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the women of cult television

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special effects turn into £1.4 billion industry

31 may • the independent


• "king arthur" post-production gives work to 250 animators

Keira Knightley (along with King Arthur co-stars Ioan Gruffudd and Clive Owen) was featured in the unlikely surroundings of The Independent's business section today.

The report claimed that the British film animation and special effects industry has turned into a £1.4 billion business thanks to films such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp.

Cinesite, one of the UK's top three post-production houses, said yesterday that it plans to double its workforce to cope with a huge increase in work from Hollywood giants such as Warner and Walt Disney.

The company, part of the Kodak group, is supplying all 500 visual effects shots for King Arthur. This is a first time a Jerry Bruckheimer film has been post-produced in the UK and will mean work for an army of 250 animators.

Cinesite is also the only supplier of special effects for the Hollywood versions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Alfie. It built all the models at Shepperton Studios for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is also building models for Joel Schumacher's forthcoming Phantom of the Opera.

Colin Brown, the cheif executive of Cinesite, said the UK post-production industry had never been more buoyant and was now chasing the huge US houses such as Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic.

Post-production accounts for about a quarter of all spending by film studios and supports some 15,000 jobs in the UK. back to the top

"my brilliant billie is a great star reborn"

30 may • daily express


• "dr who" girl is new kidman, says teacher

The roller-coaster career of Billie Piper is one the up again, with a starring role in Dr Who.

And one person who is not surprised by her meteoric rise from teen singer to leading actress, is her drama teacher, Sylvia Young.

She remembers that as she signed dozens of school reports, there was one name she was convinced had stardom written all over it.

"Sitting here looking through her file, every report from every teacher said she was brilliant," said Sylvia.

"In one, when she was in Year Eight and just 13 years old, a drama coach described her as 'very talented, indeed potentially brilliant.'

"He went on to say that she had an incredible comedic talent, too. This is one of the hardest kinds of acting, and Billie excelled."

Doyen of the starmakers, Sylvia, went even further, dubbing her former pupil Britain's answer to Nicole Kidman.

Now, she says, the BBC's decision to give Billie, 21, a role as Dr Who's new companion is simply destiny. Sylvia said: "She was without doubt of National Theatre quality. From the second she stepped into our school for her first audition, I knew there was something special about her.

"There wasn't an area she was weak in, she just did very well all round. Teachers always noted her application, her talent and her wide repertoire.

"We always knew that her real talent lay in acting. She only got into the singing side by mistake."

When she was 15, Billie signed a record contract and her debut single, Because We Want To, went straight to No. 1 in 1998.

This highly successful diversion from her planned acting career surprised many of her drama student contemporaries, who included tragic Holby City actress Laura Sadler and S Club singer John Lee.

Those close to Billie say she never intended to remain a singer for long, and in the end was relieved to use her marriage to media mogul Chris Evans as an excuse to bow out of the charts.

Eighteen months of drunken revelling followed as the newlyweds travelled around the world, with Billie claiming she needed "time out".

But just as critics had written her off as a pop has-been, the new Mrs Evans voiced her determination to get back into acting.

A healthy eating regime ensured that she was a stone lighter when the BBC cast her in an updated version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales last year.

Bella And The Boys followed last February, a role which required her to be a child and an adult. Once more critics, who had expected her to fall flat on her face, were amazed at her performance. Refreshingly, Billie displayed a childlike joy when she bagged the part of Rose Tyler, the Doctor's new companion last week.

"Dr Who is an iconic show and I am thrilled to be taking part," she said.

Friends and family in Billie's home town of Swindon are equally delighted at her success.

Drama teacher Julia Dickinson, who coached Billie from the age of eight, said: "It is lovely to see Billie acting again.

"Although she has been very successful as a pop star, I always thought that acting was her first love. Billie came to me when she was very young and it was clear that she had something different."

When she was 12, it was Julia who encouraged her protegee to audition for the Sylvia Young School in London.

"It is a difficult thing to move out of home and live in London and not everyone is suited to the demands of drama school.

"But Billie showed a lot of commitment and maturity at a young age and was obviously going to go far," said Julia. Billie's grandmother, Margaret, who still lives in Swindon, said she was "pleased to bits" about Dr Who. She added: "What more can I say? I'm just thrilled for her."

Before Billie moves into a rented flat in Cardiff where the filming of Dr Who will take place, she must complete a horror movie in Romania.

Spirit Trap is nearing the end of its production in Bucharest, and tells the story of a group of students who are haunted by an evil legacy.

By the end of June it will be completed, leaving time for Billie to fly back home before moving to Wales.

The one downside of this career opportunity is it will most likely mean yet more separation from her husband Chris Evans.

Industry insiders hint that a move to Hollywood is next on the cards for Billie, but those close to the one-time singer say it will take a spectacular offer to make her contemplate a move across the poind.

Her latest film, Things To Do Before You Die, starring Jim Mistry, Emilia Fox and Dougray Scott, premiered to rave reviews at Cannes. back to the top

"just growing up is complicated enough"

28 may • the independent


• kirsten dunst was a child star, but not for her the drug-fuelled fall from grace. chris hewitt meets a hollywood player

Booze, drugs and kinky peccadilloes. For child actors to evolve into successful adult actors - not to mention succesful human beings - is no easy task. The lack of a normal childhood, coupled with the wearying antics of pushy parents, means that for every well-balanced Jodie Foster there is an endless downpour of deadbeats, seemingly hitting every branch of the Dickie Roberts tree on their inexorable descent into a life of drink, drugs and, ultimately, the dispensing of Big Macs.

Kirsten Dunst, however, is another story - it's hard to imagine her ever going into a McDonald's, let alone working in one. The little girl who first rose to prominence as a centuries-old vampire trapped in a pre-pubescent's body, in Interview With The Vampire, is now 22 years old. And, amazingly, she's not sexed up, boozed up or messed up. In fact, she's intelligent, pretty and in possession of one heck of a career, alternating between the arty likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, teen fare such as Bring It On, and bona fide blockbusters such as the Spider-Man franchise.

"When I was younger I was pretty protected from the hoopla," she explains, sitting in an LA coffee shop. "As a kid, you don't care about who else is in the room. I've had to audition for movies, even now, and since I don't do it that much, it's so hard. There's so much pressure and anxiety. But as a kid, you don't care that much. It's complicated enough just to grow up."

Indeed, while most child actors grow up into the pampered versions of Kevin the Teenager, Dunst had a different perspective. The girl from New Jersey simply couldn't afford to rebel: her parents, Klaus and Inez, divorced when she was just 13, and she stayed in situ with her mother, soon becoming the family's main breadwinner.

"I didn't realise what was going on so much with me," she continues. "But I can't imagine growing up doing this and not liking it. That's a whole other thing - to be a child actress and to hate it."

This need to bring home the proverbial pork slices could have fostered a laissez-faire, DTV-hell-bound approach to picking projects, but Dunst has always approached her career with a combination of smarts and rare taste. And she certainly seems to have enjoyed her roles.

"It's easy to be smart when you have amazing opportunities," she offers modestly. "Yeah, some people go off the rails. Maybe because they lose their barometer: 'I won an Academy Award so now I have to do a big period piece or an action film for the money.' Who cares what sort of genre or movie it is? I think people just lose track of themselves."

Certainly Dunst has kept on track, and out of the current group of hot young actresses - Natalie Portman, Christina Ricci, Brittany Murphy to name but three - it is she who most deserves the Jodie Foster comparisons. She runs her own production company - Wooden Spoon Productions - where she's currently overseeing a Jean Seberg biopic (how many starlets even know who Seberg is?), while she's plotted a career - working with high-quality directors such as Barry Levinson, Sam Raimi, Michael Gondry and Mike Newell - that has given her artistic and box-office kudos way beyond that of any of her peers.

She can do the superficial beauty thing - check out Drop Dead Gorgeous or Dick for proof - but in the flesh, she's a much more striking, refreshingly real figure, with slightly wonky teeth, a boyish bob and almost imperceptibly sunken, hazy eyes. It's a look that has long allowed her to play older than she actually is, and in this month's The Cat's Meow, she convincingly plays a 27-year-old Marion Davies, the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and the inspiration for Citizens Kane's 'Rosebud'. But first, she had to win over the film's direction, Peter Bogdanovich.

"I was thrown in with all these adults," she says. "I was hired because the producers knew who I was. But I don't think Peter really saw my movies. He just thought I was some blonde actress. Then, by the end, he's asking my opinion and showing respect, in love with what I'm doing."

It may not seem like it, but confidence and Dunst were once distant bedfellows. Invaluable experiences though the likes of Wag The Dog and The Virgin Suicides were, they hadn't exactly troubled the bean-counters. So, when along came Spider-Man, she actively pursued the role of Mary Jane Watson. It paid off, and $800m later Dunst was a star, and a sex symbol to boot. The confidence was flowing.

"It certainly wasn't on the first Spider-Man," she admits. "I guess I kind of grew up after that year. It's been down to the different people that I've run into my life."

High on the list is boyfriend of just over one year, Jake Gyllenhaal. "I was always really shy," she says. "Now, I think that because I have a boyfriend that I really like, it gives me confidence. I had sworn off boys. I was kind of bitter. I was a very insecure girl, I guess."

Insecurity wasn't prominent the first time I met Dunst. Several months before our LA encounter, I popped along with some colleagues to the London hotspot Mezzo to celebrate the London Film Festival's gala screening of Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia. And though we were far too depressed after the misery-fest we'd just witnessed to even think of a canapé, it didn't escape our notice that, while Paltrow was ensonced upstairs in the VIP lounge, Dunst was happily mixing it with the plebs, a bemused Gyllenhaal on her arm.

A couple of months later, Dunst was quoted as saying she could have played Plath with more feeling than Paltrow. How that's for confidence? But then, that's the new Dunst: totally, indefatigably in control. For next month's Spider-Man 2, she doggedly campaigned to be more than just the damsel in distress. "I don't want to just be an object in a super-hero film," she laughs. "It's not like they hired me because I had huge boobs. They hired me because I'm an actress."

More than that, she's a star. Spider-Man 2's success is assured, and this year's Wimbledon, in which she plays an American tennis star who falls for Paul Bettany's Brit loser, will trade on this new status.

"It's sometimes hard to be in a film because maybe you don't make enough money for the people involved," she says. "That's not really an issue for me anymore. Luckily, I have all the say in what goes on, what I'm comfortable with." Kirsten Dunst is taking on Hollywood, and she's very comfortable with that. back to the top

another "isobel" for katie

27 may


• new abc series for former "roswell" star

As our sister site Planet-SF News reported back in March, former Roswell actress Katherine Heigl is to star in a new ABC series called Grey's Anatomy.

Katherine attended ABC 2004/05 primetime upfronts at Cipriani's in New York (left) on 18 May to promote the series, which is scheduled for 10pm on Mondays from next January.

ABC's press release for the series is as follows:

Welcome to Grace Hospital. The toughest surgical residency program west of Harvard. It's a brutal training ground for the newest medical recruits.

Meet Meredith, Izzie and Christina. Yesterday they were students. Today they're doctors. And if they can make it through seven years of the finest hell Grace has to offer, they'll be surgeons. But the rest of life doesn't stop just because their residency is tough, so this trio will also have to deal with jealous boyfriends and sick parents, one night stands and housing crises, with only each other to rely on.

From Shonda Rhimes, the writer of "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," comes a series about young women who are doctors; and doctors who are still young women.

Ellen Pompeo (Old School, Catch Me If You Can): Meredith Grey
Patrick Dempsey (Once & Again): Derek Shepherd
James Pickens, Jr. (How Stella Got Her Groove Back): Richard Webber
T.R. Knight: George O'Malley
Sandra Oh (Under The Tuscan Sun, Arliss): Christina Yang
Katherine Heigl (Roswell): Isobel 'Izzie' Stevens
Chandra Wilson: Miranda Bailey
Isaiah Washington (Out of Sight): Dr. Preston Burke

Executive Producer/Writer: Shonda Rhimes (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge)
Executive Producers: Mark Gordon (Saving Private Ryan), James Parriott (Threat Matrix), Betsy Beers (200 Cigarettes)
Pilot Director: Peter Horton
Production Entity: Touchstone Television

There's no news yet on whether a UK broadcaster has picked up the series, although ABC's proposed UK channel would be one possible outlet. Failing that, the female orientated nature of the show might interest LivingTV. back to the top

billie: just what the doctor ordered

26 may • daily express


• clinching tv's hottest new role proves that ambitious former pop princess miss piper is really calling the tune

Whether they're escaping from Daleks, combating Sea Devils or helping to save Earth from an intergalactic war, the life of a Doctor Who companion has always been fraught with danger and full of adventure.

Travelling around the galaxy in the TARDIS offering chaste assistance to the strangely celibate Time Lord, Doctor Who companions have been predominately female and pretty. Yet, although a score of strapping lads and and nubile young things have accompanied the Doctor on his rambles in the 40 years since the show first aired, it's safe to say, however, that none has been quite as young or as nubile as Billie Piper.

Taking on the role of Rose Tyler, the 21-year-old will play the sidekick to Christopher Ecclestone's Doctor when the classic series returns early next year after an absence of nearly 14 years.

"Doctor Who is an iconic show and I am absolutely thrilled to be playing the part of Rose Tyler," Piper announced at her unveiling on Monday. Some have expressed surprise at such a hige-profile role going to a former pop princess. Yet for those who have been observing the life and career of Ms Piper, her casting is no shock. Just as the Doctor can regenerate to alter his appearance and personality every few years, so Billie has spent the past 18 months transforming herself from a washed-up child star into a serious, young actress.

"Billie's beautiful, funny and intelligent," said a BBC spokeswoman. "We needed a unique, dynamic partner for Christopher and she fits the bill perfectly."

It was not that long ago, however, that Billie's life and career was looking shakier than an old Doctor Who set. Having married former TFI Friday host and media mogul Chris Evans in May 2001, Billie proceeded to drop out of music to take a long "rest".

For 18 months the couple travelled, went on extravagant shopping sprees, and drank. And drank. Although Evans had never hidden his love of boozing it seemed that Piper was beginning to match him pint for pint. Photographed on benders or heading back to their mansion laden with beer, the couple looked grey and bloated.

Then came speculation about their marriage. While stories had circulated when they were dating of drunken rows and tears after Evans' visits to Stringfellows, it seemed matters had not improved by the marriage. Although the couple dismissed claims their relationship was on the rocks as "absolute rubbish", it was hard not to suspect that there must be some truth lurking amid the innuendo.

While things had begun to look professionally bleak for Evans (a court case, the axeing of most of the TV projects he had nutured on to the screen), Piper's star suddenly began to rise. Cast as the singing wife of Dennis Waterman in an updated version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales last year, Piper shocked everyone by turning in a very impressive performance.

Then in February came the role of Bella in the one-off BBC drama, Bella And The Boys. Playing the character both as a teenager and as an adult, Piper managed to convey convincingly a woman who had undergone a significant life change. It was a sophisticated piece of acting that proved that this young woman could demonstrate a level of emotional maturity that nobody suspected. All of a sudden, it seemed that the girl who had once been called the British Britney Spears had turned from a has-been teen idol into an exciting and talented actress.

"I don't have to do things for the sake of them," Billie recently said of her acting choices. "It means I can wait a while, find the right things. I've got the time to go out to find out about life, observe people and dynamic situations that help me in my work. Ultimately, I'm only ever going to do the things that interest me, that I feel I can do something with. If that means people do not see it, that doesn't really bother me. I need to be part of things that make me feel alive. Even if I'm offered a blockbuster, it may not be right at the time, or benefit me... I'm not hard. I won't step on other people. But in the past I've always managed to get what I want."

Such a statement reveals much about the sort of person that Billie is. Relaxed, confident, yet unashamedly ambitious, Piper has both the drive and the strange, preternatural maturity that many former child stars seem to possess. For Billie, however, many of these characteristics have been with her from her earliest days. Born in Swindon to a builder father and housewife mother in 1982, Piper was the eldest of four children but the one who always seemed desperate to perform. So driven was she, in fact, that at the age of 12 she insisted on leaving home to live with a great aunt and uncle in London where she could attend the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Piper was a dedicated student.

"It was a tough old life. But it was what you wanted, so you didn't think: 'God, I am so tired, I have only had six hours' sleep.' You thought: 'More! More singing! More dancing! More cabaret!'"

When she was 15, she was spotted in an advertisement, signed to a record contract and in July of 1998, her debut single, Because We Want To, went straight to Number One. Not only was she the youngest solo act ever to debut at Number One, over the next year and a half she became the only female to score three chart-toppers before her 18th birthday.

Not that she was happy. Although she had sold 1.3million records, she was living alone in a flat in London and was lonely. She reached a low point at her 18th birthday party when she realised that she hardly knew anybody there. She started to misbehave: getting paralytic in public, acting up and generally getting on the fast track to a breakdown. "I was living in an adult world and, although I could function in it, I couldn't completely be a part of it," she said. "It's not in my nature to throw tantrums, but towards the end, I started to get quite rebellious. I was so tired. I was never a diva - that was just my way of saying I need some control over my life."

It was around this time that she met Chris Evans. Invited to appear on TFI Friday, the pair soon began seeing each other and in 2001 were married at a wedding chapel in Vegas. While most saw the union as doomed to failure, Billie insists that not only was it a perfect match but it saved her.

"I think if I hadn't [met Evans and taken time out] I'd have been in big trouble," she has said. "I just needed to do some normal things - eat some curries, stay in bed for a whole day, watch movies back to back... I missed life."

Even the age difference between the couple is something that seems of no importance to her. "I didn't register that - everyone else might get off on it but I didn't care at all," she has said. "I was in love. I wanted to be with that person for ever.

"I love children and I love my husband and I'd love to share something that special with him... I think inevitably, because the man has a few more years on me, he's gonna help me out when I am in sticky situations where work is concerned..."

She adds: "But in our marriage we are on a par, we talk on the same level, we understand each other, which is why I am so drawn to him and he has got such a great spirit and that is all that is important."

Although cynics might say the fact that Evans is worth millions may have something to do with Piper's devotion, one gets the feeling that Piper is genuine about her relationship and her approach to work. Although ambition has always been a driving force for her, Piper is just beginning to prove that she is much more than another pretty celebrity. She's just what the doctor ordered.

What she can expect

Nicola Bryant, 40, played Peri Brown, Doctor Who's assistant from 1984 to 1986.

Nicola say: The role of Peri was the first job I had after leaving drama school at 19 and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. What other series could you appear in for a few years as a supporting actress and still be recognised over 20 years later?

It sounds like a cliché but when you join Doctor Who you are entering an extended family and every year I still attend conventions around the world and get incredible fan mail. I'm still in touch with the old Doctors and some of the assistants are among my closest friends.

I imagine Billie won't have to put up with the outrageous costumes I wore. My first scene had me in a bikini and I seemed to wear revealing clothing for the rest of the series. Their budget will be bigger, too. We had to work very hard because whenever we blew anything up, we were only allowed one take.

As an actress, nothing really compares with Doctor Who because its appeal is so overwhelming.

Louise Jameson, 53, played Leela, the Doctor's companion from 1977 to 1978. Since then, she has starred in Tenko and EastEnders.

Louise says. I wanted Leela to be strong and tough, not some screaming girl who couldn't take the action. But I also had to wear a tight leather costume. I was disappointed my character exited the show by getting married - I'd have preferred to have died trying to rescue the Doctor.

What's really incredible about Doctor Who is how loyal fans are. When there have been gaps in my work over the years I've always managed to get work that is a spin-off from those few months of doing Doctor Who. I still try to attend conventions and meet the fans of the show whenever I can.

Billie should be aware of the huge interest. It can take you by surprise. But she's probably used to copying with the media by now. back to the top

dr who and the teenage pop star

25 may • daily express


• billie is new "dr who" girl

She was a shooting star in her teens, now Billie Piper is to travel the galaxy as Doctor Who's new companion.

The former pop singer, 21, will appear alongside the new Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, when the sci-fi classic returns to television early next year.

Billie, who is married to media mogul Chris Evans, was unveiled yesterday as the Time Lord's new sidekick, Rose Tyler.

She beat off stiff competition from Anna Friel, Keeley Hawes and Loo Brealey to land the chance to follow a line of companions begun in 1963 by Carole Ann Ford. Other assistants have included Lalla Ward, Bonnie Langford, Louise Jameson and Mary Tamm.

"Doctor Who is an iconic show and I am absolutely thrilled to be playing the part of Rose Tyler," said Billie.

A BBC spokeswoman said: "Billie is beautiful, funny and intelligent. We needed to find a unique, dynamic partner for Christopher Eccleston, and Billie fits the bill perfectly."

Billie turned to acting only last year having had little previous experience.

She received critical praise for her acting debut in the BBC1 drama serial Canterbury Tales, a modern re-imagining of Chaucer's stories, and for her role in Bella and the Boys, a one-off drama for BBC2. Reviewers have been less kind about her latest role, starring opposite Orlando Bloom in the film The Calcium Kid. Doctor Who's new scriptwriter Russell T Davies said: "It was a long thorough search.

"Billie is absolutely perfect and very close to the description of Rose on the page. The companion ois as pivotal to these adventures as the Doctor himself - Rose can be our eyes, discovering spaceships and alien creatures with awe and wonder, and a vital sense of humour.

"Over the course of 13 episodes, Rose will change and grow, and hopefully, we can keep that story going in the years to come."

Billie was propelled to stardom in 1997. With her single Because We Want To she became the youngest solo artist ever to debut at number one in the UK charts.

She took a break from singing when she married Evans in 2001.

Her new role gives a huge boost to her career at the moment when things are looking professionally bleak for her hugely wealthy husband.

Evans has suffered the indignity of seeing all the television projects he has fostered over the past couple of years ignominiously dumped from the nation's screens.

The former media golden boy has also downsized his main UK home, selling eight-bedroomed Hascombe Court in Surrey for a more modest cottage nearby. But he is hardly short of cash - at a last estimate he was believed to be worth £30 million. back to the top

"billie, you scruff, the job's yours!"

24 may


• piper the "perfect choice" for brit horror flick

Even before her casting as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who was announced, Billie Piper was making herself eligible for inclusion on this site.

Monday's Western Daily Press carried a picture of the actress in an Adidas top and ripped jeans to tie in with her role in the British horror film Spirit Trap.

The newspaper claims that actress should "fit right in" since the film is set in student digs and her laid-back lifestyle - otherwise known as all-day drinking with husband Chris Evans - makes her the perfect choice. back to the top

keira who?

23 may


• "i've never heard of him!"

Keira Knightley might be flavour of the month with just about everyone these days, but there's at least one person who still hasn't heard of her.

The William Hickey column in today's Sunday Express reports that when Leslie Phillips (best known today as the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies) was asked what he thought of her, his simply reply was "who?" "I've never heard of him," he added. "What's he been in?"

The snippet also included the rumour that Keira is to play Elizabeth Bennet in a new film of Pride and Prejudice. No doubt this casting would be the work of some bright spark in Hollywood, as this is one part that Keira is probably too good-looking to play (Elizbeth is supposed to be "tolerable...but not handsome enough to tempt" Darcy). back to the top

a star actually

9 may • sunday express magazine


• Keira Knightley is one of the movie world's hottest actresses - and she's still only a teenager. Simon Gage finds out how the "Pirates of the Caribbean" star has bewitched Hollywood

Most Hollywood actresses would kill for the CV that 19-year-old Keira Knightley has. The Middlesex girl starred in some of the biggest films of last year, both here and in the US, and has recently topped a list of actresses most likely to become Hollywood legends. The Love, Actually" and Pirates of the Caribbean star beat Scarlett Johansson, Naomi Watts and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron to the top spot in the poll for Film Review magazine. Not bad for a teenager who claims she is "the laziest cow in the world".

Keira, who still lives at home with her parents in Teddington, Middlesex, was credited in the survey for her ability to appeal to audiences of both sexes and all ages. This success is likely to continue, judging by the number of films she already has lined up. Her forthcoming appearances, in the swashbuckler King Arthur, the time-travel thriller The Jacket, and Tulip Fever with Jude Law, guarantee that her face will become ever more famous.

She is very modest about that face, that pout (which she claims is due to playing the flute) and that beauty, even though she has graced the cover of Vanity Fair, one of the highest accolades an actress can get. When the magazine interviewed her, she made the startling assertion that "I always disappoint people because they expect someone very pretty. Very few people have chatted me up. Maybe it's because I'm too thick to realise. And maybe I'm just a sad person and I don't sit at enough bars. But that's OK - I've got time."

Without a publicist, a personal assistant or a manager to do her bidding, Keira has transformed herself from the gawky tomboy star of British hit movie Bend It Like Beckham into Hollywood's hottest property. Even though she was, until recently, considering a summer working in a skateboard shop, this isn't the life of a typical slacker teen.

"A lot of people have said, 'you've got to get an assistant, you've got to get this, you've got to get that,'" says Keira, who first came to our attention when she abandoned her A levels to star in ITV's Doctor Zhivago. "But part of me thinks that this is when you're meant to be growing up and handling things on your own. If I got an assistant now, I think my growing up would stop, and that kind of terrifies me."

But Keira has always had a strange maturity about her. Her mother reckons that she was born 40 years old and is working her way down. Judging by the effortlessness and maturity with which she is conquering the film world, it looks like she's stalled somewhere around the age of 37.

Keira's big break came while she was still at school. "When I was 16, I went to do Doctor Zhivago and I was meant to go back to school in the September, and then I got Pirates of the Caribbean," she says. "Then I was meant to go back in September last year and got King Arthur, so maybe next September. Who knows? I dropped out. And I'm very proud to use that phrase."

Her parents are probably just as proud - and they know just what it takes to make a success in the acting profession. Her father is Will Knightley, a respected stage actor who has also appeared in A Touch of Frost and the TV adaptation of The Mill on the Floss, while her mother, Sharman MacDonald, is more famous as the writer of When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream and Shout, the smash-hit West End play that starred Dawn French - and to which Keira owes her very existence.

With a son, Caleb, already gobbling up any money the young Bohemian couple earned, Will Knightley laid down the law with his young wife that they wouldn't bring any more children into the world until they had some extra cash to pay for it. "My dad said to my mum, 'If you sell a script, we can have another child,'" says Keira. "She wrote the play and won various awards for it. And I was the child."

By the age of three, Keira was telling her parents that she needed an agent. And at six, after she'd struggled to overcome dyslexia, she got one.

She started acting at seven and, by the age of eight, was sharing screen time with Minnie Driver and Rupert Graves in the BBC's Royal Celebration. While other girls her age were learning Spice Girls routines and backcombing their Barbies, Keira was single-minded. Throughout her childhood, she had a solitary poster on her bedroom wall - not Boyzone or Take That, but actress Emma Thompson.

It's this focus on the real acting part of the job - rather than the wearing of skimpy clothing and going to showbiz parties - that makes Keira stand out from her Hollywood contemporaries. "I didn't go into this with fairytale notions of arriving in Hollywood and the streets being paved with gold," she says. "I love LA but I couldn't live there. If you're walking around LA, you're seeing all these perfect people and you start to think, 'I've got to be like that.' You have to be really strong to live there - to resist the fad diets and not get the biggest breast implants. There are a lot of pressures to conform to a type - to be thin, blonde and busty. I'm skinny, but even I couldn't fit into some of the clothes there. There are some ridiculously skinny people in LA."

For Keira, who has a soft spot for the odd fry-up, pub grub and big bowls of pasta, her slender figure may come naturally. But Hollywood standards mean that even she has had to change her wicked ways while getting ready for the role of Guinevere in the swashbuckling film King Arthur, out later this year, with a "no carbs after 4pm" rule and a little light boxing, sword-fighting, knife-throwing and axe-wielding thrown in for good measure.

Keira is still close to her parents, and while staying in Glasgow to film The Jacket with Adrien Brody, she took her mum along for the ride. That's the same mum who, when Keira was having a tough time at school in her early teens, gave her her Child Benefit money and told her to go off and get her belly button pierced to cheer herself up. She's currently back with mum and dad in Middlesex, but is looking for her own place in London and is rumoured to be interested in a £500,000 apartment near London's ultra-smart Sloane Square.

But even with the success of films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Love, Actually and Bend It Like Beckham (which was a huge, out-of-nowhere, success in the States) Keira remains down-to-earth. She's still prepared to work hard, too. When she auditioned for British director John Maybury's The Jacket, she had plenty to do to convince him she was right for the part - and that's the way she likes it.

"I love being this busy," says Keira. "I had a chat recently with my agent and I said, 'Get me working! I don't what it is, I just need to keep working. I don't want time off yet. I absolutely love what I do.'" back to the top

lock and load

6 may


• Kate Beckinsale "gets her hands dirty"

Van Helsing debuted with an impressive $54.2 million in its opening weekend, topping the US box office.

ET Online spoke to stars Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman about their experiences on the movie.

"I was a sensitive child," Kate Beckinsale says when asked whether she was brought up on creature features. "I think I would've been totally alarmed! I didn't get exposed to much horror stuff when I was young." In fact, although the film features famous monsters, the actress insists that Van Helsing is a romantic adventure.

"I think it's a little bit of an ode to James Bond, you know, those moments with Q," says Jackman about the weapons his character gets to use to fend off the forces of evil. "There's some fantastic objects and he stuffs them in a bag because he's got to go off and fight Dracula."

In the film, Jackman plays a 19th-century vampire hunter who teams up with gypsy princess Anna Valerious (Beckinsale) to ride her family of a generations-old curse.

"They're not particularly happy working together at the beginning of the movie so it's nice that they have kind of a spikey relationship," says Kate, adding, "What's nice [about my character] is she's not just wearing a pretty dress and fainting. She definitely gets her hands dirty." Off-camera, Kate admitted it was hard not to bond with her co-star: "I loved Hugh! He's just the nicest guy ever. He has such fun when he's working."

In order to adquately equip Anna and Van Helsing for combat with their undead foes, a monk named Carl (David Wenham) has fabricated an extraordinary array of weapons to fight evil. In addition to the traditional crucifixes and garlic, he gives Van Helsing holy water bombs, glycerin bombs, a deadly, hand-cranked, circular power-saw blade and the piece de résistance, a gas-propelled arrow launcher, described as the machine gun of crossbows.

"There is a kind of relish in seeing a story re-told over the years and a new generation's perspective and take on what that would be like," says Kate, who got her share of exercise during the arduous shoot. "I had to do a lot of running around in high, spindly heels and corsets and swim in a massive ballgown and all that stuff, so I always think if a woman gets through an action movie, she's way tougher than the boys are, because they tend to get sneakers and pants." back to the top

this agent is special

2 may • sunday express s:2 magazine


• Ricky Gervais and Quentin Tarantion have given "Alias" a shot of extra credibility but the real revelation in the new series is Melissa George, writes Mark Anstead

Melissa George is having trouble containing her excitement. The Australian beauty has landed a plum role in CIA drama Alias and it should do wonders for her. Having made her first TV appearance at the age of 16 as tearaway Angel Brooks in Home and Away, she's thrilled to be in a show held in such high regard that it regularly guest stars some of the world's hottest talent, including Ricky Gervais. Melissa, 27, is now hoping some of the kudos floating around the set will rub off on her.

"It's already happening - I read for Brian De Palma the other day," she tells me from Pasadena, California, where she's filming episode 18 of [the third season of Alias]. "Hollywood's top casting agents have seen me working on a great show and they're calling."

Having worked in England and America and been married for four years to Chilean businessman Claudio Dabed (she has an eight-year-old stepdaughter, Martina), Melissa talks in a mixture of accents - but when she's tired, as she is now from her 15-to-18 hour days for each $2 million episode, she lapses into an Australian drawl.

Alias, a series about double agents and bluffs, has attracted guest appearances from the likes of Faye Dunaway, Ethan Hawke and Isabella Rossellini. It revolves around agent Sydney Bristow, played by Jennifer Garner, who starred as Elektra in last year's film Daredevil. "Most of the supporting actors are well-established names who've already had major parts in films," says Melissa. "I'm probably the first one who's come in without that background and is hoping to see it work the other way..."

Her arrival in episode two of this year's season certainly made sparks fly. The story opened with Sydney waking from a slumber to find that she couldn't account for the last two years. Worse still, her former love Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) had got married to Melissa's character, agent Lauren Reed. "I'm also at the CIA investigating a murder Syndey has a lot to do with," says Melissa, "so I'm literally her worst nightmare. But she's my worst nightmare as well because my husband was with her before she was missing presumed dead. It's a very unfortunate love triangle."

Off-screen, however, Melissa and Jennifer are firm friends. They first met before Alias, while doing promotions for separate shows. "I really understand her and she really understands me," she confirms.

Melissa definitely deserves the break of being in Alias. In 1998 she starred in Hollyweird, a pilot for Wes Craven which was never aired. In 2000 the same happened with an LA Confidential pilot - the network needed the budget for The Sopranos. In 2001 she was in a series called Thieves which was axed despite good reviews, and last year her major part in the Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger film Down With Love was almost entirely removed.

"When they tested the film on audiences, they found my scenes reflected badly on Ewan's character, so they removed that part of the storyline altogether," Melissa explains. "It was great working with Ewan, though. I remember we were posing together for a Vanity Fair photo-shoot and he started grinning all over his face. I asked him what was so funny and he said, 'I just had an image of all my school friends laughing at me as a kid, saying, 'You'll never be anything' - and look how much fun I'm having!' I thought that was such a humble comment because he's such a gifted actor."

Melissa's consolation prize was a guest appearance last year in two episodes of Friends, as a lesbian nanny. During the filming, Jennifer Aniston confided that she'd filmed nine pilots in the previous eight years, none of which were picked up for series. George Clooney was said to have filmed 11. And Friends also gave Melissa the chance to name-drop a little. "Brad Pitt was standing at the back of the room, right in front of the hot-water urn," she giggles. "I was looking around and thinking, 'God, I really want a cup of tea but Brad Pitt is in the way,' and I just couldn't go over or talk to him. In the end, Jennifer came up and broke the ice by saying, 'This is my husband, Brad,' and I said, 'Hey,' and we spoke for a bit then he moved. So I finally got my cup of tea!"

But Melissa reserves her most raucous laughter for Ricky Gervais's appearance in Alias as mad Irish bomber Daniel Ryan. Gervais was asked to appear on the show after its creator, Jeffrey Abrams, became a huge fan of The Office. "The night before it was the Golden Globes when he won two awards and the next morning he was on the set of our show," she says. "But he just had the giggles the whole time. Everyone puts on a poker face for Alias - we call it the Alias face - and Ricky found the whole thing hysterical. He could not stop laughing. The director kept having to stop and say, 'Let's just take it back,' but then he would start giggling again and everyone would fall apart.

"When he started to act, his performance was incredible. Everyone agrees it's the best episode of the season. He'd never really acted before and he said he'd never been directed by anybody in his life so he found it so amusing when he was told what to do. He would just adopt his Office character, which everyone loves, and say, 'What's this?' as though feeling a bit put out about taking direction.

"But he was gorgeous. You watch American humour and it's about being sarcastic and putting the other person down, whereas British humour is always about the situation and Ricky is so right on the money - you don't need to be sarcastic to get a laugh."

While holding out for Alias, Melissa turned down roles in Smallville and other series. But it was worth it, especially as she got to act alongside Quentin Tarantino, who plays her undercover boss in episode 13. "He told me I had the best part on the show, which I thought was very sweet," she says. "It's so obvious when he acts that he is a director - he pretty much takes his own time with the thing. He'll run the same sentence maybe 10 times until it really makes sense to him. But I wasn't nervous at all, even though I kept looking at him and thinking, 'Man, that guy's brain must be just so full of things - he's a real genius.'"

So is there a role for Melissa in Quentin's next film? She won't say - but she's obviously hoping... back to the top