La Frite is a tiny, unprepossessing restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, California. It's a line-drive single off the 405, not far from the famous, iconic boulevards and drives in these parts: Mulholland, Santa Monica, Wiltshire. The atmosphere is quiet, the lighting a bit subdued, and the food rustic. That said, it is excellent in every way, and in the back parking lot—valet, of course—the signs read "Armed guard on duty," and you will find the odd Escalade or Hummer amongst the crop of resting vehicles. Inside, there is both a reservation ("2 Campbell") and good espresso, not to be taken for granted anytime, anywhere. It is a perfect spot to meet Neve Campbell, whose silhouette as she graces the sunnily backlit entrance is completely unmistakable.
As an actor, Neve has sustained an interesting career marked by a wide variety of projects, many of them independent films, in a notoriously fickle business. She began on the boards, as they say, getting a part in the now-famous Toronto production of "The Phantom of the Opera". "I danced a bit, sang in the chorus, but an agent in the audience one night thought they saw something, and it really began from there," she says. This is not to be construed as random, or chance. "My dad was a drama teacher, and my mom ran a little dance school, so I grew up in a special environment. We did pantos all the time, growing up." Neve was in the National Ballet School of Canada and was a dancer before she was a professional actor in any meaningful way. "You train very seriously at a young age for dancing," she says.
Phantom led to a role in a Canadian television series called "Catwalk", and she says, "To this very day, I can walk down a street in Toronto and someone will call out, 'Hey, Daisy.'" She pauses, smiles. "I seem to get identified with my characters, in a way I never would have expected. So personal, so real."
Her next project was successful on a level that no one could have anticipated, except perhaps the producers, cast and crew. "Party of Five" ran for six seasons, and was an international hit. "It was a wonderful experience," says Neve. "The writers, producers, the cast—in some way I think it had to be a hit. The producers had done The Wonder Years, and were great at what they did. We all got along so well." Remarkably, it was not until this series that she thought of acting as a career. "It had never entered my head, to be honest. Until Season 3 or so, and then I realized I could do this for a living."
Then there was the seemingly prescient decision to take a role in "Wes Craven's Scream" in 1996 that confirmed Neve Campbell's career choice. "Scream" was an international phenomenon that lead to two sequels, both of which she starred in as well. But it would be a mistake to think that she segued from role to role, making the best of opportunities. "I was insecure at first, certainly. You don't start out in this career picking and choosing. So I was guessing at some things—but like in dance, I knew if I did the work, it would pay off eventually. At first, choice really doesn't come into it that much. You are starting out—it is definitely a struggle, so when a part comes your way, generally you take it. After some success, you can choose a little more, but roles are so difficult to get."
There is something about her, perhaps a sense of vulnerability wrapped around an inner core of intelligence and strength, that applies to virtually everything she has done. So although the roles and characters may be different, and she has that remarkable capacity to make each character unique, and uniquely her own, there is in some sense a continuity as well. This is what marks her as a special talent: there is something an audience identifies with that is consistent over many roles, but Neve makes each particular role a discrete performance, in and of itself. That is why she may walk down any street and be recognized in such a strong way not only as the actor, but as a character she has played. It seems to be a recurring theme, that the general public truly identify with her characters, including the aforementioned Daisy from "Catwalk", Julia from "Party of Five" and Sidney from the "Scream" films.
For Neve, the point is not acclaim or fame; it is about the challenge. "I love working with artists. To learn from them is a special privilege." She should know. She has worked, for example, with director Alan Rudolph on the film "Investigating Sex", co-starring Nick Nolte and Dermot Mulroney. "Alan taught me—taught all of us who worked on the project, I think—how important the experience of working on a film is. He included everyone in watching the daily rushes, and that means the caterers, the janitors, the electricians. Anyone who wanted to look at the dailies was welcome to do so, and he was always open to comments." She shakes her head in obvious admiration.
Alan Rudolph was mentored by Robert Altman, with whom, notably, Neve has worked twice. But most remarkably, she convinced him to direct a project she had had in her mind "from the time I was 22 or so. I always knew it was a film I would need to make. I loved The Red Shoes, but I wanted to show it [the industry] from the inside, about the craft of dancing." That film was "The Company", a beautiful, intimate and telling look at a dance troupe. Altman directed it at Neve's request. "But I have to say, it's not like I just asked Bob to do it.
There were many months of exchanges, plenty of time for him to consider it. He needed to know what I wanted to do, what kind of statement it would be, if it was something he could identify with somehow." She pauses, smiles and says, "Most people said to me, 'Someone like Bob Altman would never want to direct your little ballet film.' I guess that made me say, 'Oh, really?' And he did agree to do it, eventually, I think because he liked the idea of exploring an ensemble working towards an artistic goal."
Neve's career choices have tended toward something a bit outside the mainstream. "I do love independent film. The big-budget films have so many people involved, and the script is pretty much always rigorously adhered to. It is someone's investment, after all, so it is understandable." Thinking back to her start in film, she remembers, "In the beginning, I felt I was guessing a lot, trying to find the right note, but I had an interest in foreign films, and took a lot of cues from there." And somehow, that seems appropriate.
For Neve Campbell, her work is all about how you process the world and provide something for the camera. "You do all your playing in rehearsal, and all your thinking, too. About the character, how she thinks, how to interact with the other characters. Then when shooting begins, you let it all go, and you have the freedom to be that character."
But on stage, where her second stint working with Altman occurred, in the Old Vic presentation of "Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues", "it is much more technical. Your diaphragm, voice control, even simple physical movement—it is so much more about technique on stage. There is an interaction with the audience, live, that you can't replicate with film—but really, still, it is much more about craft on stage."
Neve has worked on an impressive array of projects with a variety of well-respected actors: Jeremy Irons in "Showtime's Last Call"; Danny DeVito and Bette Midler in "Drowning Mona"; John McNaughton's "Wild Things" with Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon and Denise Richards; Partition, directed by Vic Sarin. The list could go on, and does.
One of Neve's most recent projects is the Richard Attenborough film "Closing the Ring", which had a U.K. release last year and co-starred Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer and Mischa Barton. "Richard is an actor himself, so it is great to work with him, explore the character. He is so passionate about his work, and has incredible energy; even when he describes a scene, he is moving—hands, arms everywhere."
She will next be seen in the two-part miniseries "Burn Up", a Global Television and BBC co-production airing in June. "It was an interesting part, and I was attracted to the themes," says Neve. "The environment, oil, energy—it's all there. And I play someone who is determined to make a difference, for the better."
Throughout the conversation, it is abundantly clear that she takes her work seriously, knows how important her choices are and how to intelligently apply herself to her career as a whole. Based on her experience with "The Company", it seems probable that she will take another turn at producing, and perhaps even writing and directing. Mention fellow Canadian Sarah Polley and her accomplished directorial-debut film, "Away From Her", and Neve positively sparkles. "That is such a fine film. She did a great job—I loved everything about it. That would, in my mind, be a standard to shoot for." So, the writing process "has begun, and I do love it, but I really only have an outline of where I want to go with it. The discipline, of giving information but not overwhelming the audience—it is a challenge."
She heads out into the shining sunlight, still to decide within 48 hours on a film or two she might do. Parked at the curb is a Range Rover, two women in their early 30s seated inside, their name-brand oversize sunglasses just the beginning of the bling on display. The passenger window rolls down. "Was that Neve Campbell?" they ask in approximate unison. Affirmative. "Oh, we love her. She's just so smart!" Agreed. This is easy to confirm, and somehow it is nice to know that behind those lively eyes and a hearty laugh that defines the word infectious, resides the tough, intelligent person who brings such life to the characters she plays. Yes, that's Neve.