Life & Culture

Interview: Natalie Press

The star of indie film who’d rather not be


It is a good time to be a British actress right now. Kate Winslet has just won an Oscar for her role in The Reader and Rebecca Hall has earned good reviews for her performances in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon. Meanwhile Emily Blunt is gaining recognition in The Young Victoria in which she plays the title role. And then there is Natalie Press, who was Blunt’s co-star in the pair’s breakthrough movie, 2004’s My Summer of Love.
She hits the screens today in the gritty British action thriller, Fifty Dead Men Walking. The film may turn out to be as successful as The Young Victoria, but Press is wary of any comparisons between her and Blunt, despite the obvious connections. “I hate it when people ask me that!” she says candidly, on the phone from Los Angeles , when asked if they are still friends. “I haven’t seen her for ages, but it’s amazing how well she’s doing.”
Not that Press hasn’t done well herself. My Summer of Love, about the relationship between a working-class Yorkshire tomboy (Press) and a well-educated posh girl (Blunt), won both actresses Evening Standard British Film awards and helped launch their careers, with Blunt going on to make a name for herself as the snide fashion magazine assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, and Press winning Glamour magazine’s newcomer of the year award after starring in BBC adaptation of Bleak House.
She also starred in 2006’s surveillance thriller Red Road, which won a number of Baftas and the Cannes Film Festival jury award. But before that, she shocked Jewish audiences with her portrayal of a young strictly Orthodox woman in north London whose relationship with her brother is tinged with sadomasochism, in the low-budget drama Song of Songs. In keeping with many of Press’s character choices, the role was daring and enigmatic.
“That is so the kind of film where you can feel really proud to have done it,” she says. “It all worked like clockwork. No time was wasted. Director Josh Appignanesi made it in 21 days. He never wanted the emphasis to be about the money, but he did do it on a tight budget. I really admire that kind of courage.”
Press herself did not need to do too much research about London’s Charedi community, having a strong Jewish identity herself.
“I grew up in a middle-class Jewish neighbourhood,” she says. “I identify culturally with being Jewish. I was practising until I had a bat chayil. I went to Hebrew school on Sundays and then to a Jewish youth centre. Our family went to a couple of United Synagogues in the Bushey area. So I knew I just needed to go to a certain part of Golders Green to find my character.”
In her latest film she is playing the girlfriend of an IRA supergrass, a character based on the real-life informant Martin McGartland, who joined the Irish republican movement to pass information to British security forces.
There is something a little wide-eyed about her when she admits: “Fifty Dead Men is a bigger production than any film I’ve done before. It was amazing to film in the Belfast streets where this all actually happened. It was the first time that I’d filmed something about a particular struggle.”
She is excited about this new picture, but she acknowledges that taking a role in yet another indie production has a downside. When you are perhaps looking to move your career on to the next level, it hardly helps to be pigeonholed. “My first successes were both really independent projects,” she says. “Whatever you do that first gets noticed you repeat in some form.”
For Press, who is 28-year-old and cites Juliette Binoche, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert as influences, the next level could well mean Hollywood.
“Ever since My Summer of Love I have been coming backwards and forwards a couple of times a year,” she says of her trips to LA to attend auditions. So far, no firm offers have emerged — at least none she feels comfortable accepting.
This is partly because she has a strong idea of what kind of movies she wants to be involved with. All it takes is reading a few lines of a script to know whether or not it works for her. “Sometimes you just fall in love with something. You know a good script when you think: ‘I really want to be in this’.
“But it’s hard to find good material for women. I can say pretty much by page five whether or not a script is special. That comes from reading a lot of them.
“There was one that was written by Robert Towne (who wrote the classic 1970s thriller Chinatown) called Ask The Dust. When I got that in my inbox and I saw the description of how the milk bottles should be arranged on the front door, I knew it was an excellent script. They’re to die for. It got made with Salma Hayek in the end.”
Press is a reluctant glamour figure. Her delicate look, with its pale skin and strawberry blonde hair, has been used to advertise clothes by high-street fashion store Uniqlo. She has been featured in high-fashion magazine V and is often seen in the society pages, attending launch parties and red carpet events.
But she denies ambitions to be a style icon: “It’s nice when someone in a magazine says: ‘I really like her style’, and chooses to highlight it. But I’m not sure if I’d want to be a spokesperson in any way in fashion.”
And she is also appears unconcerned that she does not possess what are generally considered classic, Hollywood looks.
“I think that far fewer women are concerned about that sort of thing than you think,” she says. “I’m good as I am. It’s going nicely.”
Press explains her decision to front the advert campaign for Uniqlo by saying the money it brings in allows her to do the kind of films she wants to do — such as Song of Songs — which do not necessarily come with big pay cheques attached. She also insists that she is a reluctant showbiz party-goer, attending usually only to promote a project she is working on.
Perhaps coming from a traditional Jewish household has kept her grounded. Press says her parents were anxious when she first announced her decision to become an actress.
“They were worried that the profession wasn’t secure but they always worry like most Jewish parents,” she admits. “Nothing excessive though.
“They have been to Cannes with me and they really enjoyed that. Things like that encouraged them to relax. It was really sweet for my mum meeting people like Brenda Blethyn, as she’s a really big fan.”

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