Neve Campbell

The star of "Party of Five," "Scream" and "Wild Things" talks about making out with strangers, taking risks and the pitfalls of being beautiful.

Published May 7, 2001 7:20PM (EDT)

My favorite moment from the Neve Campbell filmography is not the one you might think. Yes, it is from the 1998 flick "Wild Things," but it's not her infamous catfight-turned-lipstick-lesbian scene in the pool with Denise Richards, or even the one where she, a naked Richards and a googly-eyed Matt Dillon have a three-way in a Florida motel room. Rather, the scene that won me over to the Neve Campbell fan club was the one where detective Kevin Bacon and his partner visit Campbell's gothed-out trailer to interrupt Campbell while she's reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novel "Death on the Installment Plan." Bacon's partner gives the book a funny look, to which our heroine replies, "It's OK. It's Céline. He had a pretty good line on what cheap fucks people are."

After meeting Neve Campbell, I can vouch for the fact that she's nothing like the conniving, patchouli-oiled high-school rebel she plays in John McNaughton's swamp-noir blockbuster. On the contrary, Campbell seems quite the good-girl Canadian import -- the freshly scrubbed ingenue who's an idol to the Gen Y crowd for her six-year stint as orphan Julia Salinger on the soft-soap Fox series "Party of Five." Still, there's a razor blade or two beneath those auburn eyes. Not only did she have edge enough to kick some psycho ass in the "Scream" trilogy, but she can convince me on-screen that she reads Céline and smokes dope, all with the dearly departed Mark Sandman of Morphine crooning in the background.

In the indie feature "Panic," which stars William H. Macy as a hitman with a serious case of ennui and Donald Sutherland as his scumbag pop, Campbell plays Sarah, a wild young thing on the prowl for Macy's married heart. Loose and scrambled like an egg breakfast at Denny's, Campbell's character is affecting enough to make us want to see more of what she can do in less campy fare. Unfortunately, the film's original backer, Artisan, the house "Blair Witch" built, bailed on it, much to the chagrin of the nation's critics, who've loved almost everything about "Panic," Campbell included. Nevertheless, Campbell seemed happy enough to be promoting a film where she doesn't stab or get stabbed ad nauseam, even if it's meant a real battle to land the film in theaters. After opening in January in selected cities, "Panic" began reaching larger audiences in April via a staggered release that will wind down by the end of June.

Are you angry at Artisan for dropping the ball on "Panic"?

I'm disappointed. I understand that at the time this film should have been released their publicity department had had a complete changeover, but it is one of those situations where you wish they'd had the courage. I wish they'd seen this film for what it is and allowed audiences to see it. The response we got at Sundance, for instance, was really great.

But Roxie Releasing has taken us on as their pet project, and they've been pushing for the release. And the press has been great. I don't want to get discouraged from doing projects that I believe in if they're not going to make money. That's not what it's about.

Compared to your roles in the "Scream" films and "Wild Things," this was a much smaller part for you. What attracted you to it?

I loved the character of Sarah, that she comes across as someone who's confused, and yet has a lot of confidence because she speaks before she thinks. That's beautiful to me in a lot of ways. She doesn't censor herself. She's very honest and upfront. I liked Sarah's audacity and her truth. She just is who she is; there's no "character arc."

As for the film itself, this is the closest to my taste in films that I've done. I grew up watching foreign films, arthouse films. My dad would take me to the cinema in Toronto every Wednesday, and we'd see a foreign film, something like "Babette's Feast" or "Cinema Paradiso." I didn't grow up with any American pop culture films. So it's funny that the films that have made my career are not really to my taste. It feels good to finally get closer to what I believe in. This film is about something. The other films are pure entertainment.

Are you and Sarah similar in any ways?

No, I've always been someone who almost thinks too much before she speaks. But I think it's a quality to strive for in some ways. I can be that way with my close friends, you know? But otherwise, I analyze way more than she does.

There are a couple of makeout scenes in this film, with Macy and with the girl who plays your lover. Did you know Macy and the other actress before? What's that like, in general, kissing someone you don't know very well?

I hadn't met either one of them before. What can I say? It's always a strange experience, whether they're male or female. You're kissing someone in front of 60 crew members. (Laughs) It's not intimate at all. But I don't get too nervous anymore. I used to, but now, as long as I'm feeling the characters, I just do it and get it done. You feel better if you don't think about it too much.

There were moments during this film where it seemed as if things were building to a nude scene, and then it didn't happen. Do you have a policy on doing nude scenes and was that an issue in this film?

It wasn't really an issue on this film. I told the director, Henry Bromell, how far we should go. But Henry didn't have any expectations and didn't feel the need for any kind of nudity in the film. It wasn't about that.

I don't have any strict rules on nudity. I haven't really done a nude scene. If I think it's for the art of the film or cinematically it's going to make it beautiful or if the character's so incredibly free that it's going to be necessary to see that, then maybe I would do it. But if it's only for box office draw, or titillation, then I wouldn't feel comfortable with it.

Is that something you get all the time, the request to disrobe for a film?

Sure, I think all female actors do. Fortunately, I'm in a place in my career where my name means something to the film, so I'm able to say, "Well, I'm going to do your film, but I'm not going to take my clothes off." For actors in the beginning of their careers, it's harder for them to do that.

By contrast, though, you have done same-sex love scenes, like in this film and "Wild Things."

It doesn't scare me that much because once you get into a character and you're in their psyche, you're them. It's also the times. Since "Wild Things" came out, people have seen that that sort of relationship is exciting to audiences, and they've started putting it in other scripts. Luckily with this, that's not what it's about. It's about this character who was experimenting. But there are a lot of female-female relationships in scripts at the moment. I think it's OK. It's at least opening the door for people to be more understanding toward others who may be bisexual or homosexual.

Will there be a "Scream 4"?

If there is, I won't be part of it. I think Sidney would be in an insane asylum by now if she were in another movie. In "Scream 3," I did like the fact that she had taken her life and turned it to counseling others who go through problems. But as an actor, you want to play different roles, and I really don't want to be typecast as Sidney, which I'm already struggling with a bit in the industry.

Do you consider yourself to be a big risk taker?

In my career, yeah. I've never been afraid to leave something when I feel it's time to leave, even if it was a really secure situation, like "Party of Five." Even when I got a role in "Phantom of the Opera" in Toronto when I was 15, all the other performers were like, "Neve, you gotta realize that this could be the biggest thing you ever do." They were right. It could have been. For them to get that project after years of just doing off-Broadway was a really big deal. But I felt there was going to be more. So I chose to leave after two years, while most of the cast stayed on. It's just knowing when to jump.

Most folks think good-looking women have it made. Are there any pitfalls to being a "beautiful woman" in Hollywood?

The hurdle for an attractive woman is being taken seriously. Being judged on your talent rather than your looks. I've always felt like more of a character actor. I'm drawn to those roles. And I've had certain circumstances where my looks have worked against me. Then it's a matter of convincing the director that you can change your look. In "Wild Things," she's a punker-girl. I had to convince the director John McNaughton that I could do that. I think he was looking for someone who looked more like the character. So it's proving that your talent will get beyond that.

What can you tell me about the Alan Rudolph film you've done, "Investigating Sex"?

"Investigating Sex" was an actual book written by the surrealists in 1929. Alan thought this premise was very funny, which it is. So the movie is set in the '20s among these surrealists who are having conversations about sex for this book. Alan made up two characters, these female stenographers who are in the room among all these crazy men who are talking about sex, which at that time was really risqué. I play one of them, a virgin, sitting in this room of men talking about sex in very crude and crass terms. For my character, it's more like a blossoming. She feels insecure because she's the only virgin in a whole bunch of people who're not. She gets to hear all of these frank, open discussions of carnality, even before she actually does the deed.

We shot it in Berlin with Nick Nolte, Julie Delpy and Alan Cumming. Great cast. It's an Alan Rudolph film. Who knows what's gonna happen with it? People either know Alan and love every single one of his films or they don't know him at all. I've seen it, and it's hilarious. It's not like any movie you'll ever see. It's like watching an experience.

Did Nolte produce it?

Yeah, he basically developed it with the writer and Alan Rudolph. It was pretty much his baby. He wanted this movie to get made. So he became obsessed with sexuality, and investigating pornography through the centuries. He'd sit us all down with pictures of succubi and stuff like. He really gets into making a movie.

But that's Nick. He's off his rocker! He carries a medicine bag with him on set, and he was basically our first-aid guy. He had some ointment for everything. And, you know, being rich and famous, he's got access to tons of doctors with very strange equipment. He buys it from them so he can experiment on himself. Really strange. But I love him. He's very funny, and a big improviser. It's very unpredictable working with him and a lot of fun.

What do you do in your free time, when you're not working on films?

Oh, regular stuff. Hang out with friends, go out to Malibu, play with my dog, see my family, go to movies ... or write.

What do you write?

I'm writing a long script -- a romantic drama, but I don't want to give too much of it away. I'm also writing a long story for a dance movie that I'm doing. Barbara Turner, who wrote "Pollock," is writing the script for me. It'll be about classical ballet dance, and I'm in training right now for that. It'll be a year before I make it. I'm going to dance and act in it. It's about being a dancer and what that life is and the athleticism and discipline that's involved.

You were a ballet dancer in Canada before you became a professional actor. Why did you leave dance behind?

I had injuries and so had I wanted to stay in it, the competition would have been really hard for me, because I would have been dealing with my injuries and fighting with that along with the competitiveness. It is a very competitve world. There are very few dance companies in the world and you have to be phenomenal and you have to not be injured and you have to have a really strong mind to deal with the dance world. People who can do it are amazing to me. You cannot have a life outside of dance. If you're in a company, you're dancing from 9 a.m. till 7 in the evening, and then you go home and get in a hot tub and get some Epsom salts and try to get your body goin' again. There's no social life, no anything.

How would you compare the competition in the worlds of professional dance and acting?

It's hard for me to answer that question because I've done well in acting. But I guess when you look at the numbers and the odds of actually doing well, it's virtually impossible to get to the place that I'm at. But I don't find this as competitive because you're being cast for your acting ability and it's not necessarily based on the way your body functions -- like the way your body looks perfect next to the other dancer. If you're playing a lead in a movie, it's for that character and they'll tailor it to you. Whereas in a dance company, you have to fit in a definite mold.

How do you feel about the looming threat of an actors' strike?

I'm lucky. Financially, I'm OK. And my career's OK. I'm working on other projects, so I'll be developing those as we go on. And I want to get in and do some theater. During the strike we're allowed to do plays. I'm worried about the strike for other people. I don't think people will forget who I am, but that could happen to new faces.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

MORE FROM Stephen Lemons

Related Topics ------------------------------------------