Believing in life after death

Believing in life after death

Believing in life after death

First published in Celebrity Interview

By Jeananne Craig, Press Association

As a child, Natascha McElhone wasn't much of a football fan. In fact, she hated being "dragged to Old Trafford every other weekend" by her Manchester United-supporting father.

But when she was offered a role in Believe, a new film about Reds legend Sir Matt Busby, she felt obliged to say yes for her 11-year-old son, who is "obsessed" with the beautiful game.

"My involvement in this film was sort of a dedication to him," the actress says, looking effortlessly cool and elegant on a sticky summer's day.

"We went to Manchester obviously, and he got to go to Old Trafford and see a game in the home ground, which meant the world to him. It was great, a sort of mini-Odyssey for the two of us."

Set in the early 1980s, the fictional film sees former United manager Sir Matt (played by Scottish actor Brian Cox), come out of retirement to coach a team of young working class boys for an upcoming local league cup.

Star of the team is Georgie (newcomer Jack Smith), a gifted but unruly 11-year-old whose widowed mum Erica (McElhone) is more worried about him landing a place at a top grammar school than winning a junior football league.

Believe is more than just "an obvious football film", the 44-year-old notes.

"I think it's quite a good allegory for other stories about realising your dreams and overcoming obstacles, and balancing your desire to do something with listening to your head a little bit."

A mother of three boys (Theodore, 14, Otis, 11 and five-year-old Rex), McElhone, who was widowed herself when her husband Martin Kelly died suddenly of heart problems in 2008, could relate to Erica's concerns and worries for Georgie.

Not least "of having to be the bad guy and pull rank", she says with a smile.

"The way I relate to my kids is very different probably from how she does... and my sons are obviously different to Georgie, but it was lovely to play those dynamics."

Born in Surrey to journalists Mike and Noreen Taylor (the pair split up when McElhone was two and Noreen later married columnist Roy Greenslade), McElhone was raised in Brighton and attended drama school in London.

She went on to land roles in the Jim Carrey comedy-drama The Truman Show, the sci-fi film Solaris alongside George Clooney, and the hit TV show Californication, in which she played the former partner of David Duchovny's womanising novelist.

Her private life seemed just as golden as her professional one, with a loving marriage to Kelly, a leading plastic surgeon, who she wed in 1998, and two beloved boys.

But a decade after their wedding, when McElhone was pregnant with their third son and working in the US, she received a call informing her that her husband had died on the doorstep of their London home.

In the days that followed, McElhone wrote a moving obituary about the "magical, beautiful" Kelly, and how she couldn't believe she wouldn't "feel his skin anymore".

But despite her grief, as a parent, she realised she had to grab life "by the throat" and try and keep things fun for the boys.

She remained in the cast of Californication and her older sons continued to join her on set during their school holidays, "like a circus troupe". She's since revealed that for a long time, they thought the show was called California Vacation.

The show wrapped last August, freeing McElhone up to work on other projects - including a stint from March to June in a stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction on London's West End, playing the bunny-boiling mistress made famous by Glenn Close.

With the post-show adrenalin keeping her awake until 1.30am and her youngest son up at 5.30 or 6am, she admits theatre is "not very conducive to domestic life".

"I've just been living off very little sleep for the last four months and feeling a bit..." she says, pulling an exhausted face.

And the Fatal Attraction role couldn't be more different from Mancunian mum Erica, she laughs, her blue eyes widening.

"It's interesting doing [a stage production] where you play someone who goes from one end of the emotional spectrum to another in the space of one night. F rom being fairly balanced and flirtatious and appealing, to sort of predatory, manic, depressed, clawing and needy, to homicidal, to suicidal.

"There isn't much she doesn't do in that night. So that's been really fun, acting non-stop for two and a half hours... With filming, you play a certain sort of objective for a few minutes a day really, so it's quite gratifying getting proper flex in the muscles."

There's no time for a break, however, now Fatal Attraction has completed its run.

"No, I need to crack on! When it's [the boys'] summer holidays I can be so much more flexible where and how I work, because we can all go like a gang," she says.

"So I'll probably crack on through and then, when they go back to school, take it easy a bit."

EXTRA TIME - FANTASY FOOTBALL FILMS

:: Gregory's Girl (1981) - Scottish schoolboy Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) is infatuated with fellow student Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), the centre forward in his football team. This coming-of-age tale won Sinclair a Bafta for best newcomer.

:: When Saturday Comes (1996) - Sheffield United fan Sean Bean stars as a factory worker who is scouted by the team (and later plays in the FA Cup semi-final) in this film, which also stars Pete Postlethwaite and Emily Lloyd.

:: Bend It Like Beckham (2002) - David Beckham makes a cameo in this comedy about an Indian family in London trying to raise their soccer-playing daughter (Parminder Nagra) in a traditional way. Keira Knightley co-stars.

:: Looking For Eric (2006) - Ken Loach directs this film about a football-loving postman who gets life advice from former Manchester United striker Eric Cantona. The enigmatic Frenchman, who is now an actor, plays himself.

:: Rudo Y Cursi (2008) - This Mexican film stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal as impoverished brothers who become professional footballers. Fame, money and the lure of corruption follow.

:: Believe is released in cinemas on Friday, July 25

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