Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes was already a big fan of European arthouse films before the call offering her a role as an aid worker in Les Cowboys, the directorial debut of award winning French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain. The French language drama, screened in the Director’s Fortnight competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a modern-day western with John C Reilly as a mercenary American trader and François Damien as a father searching for his daughter who disappears after converting to Islam. Bidegain is better known for his long time collaboration with French director Jacques Audiard. He co-wrote Audiard’s Dheepan, the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, as well as Audiard’s award winning A Prophet and Rust and Bone. The 32-year-old actress says she was familiar with Bidegain’s work having grown up in Switzerland watching the French cable TV channel Canal Plus. She arranged to meet Bidegain in Paris and was impressed by the first-time director: “He is astounding, intelligent and generous and makes you feel important, like no role is too small.”
Campbell-Hughes clearly likes a challenge and her choice of films to date shows an artist who enjoys taking risks. But it could all have been so different. After art college, Campbell-Hughes decided to pursue a career in fashion and became a successful designer with her own clothing line at British retailler Top Shop. “I had a small fashion label and to promote the line I did short films which were installation based,” she explains. ” I was 18 or 19 years old when I started out and at some point I had to choose whether to become an actor.”
Her first break was on British television playing Sam, the daughter of the cynical and misanthropic comedian Rick Spleen (Jack Dee) in the hit BBC Four comedy series Lead Balloon. She soon progressed to the big screen with roles in Bright Star directed by Jane Campion, whom she considers a mentor, and Rodrigo Garcia’s Oscar-nominated Albert Nobbs. But it is in independent cinema that she has really made her mark. Critics raved over her performance in Rebecca Daly’s 2011 dark thriller The Other Side of Sleep for which she reportedly stayed in character for the three months of filming. But playing Austrian kidnap victim, Natascha Kampusch, in Sherry Hormann’s 3096 Days proved more controversial. The actress made headlines after a red carpet event in London in 2012 where she appeared looking pale and thin and was forced to defend her appearance by saying it was a necessary part of the preparation for the role.
Working with Bidegain on Les Cowboys was clearly a less fraught experience. “I always choose films that are appropriate,” she says. “I always like to be learning and what I love about French cinema is many of the actors involved know each other and the writers know their characters and can tell instinctively when they see the right actor for the role.” She is full of praise for Bidegain although she admits filming Les Cowboys was hard work. “There was a real structure and drive to get the best and at the same time there is a great sense of collaboration in French film,” she says. “I was in a tiny section that was filmed in India, I came into the crew and found people so generous, so welcoming, there was a real curiosity about me.”
Bidegain is one of France’s most successful screenwriters with an impressive list of screen credits under his belt. As well as working with Audiard, he has written for Joachim Lafosse (Our Children) and Marion Vernoux (A boire) and he co-wrote Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year. He was also involved in adapting one of the biggest hits at the French box office last year, La Famille Belier. So why the move into directing.? “I don’t want to put words in his mouth,” says Campbell-Hughes, “but I think he made the move because he is interested in actors, interested in human interaction.”
2014 was a busy year for the actress. Alongside Les Cowboys she shot Francesco Cinquemani’s Andron: The Black Labyrinth with Alec Baldwin and Andrew Goth’s DxM with Sam Neill. There are no other French films on the horizon although Campbell-Hughes says she would love the challenge of working in French and with other Gallic directors. ” French cinema is very interesting, very unique,” she says “And director’s like Girlhood‘s Celine Sciamma are head and shoulders above other directors. I would like to work with Katell Quilévéré (Susanne) and maybe Philippe Claudel as well”
Les Cowboys is due in French cinemas in November, but international cinemagoers will have to wait as there are no dates so far for its release outside the hexagon.