As she scampers across the foyer at the National Theatre, apologising for being a few minutes late, you wouldn’t peg Antonia Thomas as cinema’s next big thing. Closer up it’s different: sumptuous hazel eyes with an energy and charisma that are made for the camera. But she comes with no airs or graces whatsoever. She grabs a cup of tea (‘gotta be earl grey’) and a baguette, plonks herself down at the café table we’re sharing, and starts enthusing about the play she’s rehearsing.
It’s all very low key, yet with one film already out this year (the Stone Roses homage Spike Island), two more to come and a further two due for release in early 2014, the girl sitting opposite me in a baggy brown jumper, jeans and Converse is a star in the making.
‘It’s been an amazing year,’ she says. ‘It does feel exciting – everything’s bubbling. I didn’t know it was going to happen like this. I was just hoping to do some film. Then suddenly, all these amazing projects materialised.’
It’s a fool’s errand trying to predict which of her upcoming movies might be the one that makes it big. But if asked to choose from Northern Soul, the story of the 1970s dance movement with Steve Coogan, or Hello Carter, a London-based comedy executive-produced by Michael Winterbottom, or science-fiction thriller Scintilla, I’d plump for Sunshine on Leith instead.
You may recognise the name actually – it’s the film of the musical of the songs of The Proclaimers, the Scottish pop-folk twin brothers best known for their hit ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’. It has been directed by Dexter Fletcher, a one-time star himself in films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels whose first directing gig, Wild Bill, got rave reviews last year. With Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks in the lead, Sunshine on Leith has that infectious Mamma Mia! feel of serious actors having a blast.
And Antonia shines in it, playing Yvonne, a headstrong English nurse working in Edinburgh who falls in, then out, and then eventually back in love again with a young Scottish soldier called Davy, recently returned from Afghanistan. Naturally, we close with them professing in song how they would walk 500 miles for one another, which leads to an all-singing, all-dancing finale on the Mound in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle with hundreds of happy Scots bouncing along in the chorus line.
Antonia laughs at the memory: ‘Lots of them were extras, but many were random people who just turned up and joined in! It felt weird performing so publicly. You have to forget other people are there, judging and looking at you, and just get on with it. It’s part of the job, but when you’re doing a film you usually expect to be on a closed set – it’s not normally so public!’
You suspect Antonia took it in her stride – she has music and performance in the blood. At the Thomas household in London’s Blackheath there was always music in the background. Her father David is an opera singer and elder sister Emma is trained in musical theatre.
Her mother, a psychologist, is Jamaican-born (Antonia loves Jamaican food, and the Thomases have a house in Dominica, which Antonia describes as, ‘like Jamaica was 50 years ago, undeveloped and gorgeous’) and that brought another side to her childhood. ‘My upbringing has always been quite equal in terms of cultural influences,’ she says. ‘But it’s unlikely that anything could prepare you for a job that involves belting out Proclaimers songs on camera, in Edinburgh and in public.
‘I’d done musicals for the National Youth Music Theatre when I was little, but it’s a completely different thing for screen. The first day, when we did a read through, we were all thinking, “We’re all going to have to sing in a minute.” It was just so daunting. But everyone was in the same boat, and, anyway, it’s the Proclaimers – come on, who wouldn’t get carried away?’
They filmed in Edinburgh and Glasgow just before Christmas last year. Antonia is a dyed-in-the-wool Londoner. What did she make of the Scots? ‘My boyfriend in the film [Davy] thinks that there’s some kind of irreconcilable difference between Scots and English people and that they should hate each other, but that’s not how we found it at all. I had an amazing time.’
For one scene Antonia and her co-star George MacKay, who plays Davy, had to climb up the mini mountain Arthur’s Seat, for their first kiss. ‘That was one of the most memorable moments. Can you see that I’m shivering when I’m singing? It was just so cold! But fun too. It was moments like that when you go, “We’re really lucky to be doing this as a job – because we’re just playing and having a great time.”’ That’s Antonia all over – she has a zest and a zip that have not been crushed by an industry that can be ruthless. You sense that she’ll be ‘playing and having a great time’ for many years to come, because she marries that relish for the work with a toolkit of talents.
If Sunshine on Leith tested out her vocal skills, for example, Northern Soul presented an entirely different challenge. Set in the 70s, the film tells the story of two Northern boys whose worlds are changed for ever when they discover black American soul music, and Antonia’s character Angela is supposed to be a brilliant dancer. ‘I did ballet when I was younger [at the City of London School for Girls], and then at drama school [Bristol Old Vic] they drilled us in several kinds of dance styles. But Northern Soul was something else. It was, like, throw away your rigid structure and just be really relaxed. It was the opposite of everything I’d learnt.’ Some of the dancers on the film were professionals who had spent years honing their skills.
The two lead actors had been working on their dancing for two years; whereas Antonia had three weeks to make herself look like one of the best movers on screen. ‘It was real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff. Every day we were drilling and drilling. The first day of filming was one of the big dance numbers. It was in a hall in Bury and the whole soul community had been invited – these big, burly 50-year-old blokes. Elaine [Constantine, the director] wanted to make sure that every single detail was right. We were in full 70s garb. I said, “Are you joking; they’re going to think I’m so crap.” But when we’d finished the burly blokes were weeping – they were just so pleased.’
It’s become a bit of an Antonia special to take on the kind of daunting tasks that other actors might balk at – and pull it off. Her first screen role was on Channel 4’s Bafta-winning superhero drama Misfits. She played Alisha, a bossy amazon whose superpower was that she could instil instant sexual arousal in anyone she met. One of Antonia’s first scenes involved doing something unmentionable with a bottle. It was quite a baptism for a girl who had finished drama school just the day before.
‘I’d say that the most uncomfortable I’ve felt is doing some of the stuff I had to do in Misfits. The bottle scene was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I really didn’t want to do it. I had to think hard about the job because of the nature of the character. But in the end it was just such a brilliant opportunity and I couldn’t turn it down.’
Misfits was Antonia’s big break. She stayed with the show for three years, leaving in 2011. Roles followed in ITV’s Homefront, in which she played a young wife whose husband is killed in Afghanistan, and then the big run of movies that mark 2013 as Antonia’s breakthrough year.
For now her base is in a flat in Borough, Southeast London, just down the road from the National. We meet during rehearsals for Home, a play about homelessness that stands in stark contrast to some of her more high-profile screen work. ‘It’s a real challenge – it’s a verbatim play so the words all come from interviews with young homeless people. The statistics are ridiculous – there are something like 77,000 young homeless people in London.’
Although the subject matter intrigued Antonia, what she was really hankering after was theatre work. The stage is her first love, she says. Her boyfriend is also an actor, and though she’d rather not reveal his name, she does admit that trying to build a relationship when you’re both in a job that demands constant travel can cause problems.
‘It is hard. This industry can be frustrating because sometimes when the work comes you’ve got to go with it. That’s not easy when it comes to relationships. But we’ve made it work so far and I think both being actors you kind of understand how the other one works. I think it gets difficult when you start getting jobs overseas. I’ve got friends that have to go to America, and I think that is hard.’
I suggest that with the slew of work she has coming out this year showcasing her talents it can’t be long before she too is off to America. But Antonia has other ideas. ‘I’d love to be in a period drama – that’s my obsession. But being a mixed-race actress, there aren’t so many roles you’re right for. There are lots of period stories to be told with ethnic people in them, but the stories that are being told are not those ones. And that’s frustrating. No, it’s not an easy industry, but so far I have been lucky, so I will keep going.’
Lucky? Talented, more like. Don’t be surprised if next year’s Downton Abbey features a mixed-race, singing, dancing role – if, that is, Hollywood hasn’t whisked Antonia away already.
Sunshine On Leith will be in cinemas from 4 October
And this happened (no pictures, though):
Sources: 1, 2, TIFF photos uploaded here and here