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Beauty, brains and Braun

An Actress bounds into the East London photographic studio, slightly out-of-breath, fizzing with the energy of Silvio Berlusconi on Horny Goat Weed at an 18-year-old’s swim party. “I just gave a homeless man outside a 20 pound note, and now I’m worrying he’d have rather had it in two tens,” she says, huge eyes widening in a luminously fresh face, as she puts down her vintage handbag and leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina (“I’m obsessed with Tolstoy, it’s a weakness, I need to widen my contemporary reading”) in a flurry of activity that lights up the room and makes all heads turn. “Oh, no. I hope he’s OK,” she says, fretting extravagantly over this act of incredibly charming philanthropic spontaneity I’m choosing to include here for colour but that she obviously had no idea could end up in the article.
The issue of the Handily Timed Tramp is resolved when a menial is despatched to offer him change and to pick up her favourite snack, Minstrels. An actress who eats?! I ask, incredulous, as she unselfconsciously shovels in great handfuls while having her hair and make-up done. “Oh, I eat like a pig, I love cooking for my boyfriend,” she says, adjusting her navy wool crepe Jil Sander dress over her tiny size six frame, which she maintains by consuming shitloads of food and walking to appointments. “I’m really boring, I don’t like all those red carpet events, I love staying in and putting on pyjamas and making a massive casserole for my friends. I’m such a down-to-earth, homely, generous goof! This is so embarrassing to admit.”
So, I say, once she’s finished showing pictures of her dogs on her phone to everyone because she’s completely unstarry and prepared to talk about herself to unimportant people, was it a difficult decision to choose to play Eva Braun, as she’s a controversial figure? She suddenly looks serious. “Obviously people have their views on what she did but really I just approached her as a character, as a story. You know, before anything else she was just a woman, in love with a man, trying to make a life for herself in Nazi Germany.” Did she do much research? “I avoided reading anything about her because I didn’t want my performance to be affected by other peoples’ opinions. You know, I wanted to get to the emotional truth. That’s your job, as an actor.”
While I’m being admitted to her intellectual salon and everything I thought I knew is being turned on its head, I have to ask, because the answer will help all of us, would she consider herself a feminist? “Uhm,” she says, with the pause of someone who chooses their words very carefully, perfect brow creasing. “I’m not… part of a cause or a movement or anything. I’m just a person. So I’d say I’m definitely female. But I’m not a ‘feminist’ as such because I’m too independent-minded to be part of something. You know?”
She finishes all her ideas with “you know?” The phrase contains a note of yearning, to find and make connections, and it strikes me she’s desperate to be understood, but she has learned to wear the struggle lightly. Yet she effortlessly metamorphises from Thinker to Model once she’s dressed in a retro ironic bikini and ironic heels for the ’50s-themed photo-shoot that sends up the notion of a ‘pin-up’, pulling faces where she pretends to double-take at the sight of her own tits while talking on a Bakelite telephone. Yet even in vintage costume she’s absolutely modern, in control of her image, of how she wants to be seen – when she vetoes some iced bun props on the basis that “It’s a bit slutty Calendar Girls” everyone on-set who doesn’t want to be fired instantly agrees she is right.
As she stands patiently while wardrobe people fuss with the ironic see-through baby doll negligee for the next slyly subversive picture, she explains how she hopes her role as Braun will see her considered for more serious parts. “Casting agents, they do tend to think, she looks a certain way, that’s all she can do. But things are changing. Look at Judi Dench. I’d like a career like hers. Old women are so inspiring.”
Now Hollywood is calling, it says here in the publicity material I was given. Can she see herself in blockbusters? “God, that’d be so weird!” she laughs, revealing perfect teeth. “I’m not sure I’d want to be, you know, Meryl Streep famous because then your life’s not your own. I’m going back next week for the endless slog of auditions but I don’t want it that much. They judge you on how you look and how well you can act, it’s very pressuring. When you get rejected a lot you start to realise it’s a very fake existence. And I’d miss my dogs!”
And with that, she’s gone, in a gust of her signature scent. (“You like it?” her eyes light up. “It’s bespoke! They mix it for you at this amazing atelier in the Loire Valley. I’ll send you their details.” True to form her PA mails me a day later, and I discover it costs more than the Moon. Only someone unmaterialistic could assume a journalist’s salary could cover it. I get a glimpse of what it’s like to live like her, whimsically, in the moment, seeing so few limitations).
But what IS her life? It’s simple, crazy and complicated, veering from casseroles to film premieres and Tolstoy and a pair of Basset Hounds called Pearl and Dean, and yet she takes all the madness in her faux-python Stella McCartney slingback-shod stride. It’s only after she’s left, in a moment of aching symbolism that poignantly encapsulates this entire encounter, I notice she’s left me most of her bag of Minstrels. A gesture of such heartbreaking kindness that I might die wanking.
Text © Mhairi McFarlane, 2012

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