This spring, ’90s TV darling-turned-movie star Neve Campbell chews up the not-so-small screen again in America’s other political thriller.
Sometimes, when a celebrity has lived in the eye of an all-encompassing pop-cultural whirlwind, there’s later a moment that they wish they could re-experience, if only to be more centered and present. Just ask Neve Campbell.
“Hosting Saturday Night Live with David Bowie—like, really understanding what that meant,” Campbell offers as her rewind moment, a 1997 episode at the height of the then-23-year-old’s Scream fame in which she wishes she’d been able to better focus on the immediate cool factor. “I was terrified! I wish I could have had more fun with it… To be able to walk out on a stage and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, David Bowie,’ was pretty incredible!”
It was the mid-to-late-’90s, the era of Peak Neve, in which the actress had gone from starring in her breakout role as Julia Salinger on the beloved TV series Party of Five to full-fledged movie stardom in a succession of youth-appealing box-office hits that included The Craft, Scream, and Wild Things. And Campbell, who continues her return to TV screens this summer by reprising her role as Leann Harvey on Netflix’s perhaps too politically prescient streaming series House of Cards, can be excused for admitting it was all a bit of a blur.
“I don’t think I even knew what was happening,” Campbell, now 43, chuckles. “It was overwhelming and it was wonderful and I was certainly grateful for the work, but I was also working so hard.” That workload included more than 10 months a year shooting 16-hour days on Party of Five. “And then, because I wanted to guarantee that I would have a career after the show,” she recalls, “I felt I needed to do films on the hiatus. It was exhausting.”
Her youth helped her endure the punishing schedule, as well as avoid fully grasping her headlong, hyper-speed transformation into a full-blown pop icon subject to a seemingly non-stop sequence of photo shoots, interviews, and promotional ops. “I remember being in a car with my manager and my publicist, and my publicist was very excited to tell me something: ‘Okay, you got the cover of Rolling Stone!’ And I remember first of all being upset that I had to do another photo shoot, and secondly that I didn’t know what Rolling Stone was. I was just naive.”
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“I look back on it now, and I’m not sure how that young person did that!” she adds. “I’m glad I was able to put some good work out, and I’m glad people enjoyed it. It was a very odd and magical and wonderful time.” Eventually and inevitably, in the case of most pop phenomena, the pace finally slackened and, despite the urging of some of her reps to follow “the blockbuster stream,” she was able to explore more art-minded fare—the kind that had fed her creative soul as a youth, when she transitioned from aspiring ballet dancer to actress following an injury.
“I ended up in this very pop-culture American world, which I’m so lucky to have,” the Canadian-born actress reflects, “but it wasn’t the work that I would have strove for. So for me, it was important to try and do something different. I also needed a break, to be honest—and I took a break.”
ONE OF THE GREATEST THINGS EVER SAID TO ME IS, ‘WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF YOU IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.’ IT WAS SO RELIEVING TO HEAR THAT.” —NEVE CAMPBELL
Campbell resided in England for eight years, worked in theater and with esteemed filmmakers such as Robert Altman, and lived “outside the Hollywood box for a bit, which was great,” she says. Along the way, she met her current partner, British actor JJ Field, and shortly before she became pregnant with their son, Caspian, her agent posed a provocative question: “‘Do you care at all about your American profile?’ I had to question it and go, ‘Oh right, it probably is something I should think about, and not let my career get too far away from me.’”
Queen of Aces: “When we come back this season, we enter into a very fraught situation and trouble ensues!” reveals House of Cards star Neve Campbell, here sitting pretty in a shirt ($1,200) and skirt ($1,350) by Bottega Veneta. 320 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-858-6533. Neo tassel earrings, Eddie Borgo ($275). Bloomingdale’s, Fashion Island, Newport Beach, 949-729-6600
After a couple contented years of full-time motherhood, Campbell says she “slowly got my feet back in,” starting pretty deep-end with prized guest roles in high-profile series like Mad Men and Grey’s Anatomy. Then last year came the right regular role at the right moment: Leann, an accomplished, hard-charging political careerist managing Claire Underwood’s (Robin Wright’s character’s) campaign in House of Cards’ fourth season. “It was the perfect thing for me,” she says. “To step into something that had success, that was quality, that was respected already, and to be able to join an ensemble where I’m not carrying it immediately was exactly what I needed.”
She’s back for Season Five, along with Wright and Kevin Spacey, although the show’s fictional White House is keeping better secrets about its plotlines than its real-life, leak-plagued counterpart. “We left with the Underwoods trying to keep trouble at bay,” she hints. “Things are closing in on them, so when we come into the beginning of the next season, we enter into a very fraught situation. The stakes are very high, and trouble ensues—and that’s about as much as I can say!”
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It’s also a role she feels is consistent with her enduring pop profile. “I was very lucky to be able to play young women who were strong and powerful and not victims, or chose not to be a victim, then went on a journey to become stronger,” she says. “I feel lucky again to be able to play a role like that. Although Leann’s a little bit uncertain, she’s very powerful and strong and successful. That’s great to play. I think those kinds of roles are very important today. We need to see more of them.”
She’s still trying to wrap her head around real-world politics, which from her vantage point has become as chillingly intrigue-filled as that depicted on the series. “You would have hoped that our actual political system would never be as chaotic as the Underwoods’ world,” she sighs. “In some ways, it’s more insane than what you could possibly write without it feeling completely over-the-top. If you were to write what’s gone on in the last two years, no one would believe it.”
“YOU WOULD HAVE HOPED THAT OUR ACTUAL POLITICAL SYSTEM WOULD NEVER BE AS CHAOTIC AS THE UNDERWOODS’ WORLD. IF YOU WERE TO WRITE WHAT’S GONE ON, NO ONE WOULD BELIEVE IT.” —NEVE CAMPBELL
Having recently participated in the Women’s March on Washington, DC, Campbell remains hopeful, despite her own distaste for the current political climate. “A lot of people felt, as I did, great disappointment with what’s going on,” she says, “but in a sense, it’s been a great thing because it has caused us all to pull up our bootstraps and get active and not take things for granted and try and have a voice. I think we’re all trying to figure out how to go about doing that. It’s good to start that process. That’s what I’m doing at the moment.”
Campbell remains a bit astonished just how enduring her ’90s output has been, having recently attended a packed outdoor screening of The Craft at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with some of her castmates. “People were there in costumes, they were screaming the lines at the screen,” she says. “I don’t know that I ever had such a clear sense of the impact that that movie had. The amount of women who talked about how our characters and that film inspired them to be stronger was pretty overwhelming.”
She welcomes encounters with her nostalgia-fueled fan base. “It’s funny because there’s always this: ‘I watched you on Party of Five and wow, that was 20 years ago—we’re old!’” she laughs. “Seeing people that have grown up watching you and gone through their own lives and experienced you in different ways through different projects… there’s something nice about that.”
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Meanwhile, after coming of age in the white-hot spotlight and living out her thirties more under the radar, Campbell is perfectly happy in her own skin these days. “There’s something really lovely about stepping into my forties,” she muses. “I know a lot of people struggle with that—but for some reason, I’m really enjoying getting older. Maybe that’s because I’ve been lucky enough to accomplish a lot of the things that I wanted to accomplish already. That has brought a certain amount of comfort.”
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