Agyness Deyn: “I never intended to be a model. I didn’t have a clue about it"
As her new movie Sunset Song opens in cinemas, the accidental-model-turned-actress explains her journey from fish-and-chip shops to the catwalk to the big screen
Agyness Deyn at the BFI London Film Festival screening of ‘Sunset Song’. Photo Samir Hussein/WireImage
In 2001, at the age of 18, Laura Hollins from Lancashire moved to London to join her childhood best friend, the designer Henry Holland. Her work experience included nightshifts in a fish-and-chip shop and a weekend job in an Italian restaurant.
Fashion lore tells us that she was immediately spotted by a talent scout and signed to Select modelling agency, where there were already too many Lauras on the books. The youngster opted, instead, for her grandmother’s name, Agnes; the eccentric spelling was devised by a numerologist as “the most fortuitous” arrangement of letters.
“It’s still a work in progress,” says Agyness Deyn, whose mother and sister have subsequently adopted the Deyn surname.
It has, indeed, proved a most fortuitous handle. By 2007 Deyn had worked for Burberry, Doc Martens, Giorgio Armani, Reebok and Vivienne Westwood; she had graced the cover of Vogue and Time and had replaced Angelina Jolie as the face of Shiseido.
“I never intended to become a model,” shrugs Deyn. “I didn’t have a clue about it.”
Many similarly lucky starlets have been eaten up by the same industry, but not so Deyn: “I always think that whatever job you’re in, you can have good experiences and bad experiences. Before I was a model, I hated all of the jobs I had. In all industries, you can find extremely creative people. Modelling allowed me to experience cultures and places that I would never have otherwise been able to experience. It opened possibilities.”
One of those possibilities was Hollywood. In 2010, Deyn played Aphrodite in Louis Leterrier’s $493,214,993-grossing Clash of the Titans. She has since turned her attention toward smaller productions, including a 2012 English-language remake of Pusher and Bryn Higgin’s much-admired Electricity (2014).
“What I love about independent films is that you feel like you’re in the trenches,” she says. “It’s a more exciting way of working. Independent film gives you space to create. When I go to work on bigger films it’s more about discipline and doing what you’re told.”
Last year, Deyn separated from her Hollywood-based husband Giovanni Ribisi. But she isn’t done with the place, having just finished work on Joel and Ethan Coen’s hotly anticipated comedy Hail Caesar. Next year, she’ll also be fighting off zombie hordes in Patient Zero and battling an oppressive regime in the big screen adaptation of György Dragomán’s The White King.
So the model-turned-actress tag hasn’t seemed to be too detrimental.
“No. I’m not saying it’s not there. But I haven’t encountered it. I’m very much a striving-forward person. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. And a lot of the people who have cast me weren’t aware of my modelling. Terence was surprised when he found out.”
Terence is Terence Davis, the gentleman auteur behind such gorgeous, melancholic reveries as The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives. Davis’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song – one of Scotland’s favourite novels – has been some 15 years in the making. In it, free-thinking farmer’s daughter Chris Guthrie (Deyn) must contend with family tragedies, a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan) and, finally, the first World War.
Interestingly, when the book first emerged in 1932, its stark depiction of childbirth caused some reviewers to speculate that it was written by a woman using a male pseudonym.
“I find it fascinating that a man at that time would write a woman like that and give her such power,” says Deyn. “It makes you realise that feminism doesn’t have to be something of the feminine. Men can think that way. I read that interview with Meryl Streep that people were talking about. But I understood what she was saying. Feminism isn’t a movement that’s just for women. It’s in everyone’s best interests that we allow people to be as bold or as brave as they are.”
Birthing advice Deyn remains close to her family, particularly her sister, with whom she runs a fashion line, Title A, in Los Angeles, and her mum, a nurse. The latter provided technical advice for Sunset Song’s birthing scene.
“I don’t have children obviously,” laughs Deyn. “So I get around to the night before we shoot that scene. And I panic because I realise I don’t have a clue. So I had to call my mum and get her to walk me through it. The pain. The emotion. Everything that happened when she had me. It was a long interesting conversation that we had.”
Despite the trauma of faux-labour, Sunset Song was something of a dream come true for Deyn, who lists Davis’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love among her favourite films.
“I loved working with Terence,” gushes Deyn. “He has a very genteel quality about him and yet he gets so excited when something feels like it’s going right. And that’s very infectious. To get to work with him for months, watching his techniques? That was a life-changing experience for me.”