Antonia Campbell-Hughes: ‘I like hard graft. That’s what I believe in’

The actor returns to Donegal to get behind the camera for the first but not the last time

Right about now, Antonia Campbell-Hughes ought to be knee-deep in pre-production on her first feature film as a director. It Is in Us All, which she also wrote, was due to start shooting in July.

The film was to star Jim Sturgess as a Londoner who returns to his ancestral homeland of Donegal, where he becomes fascinated by a teenage boy who almost kills him in a car crash. Campbell-Hughes was to double-job in front of the camera as Cara, a grieving mother who gets involved with Hamish.

Instead, the actor-turned-director has returned to her ancestral homeland near Buncrana. For eight weeks and counting. She remains hopeful that the shoot will go ahead in September. In the meantime, there are logistical conversations about scaled production, insurance, quarantine pods, and the hiring of a “full-time Covid health-and-safety person”.

“I had done a lot of shooting in Belfast recently,” she says. ”I was planning to come back again to Belfast to do pick-ups in April and for the Belfast Film Festival. But then things started going a bit funny. I thought: at least I’m here; I can do solid prep for my film. I never expected what unfolded. I’m sure you’ve heard.”

It Is in Us All is part of Screen Ireland’s female-focused POV scheme for four live-action micro-budget films. In a more global spirit, Campbell-Hughes is joining the ranks of several actors, including Karen Gillan and Billie Piper, who have moved behind the camera. Indeed, Campbell-Hughes is one of the stars of Billie Piper’s anti rom-com, Rare Beasts.

Apparently it's better to say 'actress'. Someone gave me stick for saying 'actor': 'Why aren't you being empowered by your femininity?' Oh, you just can't get it right, can you?

“Screen Ireland have been encouraging me to direct for many years,” she says. “I like hard graft. That’s what I believe in. That’s what I’ve always done. Sometimes there are people who got opportunities when it’s not necessarily deserved. I think maybe people give me a hard time because I was given an opportunity and I’m an actor. Maybe that’s true. But what I do know is that you learn a lot on a film set.

“There are a lot of great directors who’ve come through film school. There are others who learn on the job. When I was a kid working in fashion I interned and interned and interned for free. And I stayed until midnight in fashion houses after school. And that’s how we trained and that’s how we learned. I have always been obsessed with the whole process of film-making. And I’ve always admired actors and actresses like Amy Seimetz who cross-pollinate.”

Campbell-Hughes puts a special emphasis on the word “actress” having been recently taken to task for using  “actor” as a gender-neutral term: “Apparently it’s better to say ‘actress’. Someone gave me stick for saying ‘actor’: ‘Why aren’t you being empowered by your femininity?’ Oh, you just can’t get it right, can you?”

Not conventional

Such feminist considerations are hardly new ground for Campbell-Hughes. In the moment when the #MeToo movement left many artists pondering the lack of female directors in their credits, the Derry-born star of Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Alexandra McGuinness’s She’s Missing and Sherry Hormann’s 3096 could boast a CV characterised by an enviable degree of gender parity.

“So much has happened in those two years,” she says. “The environment has changed. But when people started talking about 50-50 parity and #MeToo, I remember sitting down and thinking: well, this is phenomenal, because from my personal experience I’ve worked with more women directors. And I wondered why that was. And I’m not saying this out of ego or anything but I just appeal to women. I appeal to great woman film-makers who are feminists and who don’t want to go a more conventional route. I’m not conventional.”

I don't think I had ever seen a British comedy. Suddenly I was in one. It's very weird that I started in comedy and that's what I did for four years exclusively

She certainly isn’t. A lifelong nomad, thanks to her father’s work with US chemical giant DuPont, her toddler years were spent between Derry and Donegal and her childhood bounced between the United States, Switzerland, London and Germany. Aged 16, she and her family settled in Dublin, where she attended the NCAD. She was still in her teens when she founded her own eponymous clothing label, later creating a line for Topshop.

In 2006 she was cast as Jack Dee’s money-extracting, sixth-form daughter in Lead Balloon. The show ran for four series.

“I had literally never acted before that show,” she says. “I don’t think I had ever seen a British comedy. Suddenly I was in one. Surrounded by all these comic gems. It’s very weird that I started in comedy and that’s what I did for four years exclusively. Because I grew up being really passionate about independent cinema. I’d really only seen foreign films growing up.”

After the success of Lead Balloon she was named a 2011 Screen Star of Tomorrow and 2012 EFP Shooting Star and was courted by various agencies in LA as “the love child of Chloë Sevigny and Maggie Gyllenhaal”. Campbell-Hughes has subsequently worked with Ridley Scott, Domhnall Gleeson and Scarlett Johansson, but she has long preferred the independent sector to Hollywood.

“I wasn’t the right actor for it,” she says. “And I was a lot weirder back then. I mean, I had a black crew cut and lots of piercings. I was novel. But the work that I’ve done has been just the right place for an actor like me. I’ve worked with some interesting American film-makers like Deborah Kampmeier on Split. She sought me out. So I’ve popped up for the right film-makers. I’d love to be one of those actors who say ‘I’m really careful about what I choose’ but really I’m just lucky.”

Dedication to craft

She has a reputation for dedication to craft. She tried to stay awake for three months straight to play a chronic insomniac in Rebecca Daly’s thriller The Other Side of Sleep. She lost weight, prompting much hand-wringing from The Guardian and the Daily Mail, in order to play kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch in 3096.

“They were both films that required a fully immersive process,” recalls Campbell-Hughes. “I’m on camera the whole time. They were both directed by very strong, specific women with authority over what they want to do. But they were quite different in terms of scale and energy. The Other Side of Sleep was my first big lead, I guess. And it was a joy because I was able to just sit back and be entirely in the character and quite methody.

“3096 was a different beast. It was a very big production, shot over a long time and it was a big responsibility because it’s about a real person and you’re representing a book as well and facts that a lot of people find distressing. So you couldn’t just disappear into the role. There were technicalities. You had to be camera aware. The amazing sets were built to scale.”

I wanted to do something that would showcase the landscape of Donegal and Northern Ireland. So I adopted those elements in a project for Uncertain Kingdom

The feature may be on hold, but Campbell-Hughes’ second short film as a writer-director is on the way to a digital service near you. The Uncertain Kingdom project was launched last year, inspired by topics including Brexit, climate change, race, homelessness and #MeToo. The £200,000 initiative brings together 20 short films, directed by Hope Dickson Leach, Carol Salter, and Iggy LDN, to name three. Uncertain Kingdom will play as two feature-length volumes, available on BFI Player, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema, from next month.

Campbell-Hughes’s enigmatic contribution, Acre Fall Between, is set on the Donegal-Derry border and stars Mark O’Halloran as a man desperately searching for his missing family.

“They told me they needed a Northern Ireland representative for the project and that really resonated with me,” says Campbell-Hughes. “I wanted to represent where I come from because I didn’t grow up here but I feel like I’m deeply in love with where I come from and I’ve always struggled with that.

“I had a project in development for quite a long time that was a sci-fi TV show around the climate change issue. But I also wanted to do something that would showcase the landscape of Donegal and Northern Ireland. So I adopted those elements in a project specifically for Uncertain Kingdom.

“At that moment in time, we were bombarded with climate change. So the film is specifically about someone who’s constantly ingesting that from all sides and what their dreamlike, amygdala fears might look like. I didn’t want it to be political. I wanted it to be somewhere between science fiction and the soil of where I come from.”

 Acre Fall Between features in The Uncertain Kingdom, released on digital platforms BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema and iTunes on June 1st.

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