Drama Queen; Aged 11, Jodhi May Bullied Her Parents into Letting Her Star in the Award-Winning Film A World Apart, but She Didn't Bargain on the Attention That Came with Critical Acclaim. Her Uneasy Relationship with Celebrity Has Dogged Her Ever since, She Tells Lydia Slater

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Byline: LYDIA SLATER

In the grand hall of Marble Hill House, a stately home in the middle of a Surrey park, Jodhi May is hopping from one long, skinny leg to the other in a vain attempt to get warm. In her woolly tights and knee-length grey skirt, eyes and nose too large for her face, she looks far more like a teenage schoolgirl than a seasoned, 30-year-old actress.

We spend a quarter of an hour wandering through freezing drawing rooms and icy parlours, vainly looking for chairs to sit on that haven't been roped off, and Jodhi is giggling all the while.

Most child stars, forced to grow up too quickly and too publicly, develop an unnerving precocity in their efforts to cope. Jodhi has certainly had to cope with outside interest from a very early age.

When she was just 12, she had photographers following her to school and, on her mantelpiece, a Best Actress award from the Cannes Film Festival for her performance as an apartheid-era South African child in A World Apart.

Strangely, though, all this early overachieving seems rather to have arrested than accelerated her development. Jodhi has a studious teenager's enthusiasms (reading, the theatre, art exhibitions) and ostentatious scorn for showing off - although her wardrobe is bursting with Marni.

'One of the things I really like about her,' says her friend, fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley, 'is that despite the pressure from her industry to conform by wearing a certain sort of dress and getting photographs taken, she's never shown any sign of going down that road.' 'I'm so not on that circuit of dressing up and stuff,' concurs Jodhi, when we are finally ensconced in a tiny staffroom, huddled over the radiator. Still, she's quite looking forward to being glammed up today. 'It's fun to do it occasionally.

It's something you can't ignore - it's definitely an element of being an actress. But it doesn't have to become an obsession.' The very idea of cosmetic surgery makes her burst into shrieks of horrified laughter.

And she's almost pathologically reluctant to let slip any detail of her private life, however innocent (even her father's job is off-limits).

'When you come into acting at a very young age while you're still a child, there's an extent to which so much becomes other people's property, so it's important to feel you can keep certain things that are private for yourself, otherwise you have nothing.' These days, she sees preserving a certain mystery as a vital career tool. 'It's to do with wanting to disappear into a role. Some careers are based on a personality but actors want to be as versatile as possible. You do have to try and maintain a situation where people can project as much as they need to on you as an actor. I'd be extremely embarrassed if people rushed up to me and asked me for autographs,' she says earnestly.

In this celebrity-obsessed era, such unfashionable modesty and reticence would usually mean a swift descent back into obscurity. But Jodhi's talent has kept her in the limelight whether she likes it or not. After A World Apart, she was offered the part of Alice in The Last of the Mohicans, a role that ended memorably when she hurled herself off a cliff. Subsequently, she's been a mainstay of classy costume drama, including The Other Boleyn Girl, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The House of Mirth, The Woodlanders, Daniel Deronda and Tipping the Velvet.

She's started this year with a bang: last week she was starring in a Stephen Poliakoff play for the BBC, Friends and Crocodiles, opposite Damian Lewis; next month, she makes her West End debut with Roger Allam in the critically acclaimed and thought-provoking two-hander Blackbird, as one half of a disturbingly twisted love affair. And later on in the year, she appears in the film Land of the Blind, as the mother of Ralph Fiennes' character in flashbacks.

All of which will undoubtedly mean more pressure for the actress to play the publicity game she so obviously loathes. …

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