Acting has taken a back seat for Minnie Driver, as next month’s sold-out King Tut’s gig testifies, writes Anna Burnside
When Minnie Driver arrives in Glasgow next month to play at the legendary rock venue King Tut’s, there is one face she wants to see in the audience. It’s not Alan McGee, who famously signed Oasis after seeing them play four songs there in 1993. It’s not the geeky NME critic who is bound to give her a bad review just because she’s a film star.
[b Instead, she has her fingers crossed that the local hero Gerard Butler, a great chum since they made The Phantom of the Opera together, will be there to spread his chisel-jawed charm among her predominantly female fans.
“Gerry is so great, he’s so charming and soooo handsome,” she trills, sounding rather younger and more excitable than a 34-year-old worldly-wise film-star-turned-rock-singer possibly should. “I don’t know if he’s in town but I would love it if he came along. Think of the stir that would cause. There would be queues of girls at the door. Gerry for James Bond! That’s what I say.”[/b
In fact Driver is being just a little disingenuous, because there are already likely to be queues (her show is sold out at King Tut’s) and the natural constituency for her guitar-strumming, folk-country, share-my-pain music is those of us with two X chromosomes.
It is not just the nosy and starstruck who have bought the tickets. A year after her puzzling switch from Oscar-nominated actress to jobbing minstrel, there has been a general (if grudging, in some quarters) acceptance that she is rather good.
Despite having turned her back on the film industry, Driver is speaking from LA. (The song she sings over the closing credits of The Phantom of the Opera was nominated for a Golden Globe.) She could not, however, sound less like a weary actress plugging her movie for the 45th time in one afternoon. While she is happy to enthuse about Phantom, Butler and her inability to switch from singing mellow ballads to opera, it is her new career that has her voice sparkling over 10,000 miles of phone line.
Two years ago, at the difficult-for-an-actress age of 32, Driver realised she was not getting the movie roles she wanted. At the same time, she separated from her fiancé, Barbra Streisand’s stepson Josh Brolin. Writing songs helped the pain and persuaded Driver that she should return to music, her first career — and she appears to be having a ball.
It is certainly not everybody’s idea of a ball. Her first album, Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket, reached No 41 in the charts. She spent a chunk of last year on tour with the Finn Brothers, traversing the country in their testosterone-packed tour bus, going to sleep in Wolverhampton, waking up in Plymouth. If she is not enjoying every minute, she is an even better actress than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave her credit for.
Even the tough bits have, she says, been great. In September, she played a fair-trade benefit in London’s 4,000-seat Hammersmith Apollo with REM, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Jamelia among others.
“The house lights were still up,” she recalls. “The audience were sitting there, going, ‘Who is this actress?’ They’d clearly never heard any of my stuff. It was very intimidating, singing for people who were so obviously not into it.” She laughs. “There was even a couple in the audience having a really big fight.”
Being bottom of the bill, re-living the stuff of your soul while bored REM fans text their mates . . . surely the Hollywood star used to the big Winnebago with hot and cold running yoga instructors found that a little galling? Driver, despite her reputation as a diva, does not see it that way. “I don’t know where people get these ideas about me,” she says, sounding mystified. “Why would I have any kind of problem about being bottom of the bill? I got to play with REM and Chris Martin. There are thousands of really talented musicians out there who never get to do anything like that.”
As a teenager, Driver crooned jazz standards around the clubs of her native London. In her early twenties she was poised to sign with Island Records when a part came up in the romantic comedy Circle of Friends. The critics loved her, and for a while she was Hollywood’s British actress of choice, making Sleepers, the Oscar-noticed Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.
She was romantically linked with co-stars Matt Damon, John Cusack and Harrison Ford, and tossed her trademark espresso curls on the red carpet like the A-lister she very nearly was. Then the films became less mainstream, the parts less high-profile. Her role in The Phantom of the Opera, Carlotta, is a small one. Her only other ongoing film project is a small Australian production, The Virgin of Juarez. To Driver, it all makes perfect sense. “For years, my friends have had to put up with me being this troubadour.” She says, laughing. “They have had to sit and listen to me strumming away, asking if I could please play something other than Bob Dylan.”
Years in the entertainment industry had taught Driver that if she was to have any sniff of credibility, she would have to do something more than stepping out with her guitar, tossing her hair and playing her favourite Dylan songs. Real newcomers can use glamorous photoshoots and familiar cover versions to raise their profile. Neither was an option here. “I knew I had to write all my own songs if I wanted to be taken seriously,” she says.
So, apart from Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, every track on the CD comes straight from Driver’s heart. The pain of her split with Brolin is clearly the inspiration for some lyrics, but the dedicated follower of celebrity gossip could spend many happy hours trying to figure out which of her other former beaus is implicated in the others. Driver herself is not telling. She will admit that, two years after writing, Yellow Heart can still give her a little moment, but also that putting her feelings into words and chords has helped her move on.
Besides, she has a new man in her life, an Australian academic who is much more interested in music than films, loves coming to see her play and sneaks around the audience collecting flattering comments to present to his darling after the show. Driver is clearly besotted and, after years of location intrigues, is enchanted to be seeing an anonymous civilian who prefers books to films. (“Although,” she says thoughtfully, “I think his family rented a load of movies and made him watch all my films over the holidays. They were shocked that he had never seen Good Will Hunting.”) Is it possible to combine music and acting in a viable career? Driver has no idea. She hasn’t got a clue how her first solo tour will go (although selling out King Tut’s is not too shabby). She would like to “make a fantastic second album, make lots of great films and go somewhere in Asia with Oxfam and just help”. Spoken like a true actress