, her mother remarried a man the young girl took an instant dislike to. As a result, she was sent away to a private school in Hampshire, where she began to develop a love of acting (or being the centre of attention).

"I really had a definite idea about performing. We did a lot of plays at school – we wrote plays, poetry, stories and stood up and read them out, from a very early age."

Much later, she enrolled in the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and by the time she graduated, she found television work almost immediately before gaining 20lb and critical acclaim for her 1995 big-screen debut in Circle Of Friends.

Ever since – even if her career has occasionally stalled – Driver has never stopped. Waiting for the phone to ring is not her style. "I don't do a whole lot of that," she says.

"There's always something going on. Not necessarily making a film. But I do so many other things. I'm either writing or making a record or taking Henry to music classes and swimming lessons. There's always something on the go."

Driver has already released two solo albums. Inevitably, the first – Everything I've Got In My Pocket – was immediately greeted with derision in the British music press, seen as a way to kickstart her faltering movie career.

"Should gardeners be allowed to perform surgery because they're struggling in their jobs?" asked Q magazine.

Yet ever since we've known Driver, she's been singing. In Goldeneye, her character is on stage warbling Stand By Your Man, deliberately off-key and in a Russian accent. More recently, she appeared in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera.

While she had no experience in opera, and was dubbed by singing teacher Margaret Preece, she did contribute to the film's end title song, Learn To Be Lonely. Her own cuts – described by one critic as "alt-country Dido" – are a bit more laid-back and cosy, but compared to other actors who grab the mike (Russell Crowe and Juliette Lewis spring to mind), she's a mite more polished.

She's now looking to record a third album, comprising of covers, with the same backing band she's been with since the outset. "They all play with amazing people. They're all playing with Pete Yorn at the moment, on his record. And my pedal steel player plays with Ray LaMontagne and Chrissie Hynde, so we've been waiting for everyone to get back and be in the same town, so we can go and record."

It will take three weeks of rehearsals, then ten days to record, she says, then she wants to tour summer folk festivals. "I was doing all of that stuff before the whole folk movement took off in England. Before Mumford and Laura Marling, we were peddling our version."

It makes her sound like something of a trailblazer, which she isn't. Yet neither is Driver quite the diva she's been portrayed as. She admits she's calmed down a lot, attributing this to those around her.

"I do have a really strong family, who – whenever it was getting weird – said, 'It's getting out of hand. You need to step back'. Like when there was an overkill of press, or when you're working back-to-back. They'd say, 'You need to go on holiday and shut up for a while.' That is the measure of success – how present you can be for it. Your presence is to do with where you are with your life." And right now, she couldn't be more fulfilled.

Conviction is out now; Barney's Version opens on 28 January

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 23 January, 2011

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