Emily finds her calling in the acting business

NEVER mind that Sam Mendes, Robin Wright-Penn and Maggie Gyllenhaal are the names that jump out of the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme – this year's 12-day event is every bit as much about new blood as it is the great and the glamorous of Tinseltown.

In that respect, talented newcomer Emily Beecham fits the bill perfectly.

One of this year's festival's 'Trailblazers' – a select group of 'new discoveries' selected by festival artistic director Hannah McGill – the London-based actress is tipped to make an indelible mark on the 63rd EIFF, thanks to her leading role in director Jan Dunn's The Calling. In it, Beecham plays Joanna, a recent graduate who, instead of entering the world of work, decides to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a nun, much to her family's dismay.

Once at the convent, she's taken under the wing of the politically liberal Sister Ignatius, played by the Academy Award-nominated actress Brenda Blethyn.

Big name stars Susannah York, Rita Tushingham and Pauline McLynn also appear.

"My character, Jo, is central to the piece as she embarks upon her religious vocation," explains Beecham, who studied at The London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. "She's wanted to be a nun since she was young, and so she joins a Benedictine Convent, where she faces challenges.

"Everyone doubts she'll stick it out except for Sister Ignatius. She receives pressure from her family, her best friend and her boyfriend, as none of them want her to leave.

"But she's very determined and knows that she wants to do it for all the right reasons – unlike some of the others. We discover all is not what it seems," she adds, intriguingly.

For Beecham the acting bug bit early. "It was always a natural thing for me really," smiles the strawberry blonde actress. "I was always putting on plays for my family. Usually silly ones. I used my imagination a lot and it was something that came naturally to me.

"My mum took me to the theatre a lot and I'd obsess over them for weeks after.

"She took me to see The Blue Room at The Royal Exchange when I was 13, and that was a profound moment for me – I remember really wanting to be an actor. It really spoke to me like nothing else had before."

While a student at London's LAMDA, Beecham made her entrance into the mainstream spotlight when she appeared as the teenage daughter in the ITV thriller Bon Voyage.

"It was a real challenge," she says of her first starring role. "But it was just the type of role that I thrive on.

"I always like to push myself to the limits of my acting capabilities and the role really gave me the opportunity to do that. We were filming for three months in Montreal which was such a beautiful place. It was amazing. Really hard work, though, with 18-hour shooting days almost every day."

In Bon Voyage, she played a 16-year-old English girl who gets kidnapped while on holiday with her family in Canada. "There was lots of crying, sore throats and bruises," she recalls, laughing. "It was exhausting but fun."

Only 22 at the time, Beecham admits being in a foreign country on her first film shoot was daunting.

"I felt a little alienated at first arriving a week before shooting," she says. "First job, on my own in an apartment in a French-speaking place, knowing only 'je ne comprend pas'.

"I felt very lucky, though. I was always warned about how hard it was to get work, so I didn't at all expect to get a job before I'd even left LAMDA. I was very realistic about it."

Since then, she has gone on to amass a series of television credits, among them Tess of the D'urbervilles, the BBC's adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel.

"I loved working with the three other milkmaids – Jodie Whittaker, Rebeka Staton and Gemma Arterton," Beecham says of her role in the period drama.

"They were absolutely brilliant fun. We laughed a lot. And, of course, Tess Of The D'urbervilles is such a beautiful and tragic story – so it was incredible to be a part of it."

Beecham went on to land a leading part in the BAFTA Award-winning series The Street – which gave her the opportunity to work with one of her favourite scriptwriters, Jimmy McGovern (Brookside, Cracker).

"I think Jimmy is an absolute genius," she enthuses. "His writing is so real and it's compelling. The characters are real and honest, and that's why it has such an impact. I feel The Street is a really accurate comment on the relationships between people."

In The Street she played the fiance of a young soldier who returns from Iraq with severe burns to his face, having been caught in a bomb blast. His family are devastated and they all deal with it in different ways.

"The story focuses on him, how the disfigurement profoundly affects the way he perceives himself, how he approaches his interactions with those around him who love him, how he feels he is judged by it," explains Beecham.

"He becomes destructive, drinks and becomes very aggressive in the relationship. However, Gemma, my character, is very under-standing and she teaches him to recognise real beauty and to enjoy his life again."

By far the biggest role she has had to date is the zombie movie 28 Weeks Later, appearing on screen alongside Scottish movie icon Robert Carlyle.

"The filming process was pretty gory," she laughs. "I wasn't allowed to wash my hair for a couple of weeks. It was gross. It was stiff with fake blood and dirt. They had to French plait it at the end of each day so I could sleep on it.

"Robert Carlyle was a really nice guy, though," she adds. "He's got a real hard man image from Trainspotting and I thought I might be intimidated by him, but he was actually very nice."

• The Calling, Cineworld, Fountain Park, Dundee Street, 21 June, 8.15pm; 22 June, 7.30pm, 8.50 (7.50), 0131-228 8788