At first I hardly recognise the elegant little Venus in jeans, with opulent Scarlett Johansson lips. It’s abundantly obvious that Anna Popplewell has done a lot of growing up since she made her name as bossy schoolgirl Susan, one of the four Pevensie children who discover the magic kingdom of Narnia in the Disney film adaptation of C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As Anna puts it, ‘I was 13 when I had my first audition for Susan; 15 when I made the first movie; 16 at the end of the shoot; 17 when it was released; 18 when I filmed the sequel, Prince Caspian, and now I’m 19.’
The comparisons with 18-year-old Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter films, are irresistible. Both are bright and talented, and both have had to live their adolescence in the glare of the spotlight as the iconic screen heroines of two of the most famous children’s fantasy adventures in the world. Anna’s second Narnian outing, in Prince Caspian, gives Susan a startling change of image as a warlike queen in titanium chain mail and a leather corset. ‘I have a lot more action going on in this movie, which is great,’ she says, delighted to find herself armed with a quiver of arrows, the only female on the battlefield as she helps the disinherited Prince Caspian to regain his Narnian throne. ‘I was quite worried about not being able to keep up with the boys,’ she admits, ‘so, on the quiet, I had twice as many riding lessons as anyone else before we went out to film in Prague. When the battle scene was being choreographed, we started a body count of all the people we had “slain” and I was doing very well,’ she adds with a grin.
As an actress, you can’t hope for a more high-profile film role than an action heroine. And despite having to fit A-level revision into breaks between takes, during 12-hour days in the 40C heat of a Czech summer, Anna enjoyed every perspiring minute of the adrenalin rush. ‘At least I didn’t have to run up and down hills wearing a suit of armour, like the boys,’ she points out. ‘There were 500 people on the battlefield one day and it was so hot and crazy that there were some injuries – but nothing too bad.’
The filming proved to be a particularly poignant time for Anna, because Prince Caspian will mark her swan song as Susan; as all devotees of C S Lewis’s seven chronicles of Narnia know, Susan only appears in two of the novels. Another book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is currently in preproduction, but the two eldest children, Peter and Susan, won’t appear in it, for at the end of Prince Caspian they are told by the lion Aslan that they won’t be coming back to the magic kingdom of Narnia because they are too old. And although Peter makes an appearance in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, by then Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia because ‘she’s interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitations’.
Mention of the line that left readers in no doubt what Lewis thought of frivolous girls provokes a giggle from this blue-eyed, brown-haired teenager in her hoop earrings and black, high-heeled boots. ‘I’m not totally “nylons and lipstick” orientated like Susan,’ she protests playfully. We’ve met in London’s Soho at her first grown-up fashion shoot, to celebrate her transition from child star to full-time student, and in fact she couldn’t look more contented and happy with what seems to me like a new-found freedom. Her departure from the Narnia series was a genuine case of life imitating art – since Anna, like the fictional Susan, was developing other interests anyway and felt ready for a change (she went to Oxford University to study English two months after finishing the filming). But she admits she will ‘miss the people and the buzz of being on a massive film’, adding, ‘It was quite a bitter-sweet thing to film Susan and Peter’s departure because it was quite true to life. I think it’s sad, but it’s also realistic for Susan at that stage in her life to go back into the real world and forget about Narnia,’ she says.
‘It was impossible not to draw a parallel between going on those magic film sets in New Zealand and Eastern Europe and entering enchanted Narnia. But, to be honest, although I’ve had a really wonderful time making the movies, I sort of feel ready to move on. There’s not so much pressure as there must be with Harry Potter, because those films are all sequential with the same three lead actors.
And I’m happy doing my degree, which is really interesting,’ says Anna, who sat her A-levels (she got three A grades) in the middle of the Prince Caspian shoot. ‘And although I think I would like to be a full-time actress one day, if I hadn’t gone to university now I think I would get to 25 or 26 and wish that I had gone at 18 or 19 like most other people. So while it would have been really good fun to do another Narnia film, creatively I would like to do something else,’ she says. ‘I’m reading other scripts at the moment, but it’s a question of trying to fit things into my summer holidays.’
In the meantime, she’s keeping her hand in by joining OUDS, the prestigious Oxford University Dramatic Society, which spawned such stars as Hugh Grant, to play Shakespeare for the first time. ‘I don’t think I’d get to play a part like Lady Macbeth in real life at my age, so it’s been nice to experiment with that,’ she laughs. And there’s still a tantalising C S Lewis parallel, for she happens to be studying at the same college – Magdalen – where the writer was an English tutor for 30 years. ‘It wasn’t in my consciousness when I applied, but there’s a wonderful symmetry to it – possibly I’m even being taught by people who were taught by him,’ she speculates excitedly.
Her fellow students, she says, have been ‘pretty cool’ about her screen fame. ‘Oxford is full of wacky undergraduates, with everyone from a semi-pro footballer living on the floor above me to singer-songwriters and Formula One racing drivers, so I’m not really that out of the ordinary. But I’m sure I’ve had some male attention as a result of Narnia, because people may think it’s all glamour or that I must be loaded,’ says Anna, who has banked all her earnings instead of spending them and says firmly that she would never date anyone who wasn’t down-to-earth about her acting. It sounds as if her boyfriend, a fellow English student whom she won’t name, fits the bill admirably. ‘He’s quite new, so I won’t talk about him as the publicity would freak him out,’ she grins.
She certainly doesn’t want the attentions of the paparazzi who now trail the fast-blossoming Emma Watson. ‘I came home the other day and there were some of them hanging around outside my house, which was slightly worrying because I don’t usually get attention like that. Nowadays you can’t deny that the image factor goes with the job, and wearing an Armani frock to the premiere of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was great fun. But I think there’s something bizarre about projecting yourself, rather than the characters you play, for publicity. Celebrity is a very odd thing.’
For as she puts it, ‘I take the bus and the tube. I don’t walk around with sunglasses and a large handbag and a sign saying, “I’m a superstar.” I’m a very normal teenager and I’m going to do what teenagers do. I’m very interested in the theatre and I go shopping and see my friends. I’m not going to go out and get drunk every night, but every now and then I’m going to have a drink. I don’t buy into that Hollywood slimming thing, and although I go to the gym a couple of times a week, I eat chocolate and cake every now and then.’ As for the Narnia films’ makers, Disney, she insists they have never tried to control her image – as has happened to some child stars. ‘They’ve never said to me, “You must wear this frock, and stay out of clubs and pubs, and don’t cut your hair.”’
She’s the daughter of a barrister and a doctor with ‘no history of the disease of acting in the family’, as she puts it, although her grandfather is the flamboyant, wisecracking High Court judge Sir Oliver Popplewell who famously inquired where Linford Christie kept his ‘lunchbox’. And her solid, sensible upbringing in North London’s Islington, where she still lives with her family during the holidays, has clearly stood her in good stead ever since she landed her first professional role at the age of eight. She was Tara Fitzgerald’s little daughter in an ITV film of Frenchman’s Creek, after being spotted by an agent at a Saturday-morning drama school she attended, and a few years later played Colin Firth’s daughter in Girl with a Pearl Earring. But Susan was her first starring role, and she has taken it in her stride.
‘No one in the Popplewell household can escape having the mickey taken out of them mercilessly. Dad teases me about my “fluffy” work, and I have been very lucky not to have one of those pushy stage mothers who wants their children to make money for them,’ she says.
So determinedly grounded is Anna that she even claims not to be able to remember the names of all the stars she’s met on the red carpet. ‘I haven’t got a list because I don’t tend to get too crazed about it,’ she says. As for celebrity egos, this former head girl of the North London Collegiate School has no time for thespian hissy-fits. ‘There’s a potential for quite unstable behaviour on set, but I don’t think there’s any necessity for it,’ she says crisply.
The oldest of three children, she admits she was typecast as the bossy Susan, so she was easily able to identify with Susan putting herself in charge of the younger children, Edmund and Lucy, when they are evacuated in wartime Britain. ‘Susan gets a lot of stick in the books for being the cynical one, but she has to adopt the parental role,’ she says.
Another thing that’s impressive about this centred young actress is her no-fuss revelation that at the age of eight Anna decided that she and her younger sister Lulu, 17, and brother Fred, 13 – who have had parts in such movies as Love Actually and Peter Pan – would pool their earnings. ‘And we kept it going. Up to the age of 18, any of us who got any work divided it up because it prevented sibling rivalry,’ she explains.Smart girl. I think she’s going to survive her sabbatical from stardom very well indeed.
She'll also be playing Wendla in the Oxford Playhouse production of Spring Awakening. Good for her.