Interview: Agyness Deyn, from catwalk model to acclaimed actress

SHE grew up loving films, now Agyness Deyn is starring in them. She talks about Sunset Song, supermodels and living her crazy dream

Agyness Deyn.
 Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Agyness Deyn. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

IT’S a very different Agyness Deyn that sits in the Waldorf Astoria The Caledonian in Edinburgh. Once instantly recognisable by her peroxide crop and gangling Bambi legs that stretched all the way from her Dr Martens to her armpits, she was every inch the Britpop supermodel all over the catwalk and in 2007, aged 24, she graced the cover of Vogue as one of “The World’s Next Top Models”.

Then, in 2010, she switched to acting. These days her hair is its natural brown, worn long to her shoulders, and she’s dressed in subtle shades of navy and wears minimal make-up. It’s left to the knuckleduster of diamonds on one hand to wink and blink at her A-list status. And the massive smile that lights up her face after last night’s premier of Sunset Song, Terence Davies’ long-awaited film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, one of Scotland’s favourite books.

What does she think of the film?

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    Kevin Guthrie and Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song. Picture: Kobal Collection

    “I think it’s beautiful. Terence has put his heart into it and it’s so great to bring it to Scotland. We’ve been in Toronto and London, which went really well, but this is the pivotal place because it’s something so close to everyone’s hearts, and it is to ours as well,” she says.

    “The first time I saw it, it was really intense. Kevin [Guthrie, who plays Ewan Tavendale, the young farm worker Chris falls in love with] and I saw it in Toronto and I remember when it started we held hands across my boyfriend who was in between us, because it was such an emotional journey and such a long project. We’d all gelled, and are still great buds,” she says.

    Since Deyn made the career change she’s played Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty, love and sex in the 2010 Clash Of The Titans, followed by her first West End stage role in François Archambault’s comedy, The Leisure Society. She’s been a stripper in Pusher, a remake of a Danish cult classic and the lead in Electricity, a film about an epileptic girl on a mission that garnered praise for her strong performance. Now not only has she’s taken on the central role of Chris Guthrie in Grassic Gibbon’s classic, released this week, there’s also the forthcoming fantasy-horror thriller Patient Zero and an outing in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! At one point she was simultaneously the face of Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Gold by Giles Deacon at New Look – what was it that made her switch from her hugely successful modelling career?

    “I was just yearning for something and didn’t know what it was, so I was just trying different things and then I did some short films and I was like, ‘this is it! This is what I have to do!’ Then I just starting doing it, having small parts in big films and it kept going.”

    Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song. Picture: Kobal Collection

    Now she’s the lead in Davies’ lovingly shot film about the coming of age of an Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter on the eve of the First World War. It was a role she wanted as soon as she read the script.

    “Originally I had just asked to read it out of selfish personal reasons ’cos I was such a Terence Davies fan. I just wanted to read what he was going to make. And then I was so moved by the story I asked if there was any chance I could read for Chris. When something’s affected you so much, there’s something that propels you to wanna tell the story. I was like, ‘I have to play this woman!’”

    Deyn was added to the audition list and when Davies heard her read, immediately decided he had found his lead, despite having no idea who she was.

    “I don’t know what he saw but I’m so grateful because it was such a wonderful experience working with him. He instils so much confidence in you and is gentle and generous with his actors. He has such a strong vision and his excitement is infectious. I just learnt so much as an actor and as a woman.”

    Agyness Deyn with Henry Holland in her modelling days in 2009. Picture: Getty Images

    Since she turned to acting, Deyn has been learning on the job and particularly enjoyed picking the brains of Peter Mullan, who plays her tyrannical father. “We lived next door to each other when we were filming interiors in Luxembourg so driving to the set we would chat, and I asked him about the way he works. I asked him about method acting and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t do that. I find it more fun not to, to just drop into it’ and you could see that. We would all be laughing and joking and then Terence would say ‘action’, and Peter just dropped into this scary person. It’s shocking and gets a real reaction. You almost don’t have to act. He gives you so much. So, being rude to everyone just because you’re in character, Peter was like, ‘that’s bullshit’.”

    And what did she think she learnt as a woman, through playing Chris?

    “Being confident, the stillness in your own skin, not having to be anything but who you are in the moment. Not worrying about what I do and what I look like or whether I’m this, or whether I’m that. She inspired so much in me. The way that she endures so much, but is never hard. She fully, wholeheartedly experiences things but never holds on to any resentment, and forgives. It showed me that that’s a possible way of existing, to have such class and integrity.”

    Sunset Song has been a labour of love for Davies, taking 15 years from planning to completion, and for Deyn too, it’s been a sizeable chunk out of her life, at three years from casting to release. Taking on the role required a lot of preparation as she’s on screen for most of the film, and delivers much of the dialogue in a credible Scottish accent. She also impresses with a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck raising rendition of the lament, Flowers Of The Forest. How did Deyn find reading the Doric in the book?

    “I read Terence’s screenplay before I read the book, because I didn’t know about Sunset Song, and I was so moved by the story and then ran out and got the book. I read it on a loop from when I got offered the part to the end of the shoot. It gets better and better because there’s so much in it. Grassic Gibbon was ahead of his time in a lot of ways. The first chapter was a struggle but I found an online dictionary for students and used that and once you get into it, it’s fine,” she says in an accent still robustly Lancashire, despite spending much of her time in the States (she pronounces love as luv, me is meh).

    For the film, the actors aimed for a Scots accent comprehensible to an international audience and Deyn signed up immediately with a voice coach.

    “I wanted to do Terence proud and for everyone else that loves the story to be content. I put in as many hours as I could, so I could look back and say I couldn’t have done more.”

    She also credits childhood holidays in Loch Lomond every summer with helping. “We always camped and I just remember how wonderful it was. My dad used to give me a pound if I jumped in and swam round the buoy. My brother was terrified of the Loch Ness Monster, and my dad was like, ‘it’s the wrong loch!’ I love being outside. That’s what I loved about doing Sunset; I just find it so freeing.”

    Chris Guthrie is a world away from her other, contemporary roles and settings, but the variety she’s enjoyed has not been a conscious decision.

    “I’ve just been lucky enough to have been offered things that are so different. And they all serve a different purpose. Patient Zero was a studio film and much bigger than the independents, which are more intimate. I do love period though, and the Coen brothers’ film, Hail, Caesar!, is set in the 1950s. I have a really small, magical, little gem of a part and all my stuff is with Jack Huston. We play actors, and I just loved the whole thing; the costumes, the mannerisms, it was so fun. I loved that with modelling too, doing shoots where I was playing a role.

    “I was playing a role as a model too, to be honest,” she says and laughs.

    BORN Laura Hollins in Littleborough, near Rochdale, Lancashire, in 1983, to Lorraine, a specialist hospital nurse, and Ken, Deyn has an older brother Gregory, a British Airways pilot, and a younger sister, Emily, with whom she runs a fashion line, Title A, in Los Angeles. Her time is divided between LA and New York where her boyfriend is a pianist turned hedge fund manager.

    Famously, Deyn worked in a chippy every night after school, and in an Italian restaurant at weekends.

    “When you’re growing up you want things and my mum said, ‘sorry, we can’t afford it. If you want something you have to get a job’. So all three of us had jobs. It was great, getting paid in cash in little envelopes.”

    It’s unlikely her income is supplied in little envelopes these days, but she says she’s still as canny with the cash. The several thousand dollar ring, it turns out when I ask about it, was a gift.

    “Yeah, it’s Hoorsenbuhs. They’re like two proper blokes who make jewellery based in LA. I met them when I was really young on a shoot and they were just starting and I got really good friends with them. One day it was literally like, here, have one! That was the first time I’d ever owned a diamond and I was like Oh My God.” Her mouth drops open at the memory.

    “I’m not very extravagant to be honest, never have been. I don’t overly buy clothes or anything. I spend my money on travel with my boyfriend Joel. Japan, Mexico, places like that. And I like going out for nice meals with my family and treating them.”

    Family is important to Deyn and it was with her siblings and mum that she loved watching TV and films as a child. Little House On The Prairie on Sundays was an early favourite.

    “That and bacon butties. When I was really young, it was Disney films, then I started discovering films like Terence’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, and Paris Texas, Badlands, Hitchcock and Letter From An Unknown Woman.”

    Yet acting as a career never occurred to Deyn. It was only later, once she’d moved to London and become a model, that it appeared to be a possibility.

    “I never set out to be a model either. I fell into it and as strange and weird and wonderful as it was, it opened up possibilities. I didn’t go into acting thinking, ‘Oh, I could do that’. I thought I would hope that I could do that and I really want to learn how to do that and I’m learning as I go.”

    After school Deyn moved to London to join her childhood best friend Henry Holland, after the designer moved south.

    “Henry went and I was like, ‘Oh God’. Then, ‘I’m coming’ and went to London. He’s just my best friend and I missed him. With all of my heart,” she says with a sincerity and openness that seems to characterise Deyn.

    “I knew in some ways I would always go away from home. Maybe that’s why I related to Chris, because she was always thinking about possibilities. I’ve always been a big dreamer and I always dreamed really big, to the point where someone might have said ‘that’s a bit silly, a bit crazy to dream that’.

    Once in London, Deyn was soon discovered in the street by a scout who signed her up with Select modelling agency.

    With too many Lauras on their books they suggested a name change and she chose her grandmother’s after the full-of-fun gran who used to dress shop windows during the war.

    “She loved being in the window because the soldiers would bang on it and ask her out. She was very creative, and liberal and I was very close to her,” says Deyn.

    Along the way she married actor Giovanni Ribisi, known for Saving Private Ryan, Avatar and Friends (he played Phoebe’s brother, Frank) but their two-and-a-half year marriage ended a year ago. “I’m very private but we’re really great friends still,” she laughs, uncomfortable. “It was the kind of best of… I mean, it’s obviously… any splitting up, parting is… because you’re friends so you kind of miss them as a friend. But my boyfriend’s wonderful,” she beams.

    Deyn seems to take everything that happens to her in her stride. Publicity for the film has included a spot on the Jonathan Ross Show with its vast Saturday night audience. Was she nervous at all?

    “No, well, I just think, I’m just there for a chat. I don’t know whether it’s maybe because of my background, but I just feel grateful. When things happen I still get excited. When I stay in a posh hotel I still get excited. Because I grew up in a very working class background and so everything’s kind of like, woah…”

    As to the future, Deyn was supposed to be working with David Fincher [House Of Cards] on Utopia, a conspiracy thriller, but the project has stalled for budgetary reasons. “I’d love to do that, so maybe he’ll come back. I’d also love to work with Wong Kai Wai, I remember watching In The Mood For Love for the first time and thinking it was amazing. The style, the way he shoots.”

    She also starts filming another movie in January but is guarded about saying too much, then tells me anyway, such is her enthusiasm, then asks me not to say anything. OK.

    We settle on, “it’s British and it’s an independent and it’s a different genre”.

    “Then I want to do more movies and advance and learn. And have a family…” she says.

    Clearly, the traumatic childbirth scenes in Sunset Song haven’t put her off. “I can’t wait to have a family,” she says. “Just to experience it. Even giving birth, just everything about it. To be able to have someone be more important to you than anything,” she says.

    In the meantime, her sister Emily is due to have a baby on Christmas Day.

    “Christmas Day! Of all the days, what are the odds? I can’t wait to practise. And then give it back.”

    Clearly, Deyn loves acting and moving forward, but would she ever go back to modelling?

    “I’d never say never and I have met so many people I respect in the fashion world. But it’s just my focus has been on this and I want to carry on acting, wherever that leads.

    “I’m open to whatever happens. I feel so blessed. It’s definitely been adventurous and wonderful and challenging. I feel I’ve experienced so much in this lifetime.”

    And she’s still only 32.

    Twitter: @JanetChristie2

    • Sunset Song (15) is on general release from Friday