Minnie Driver plays a Welsh drama teacher in quirky new high school musical movie Hunky Dory, released in cinemas on Friday, March 2. The LA-based British actress reveals why the project was a tribute to her own inspirational drama teachers, and how everything was hunky dory despite leaving the Californian sun to film in a rainy Wales.
By Albertina Lloyd.
Although it's the title of her new film, everything is not hunky dory for Minnie Driver today. The 42-year-old single mother has been making headlines for finally identifying the father of her three-year-old son Henry, who she split from during her pregnancy.
Being the centre of gossip has clearly left her feeling tense and on guard, and not really in the mood for a cosy chat.
It's a shame, because the singer and actress stars in new feel-good musical movie Hunky Dory, set in Wales in 1976, in which she plays a drama teacher who tries to inspire her class by setting a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest to their favourite pop songs.
Today Driver, whose early career was clouded by rumours of her diva reputation, looks elegant in a satin blouse and black trousers, her spiral curls falling naturally around her face which glows with a California suntan. But her legs are crossed, her arms are folded, there's a very fixed smile and her answers short and careful.
She vaguely declares it was "the music" that persuaded her to sign up to the film, with a soundtrack of David Bowie, Roxy Music and other Seventies chart-toppers, performed by the cast.
"My favourite thing. 100 per cent," she nods about combining her two talents on screen. "I'd love to do lots more of that."
Driver has released two albums in the last decade and previously confessed she'd love to appear on Glee.
Hunky Dory fits right into the High School Musical genre, although Billy Elliot producer Jon Finn and My Little Eye director Marc Evans began discussing the idea long before the TV shows had become so popular.
The class includes the popular pretty girl, the lovesick boy pining for her, the oddballs, the shy one battling peer pressure and the one who has trouble at home, all expressing their teenage angst in song.
Driver plays feisty Viv, a new teacher determined to stand up to the traditionalist headmaster and stage something different for the end of term show.
Welsh beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for her performance in musical Chicago, was originally in line to take on the role.
Director Evans says: "There was a period when Catherine was aware of the project but when it got up and running, Minnie was foremost in our minds. She's got this spirit that's so right for it."
The actress has lived in Los Angeles for 14 years now, but her father is from Swansea and while preparing for the film, she met up with fellow British LA resident Matthew Rhys every week for Welsh lessons.
"I had a great dialect coach, who was incredibly diligent and happens to be a very old friend of mine," she says. "So it was enormously fun. Hard work, but I loved it."
Her film career started with 1995's Circle Of Friends, but it was Good Will Hunting in 1997 that brought her to international attention and saw her dating co-star Matt Damon. She was lauded as a rising star and tipped to be the next Brit to conquer Hollywood.
But her film projects became less and less successful.
Hunky Dory is the latest in a string of independent films for her, and since The Riches (her award-nominated US TV show with Eddie Izzard) was axed during the writers' strike in 2008, she has only made a few cameo appearances on television.
When she decided to go down the music root, releasing her first album in 2004, she was pictured as a bohemian free spirit, sitting on the steps of her trailer by the beach, strumming a guitar, curls blowing in the breeze.
It's a similar look to teacher Viv.
"She's a very free-spirited, politically-minded, music-loving woman. She's great," says Driver emphatically.
And she loved the "beautiful, flowy, comfy" Seventies costumes: "I would wear those dresses all the time."
Though Hunky Dory is set in the famously long hot summer of 1976, director Evans admits the Welsh weather was not kind to them, with dark storms often rolling in from the sea. But the film is full of beautiful images of the coast and fun times at the local lido.
Driver was only five in 1976, but she still has a few memories of that summer she's willing to share.
"I remember how incredibly hot it was and we were all very brown. It was quite nostalgic making the film."
She likes to think of her performance as a tribute to her school days, which helped her find her vocation as an actress.
"I had very inspiring English teachers, because they were also my drama teachers and that whole department stays with me to this day. I love a story that glorifies that."
After making Los Angeles her home and with a young child to bring up, some might assume Driver is content to just chill out by the beach.
But she insists she's keen to work and it doesn't have to be in Hollywood either.
In fact, she's just announced plans to write an autobiography about how Hollywood is not really the "super glamorous" world it's portrayed to be, and how it made her life "abnormal".
"I love coming back here to work, I really do," she enthuses about the UK. "It's about time really. I love being where my family is. I love making films here, it's very familiar."
And finally, she starts to open up a bit, becoming passionate about acting.
"You have to do things much more quickly in television, which can sometimes help and it stops you being indulgent, but it also means you get incredibly tired. On a film, usually you have a much longer amount of time.
"I don't really care, I just want to do good stuff."
Extra time - High school musicals :: Grease: The original high school musical that everybody wanted to sing along to was released in 1978, with John Travolta starring as the cool kid who falls for shy girl Sandy, played by Olivia Newton-John.
:: Fame: This iconic Eighties musical was set in a drama school in New York - the ultimate excuse for students to dance around the corridors and break into song.
:: High School Musical: Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron brought the genre into the 21st century with Disney's hit franchise, which began on TV in 2006. Jock Troy puts sport aside to pursue his love of singing and star in the school show with the new girl Gabriella.
:: Glee: Realising it wasn't just the kids who were loving High School Musical, Fox launched this comedy-drama TV series in 2009 and worked all the latest chart hits into the storylines.
:: Hunky Dory is released in cinemas on Friday, March 2