Interview: Melissa George, actress

Australian actress Melissa George first appeared on our screens in the mid-nineties playing Angel, the feisty street kid in Home and Away, who was taken in by her on-screen foster parents.

And life imitated art last summer, when the Golden Globe-nominated actress was "adopted" by a Scottish family, while filming her new movie in the Highlands.

A Lonely Place to Die stars George as one of a group of climbers who rescue a young girl they find imprisoned in the Highlands, and the gruelling two-month shoot gave the 34-year-old actress ample time to fall in love with Scotland.

She now considers herself an honorary Scot, thanks in part to the film, and also to her ancestry.

"My background is Scottish," she says. "My grandmother, my dad's mum, grew up outside Glasgow, so your humour is my humour - we just happen to have different accents."

The actress, who has appeared in Grey's Anatomy, In Treatment, Alias and Friends, is clearly smitten with the many stunning locations that included Ben Nevis, Glencoe, Dingwall, Inverness and Dornoch.

"It was a tough shoot because it's an action movie, and also, I never have easy shoots," she laughs.

"We filmed in some fairly remote places, so once we were up there, that's where we stayed.

"Quite rightly, the director didn't want to shoot anywhere else because the film is set in Scotland - the scenery here is spectacular, and impossible to replicate. The weather was beautiful most of the time, and the bluebells were out on the mountains."

She was accompanied on her travels by her Chilean director husband of ten years, Claudio Dabed, and gets almost giddy as she describes how they were made to feel at home by her "adoptive Scottish parents", Stuart and Susannah Macpherson, who own The Coul House Hotel near Contin, in Ross-shire.

"The family was gorgeous and their hospitality was over and above what we expected," she explains.

"I honestly couldn't believe it. To be able to come home at the end of the day and for them to have dinner ready for us, no matter what time it was, made all the difference.

"Or if I was hungry on set they would send dinner to my trailer, and that was just amazing. They once sent me some chicken on a plate.Claudio was writing a script at the time - so they'd bring him beer and food to where he was working at the back of the hotel overlooking their amazing grounds.

Or sometimes the chef would say, 'What do you feel like tonight?' and make it for us. Unreal."

It wasn't just George who got the special treatment, their three-year-old French bulldog, Glee, was pampered too.

"She ruled the hotel," laughs George. "Stuart and Susannah wouldn't confine her and she was given the run of the place. They gave her treats like shortbread - all the things that dogs shouldn't eat."

In fact, leaving at the end of July proved to be very hard indeed. "They made me feel like I was coming home to a family every night, so when we left I had tears in my eyes."

It might sound like a dream but the actress, who was born in Perth, Australia, admits there were days when the role took a physical toll.

As the female lead in an action movie, she was determined to do as many of her own stunts as she could, but some were simply too hard or too dangerous.

She remembers one particular day by the river at the Scatwell House estate, in Strathconon.

"I had to shoot a river scene with one of the other actresses and it was just total pain," she recalls.

"I got into the inflatable boat and said to the stunt guy, 'I'll jump into the water no problem', but of course what you should do is get acquainted with the temperature first, and then jump in.

"But I didn't. I just jumped in with all the trout and salmon swimming around. I only had my sneakers and regular clothing on so it was a total shock to my body.

"I was begging the director not to make me do it again. It was such a shock to me, and I was so cold that I literally couldn't breathe or speak."

The river may not have been her friend, but George became close to her assistant, Glaswegian talent agent Sonia Scott Mackay, who helped her out during her stay.

"I laughed from the moment I set foot in Scotland because of her," George says, laughing again, revealing that they almost played a practical joke on Rod Stewart.

"I had a trailer and we found out that Rod Stewart was going to use it after me, so Sonia and I were going to leave silly notes in the drawers for him," she giggles, adding, "we didn't do it in the end but she was great company. We did a lot of night shoots and she kept me laughing.

"When you meet people like that it always makes the journey so much nicer."

The shoot also took her and rest of the cast, which includes Red Riding actor Sean Harris, to Culloden House, Tulloch Castle, Muir of Ord and Kyle of Lochalsh.

But wherever she went, George was constantly in touch with Kara Harshbarger, her business partner.

The two of them founded Hemming My Way (Style Snaps), after George came up with the handy invention that helps you alter hemlines without having to sew or iron. The product is available in the US, and George says they are now working on getting UK distribution.She has a 40-strong sales team which sold 700,000 units last Christmas, and is so committed to making her business a success that she had a desk set up for her while she was on set in the Highlands.

"Sonia had to arrange to get a cable run from the generator to my desk in the middle of the forest," she says proudly. "I'm very focused when I'm making a movie, but I'm also a fantastic multitasker."

She came up with the idea for Style Snaps walking down Madison Avenue in New York one day, near her home.

She noticed that the bottom of her trousers were dragging along the pavement and wondered why there wasn't a cheap and temporary way to alter the length of clothing.

"I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was something you could put in your hems to stop them from getting damaged?', and so I started playing around with an idea of a clip that could hold two pieces of material together.

"I had to learn everything about manufacturing, patents and how to run a business, and eventually I came up with an prototype that worked. We're now working on other ways we can use the technology."

She adds: "If you'd have told me 15 years ago I'd be talking about snap adhesives in an interview I'd think you were crazy, but I was very crafty as a kid.

"From about eight years old I was always making things on the sewing machine. Friends would see me making dresses and costumes, and I'd use difficult fabrics such as Lycra and elastic. But you know, my dad was creative and my brother is inventive too."

Indeed, she's been creative, and canny enough to catch the eye of one of the most famous women in the world - Oprah Winfrey.

George was a guest at the prestigious Met Ball in New York last year and brazenly introduced herself to the chat show queen, as the "Hemming My Way inventor".

"Her producer had told her that everyone in the office used them," George says.

"And later she wrote me a letter of endorsement, which we used on shopping channel QVC, and we were featured in her magazine, which got us a lot of business. It was truly amazing."

She's certainly come a long way since her days on Home and Away, which was on five nights a week and made her famous in the UK.

"Angel gave me wings - she was a gift and she has brought me this far. It was 17 years ago now, can you believe it?", she says.

"People sometimes mention certain things about the show to me, and honestly I have great memories of that time. To be 16 and be playing the role of Angel, who was so dynamic, on the most popular show in Australia was a dream come true.

"Even though it was a teen soap, it was on late at night, so as many adults as teens watched it. Having kids in a foster home was such a brilliant concept, and I had the best time of my life."

With a long list of TV shows and films (Mulholland Drive, The Limey, 30 Days of Night) under her belt since then, does she still get recognised as Angel?

"Not really. My fans now know me from Grey's Anatomy or In Treatment, and they were only about three years old when Home and Away was on, so they don't remember that role."

Not that George is the kind of woman who looks back. She and Dabed recently celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, and she's proud step-mother to his daughter Martina, 16, who spends half of the year living with them.

George admits that she cherishes her marriage, revealing that she famously told Dabed, whom she met on holiday in Bali, that if they were going to get hitched he had to promise to bring her breakfast in bed every morning - and, true to his word, he does.

"It was my one demand," she giggles. "This morning I wasn't feeling very well but he still made me my coffee.

"I have this love affair with my Miele coffee maker that's built into the wall of our kitchen. I use it all the time and then I drink my coffee with non-pasteurised milk which we get from the farmers' market, so it's very creamy.

"He also bought me some Mario Batali bread from Eataly (a famous New York delicatessen) that's made with olive oil, and I had that toasted with goat's cheese. Right now he's outside pruning the trees on our terrace."

The couple are spending Christmas and New Year at their second home in Buenos Aires but if life sounds like one long holiday, then George is happy to put the record straight.

"I work all the time," she says. "But I absolutely love what I do. I love acting, and I spend a lot of time looking for scripts and characters that inspire me."

One of those scripts is Swinging with the Finkels, which is out in June and which also stars Martin Freeman, Mandy Moore and Jerry Stiller.

"This is an exciting, new direction for me. It's a very funny, broad comedy and I'm excited that people will see me do something different."

Before then, A Lonely Place to Die, premieres at the Berlin Film Festival next month, prior to its release in the UK, but can she see herself spending more time in Scotland?

"I never know where I'm going to be - even my agent has trouble keeping up," she laughs.

"But it was a magical few weeks, and I certainly feel as if I connected with my roots while I was there. You just never know where life is going to take you. And I'm just lucky to be having all these wonderful experiences."

A Lonely Place to Die will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, which runs from 10th-20th February, see www.berlinale.de for listings. A UK release date will follow.

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 1 January, 2011