Jonathan Crocker

Editorial Director | Journalist

Rhona Mitra: Underworld 3

Posted by Jonathan On January - 16 - 2009

rhonaRhona Mitra doesn’t like having her picture taken. That hasn’t stopped her being framed as a lad’s mag pin-up, a videogame character, a sex bomb and an action star. The Brit actress tells us how she’s breaking the mould(s)…

Rhona Mitra has a confession to make. But first she wants a cappuccino. Sitting down with Total Film on a damp afternoon in a London coffee-house, the British actress takes off her zebra-rimmed sunglasses and looks for the waiter. He doesn’t recognise her. Already we know he wasn’t at this year’s Comic Con.

With Kate Beckinsale hanging up her pistols and PVC, Mitra rocked up at San Diego’s annual nerd-herd extravaganza to be unveiled as the new sword-swinging action heroine in vampires-versus-werewolves prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans. Six thousand people packed the convention centre to see her, the biggest crowd for any movie at the week-long show. Obviously, the fans had pressing concerns. “Oh yeah,” she nods. “Very interested in the costume. They were like, ‘Is it PVC?’ I was like, ‘No! It’s leather!’ It’s chainmail! It’s skin-tight!’ And they were like, ‘Ooooooh!'”

Not the first time Mitra’s elicited that response. A decade ago, she slid into khaki short-shorts, a latex vest and the cultural consciousness as the original Lara Croft. Motion-captured to create the videogame adventurer’s movements and personality, Mitra became the face (and figure) of a phenomenon. “I came to them because I saw there was this great iconic character that I saw possibly branching out into being a movie,” she remembers. Good thinking. “I knew it would happen, but I was just a little bit ahead of the game…”

That movie didn’t happen for another five years. Mitra’s name was touted – but she didn’t even audition. “You know, I thought the place they could have taken it to could have been much more on an Indiana Jones meets Blade Runner meets Nikita,” she says. “The script that I read had none of those elements. For me, it felt like reheated pizza at that point. Not only that, there was no way they were going to go with somebody who wasn’t a name.”

At the time, Mitra had only just scored her first Hollywood role in Paul Verhoeven’s blockbuster Hollow Man, as the woman who suffers an unwelcome bedroom visit from Kevin Bacon’s deviant invisible scientist. How was her first taste of the big time? “Horrible,” she says instantly. “It was the most brutal job of my life. Paul Verhoeven was so enigmatic and it was an invitation to be part of a very big studio film. But that role really was like being thrown to the lions. To be honest with you, I’ve done my best to forget it. It didn’t really do much for me…”

So in Hollywood, she was the just latest young sex-bomb to arrive on the East Coast. Back in England, Mitra was best known as a belle du jour of the UK lad’s mag scene. It still annoys her.  “I never modelled and I think that’s a misconception about me. They always come at me but I stay away from lads’ mags now. In fact, I hate having my picture taken.”

She’s been happy to make an exception for Total Film. But misconceptions? Mitra always takes exception to them. Both Hollywood and audiences found that pinning name-tags to Mitra – the new Kate Beckinsale, the old Lara Croft – just didn’t work. She rotated big co-stars and genres: Sylvester Stallone in Get Carter, Sasha Baron Cohen in Ali G In Da House and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama. Next time she steamed up the screen – with Kevin Spacey in The Life Of David Gale – Mitra made damn sure she was in charge. “Playing quite a lot of strong female sexual characters, all it’s going to do is make people think you’re almost playing a borderline bone fide porn star,” she says. “Almost. That’s your role unless you break the mould. I didn’t want to alienate myself from choice.”

Coffee arrives. Time for that confession. Mitra smiles, then lays it on the table: “I turned down Julia Styles’ role in The Bourne Identity.” A recurring role in the most lauded action franchise of the 21st century. Gutted. “Totally gutted about that,” she agrees, with a sigh. “I absolutely love those movies. But at the time, I was told it wasn’t going to be great and it would be a headache making it. I was like, ‘Okay…’ Yeah. Good move, Rho!” That’s not the only near-miss Mitra’s had. “Not that it turned out brilliantly, but I was supposed to do Daredevil, too,” she admits. “That was between me and Jennifer Garner.”

But unlike most young actresses who’ve arrived in LA dream-machine to be chewed up and spat, Mitra keeps perspective close and the fame game at arm’s length. “I think maybe at the very beginning I could have got freaked out about watching other people’s success, going at certain directions at certain velocities,” she admits. “That either stays part of you and you go nuts and end up on lots of prescription medication. Or you go, ‘Fuck that! That’s really exhausting!’ I think I’ve always had a pretty good idea of what Hollywood is. And looking for gold stars from other people is just toxic. It will kill you.”

Smart, funny and self-assured, Mitra kept scoring small roles and big co-stars (Matt Damon in Stuck On You, Jim Carrey in The Number 23, Mark Wahlberg in Shooter), while acing recurring roles on two small-screen hit series, influential US legal drama Boston Legal and scalpel-sharp medical smash Nip/Tuck. “That way, I’ve worked with great directors and wonderful actors and then gone back to really great writing in television,” she says. “Really great writing, really diverse characters.”

It was Neil Marshall’s apocalyptic thriller Doomsday that finally offered up a big-screen leading role with some real meat to tear into. “Doomsday was really important, regardless of whether it was a success or failure,” she says. “Because it’s playing a female Mad Max. I went into it thinking, if I get this wrong – I can’t control what the director does – I’m going to end up looking like a real arse. Having this one eye, saving the world, fighting this massive giant at the end… If I’m not accepted into this world and then that could be a choice role that would be lost to me.”

Six thousand Comic Con fanboys proved Mitra could punch her weight as an action tough-girl. With Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans, she’s back on the radar once again. But when it comes to picking future projects, Mitra asks just two questions. “Who do I get to play with? And how fun would that be?” So who would be really fun to play with? “Paul Thomas Anderson,” she says instantly. “I just want to know where his head’s at. I’d make tea on one of his sets. And Daniel Day-Lewis. I think that would do it. You could retire and be happy.”

There’s a mellifluous tinkle from Mitra’s mobile phone. “It’s quite gentle isn’t it?” she says, checking the message. “It reminds me of Willo The Wisp.” Her eyes light up. “How good is that? Willo The Wisp! So good…” She lifts her hands in delight. “Oh, The Moomins! Have you watched The Moomins recently?” Total Film confesses it’s been some years since we’ve watched the ’80s TV kiddie-classic about loveable white trolls. “Go to YouTube! You’ll understand.” Really? But there were no stories in The Moomins. They just, well, Moomined around. “Oh no, there were stories,” she says, deadly serious. “Swear to God! They did shit! I want to buy the movie rights to The Moomins.”

So let’s get this straight. We’re talking Moomins: The Movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Rhona Mitra… “…And Daniel Day-Lewis!” she bursts out laughing. “When you interview Daniel Day-Lewis next, can you please ask him? This is why I can’t be an action girl forever. That would mean I could never be a Moomin. And that would be a disaster.”

Publication: Total Film

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Jonathan is a London-based journalist, critic and editor. He currently works for data visualisation agency Beyond Words.

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