Stereotypes and preconceptions are rife in show business and few have more to overcome than former page three star Keeley Hazell. At only 24 she has become an icon of lad mag culture and has now set her sights on Hollywood. On face value it is a familiar story, glamour model establishes brand and decides that a career in film or pop music will be an easy next step. And while many fail there is something different about Keeley’s determination to move into cinema.
We have arranged to meet at a bar in London’s East End to discuss her first lead role in the upcoming short film Venus and the Sun, a comedic retelling of Ovid’s tale of Venus and Adonis. She arrives in unassuming fashion for our meeting in black jeans and loose fitting shirt; she turns down a glass of wine in preference for water. She explains that she is suffering the dual effects of a family party at the weekend and jet-lag, having just arrived back from her base in LA.
Keeley’s involvement with Venus and the Sun began with a chance meeting at the premiere of Interview, starring Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller, in 2007. “I met Andy (Brunskill, producer of Venus and the Sun) at the premiere; I was only there as I was thinking about moving into acting. We had a conversation about doing something in the future, he went away and put something together with scriptwriter Reuben Grove and sent it to my manager. When I read it I thought, “This is great, let’s do something.”
The film portrays Keeley as a fictionalised version of herself, taking to the library and studying Latin to escape the pitfalls of celebrity, and there meeting her Adonis in fellow newcomer Ukweli Roach. The cast and crew are largely made up of some of the brightest and most promising lights in a burgeoning British film scene. “It was good because it was a learning curve for everyone. We all had a chance to learn from the experience, it was like a really good support group, a great team, and it was so much fun to work on.”
Keeley left school at 16, worked at a hairdresser’s for a year before starting a fashion course at college. Three months into her course her modelling career took off and in December 2004 she was chosen as the winner of The Sun’s Page 3 Idol competition, which proved a launch pad to a successful career as the darling of the British glamour scene. Then, two years ago, it was announced she was giving up modelling to pursue a career as an actor and Keeley moved to LA to study at the world famous home of method acting, the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute. With an intense focus on drawing on personal experience to convey emotion and submergence in the role this is hardly an easy approach to becoming a Hollywood starlet. “It’s the hardest technique, method is the most difficult way to act but I think, once you get to grips with it, it is the most effective.”
“The whole thing of going back to school was so bizarre. I left school at sixteen and went straight to work so going back into a classroom was weird. I loved it though and it was one of the best experiences. I didn’t really want to leave. As you get older you discover knowledge is such an empowering thing. I now want to know about everything. When I was younger I just wasn’t interested – I hated people with knowledge.”
In a 2006 interview Keeley was quoted as saying she felt she was creative and when asked whether she found posing for photos a ‘drag’, she pointedly said, “not at the moment”. “I always wanted to act. I did GCSE drama at school and I went to a dance and drama class once a week in the evenings. I wanted to get signed to Spotlight (London-based audition agency) because a kid at my school had. I was so envious when other kids I knew went to auditions.
“When I started modelling at eighteen I thought it would be an opportunity to get my foot in the door. Then I went through a phase where I thought the modelling did more harm than good. I was thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Then I thought “Fuck it, this is what I want to do.”
The world of modelling, and in particular glamour, revolves around creating a brand and establishing a name that sells papers and magazines. I want to know how brand Keeley will affect her movie ambitions but what becomes apparent is if there is a ‘brand’ it is not something that sits easily with her. “They’re very different things; there is no room for it in acting. In modelling they build you up as this brand so they can put you up there to sell things. It’s weird, it’s nothing I ever aspired to be, I don’t want to live and breathe the Keeley who is in the papers. It’s difficult when you venture through into acting, people don’t know whether or not to take that brand and use it in a film. Venus and the Sun brings up a lot of these things; it takes glamour and fame and then plays with those ideas.
“When I first read the script it coincided with everything I was going through. I was trying to move on with my life and into acting – which in effect was my Latin in the film. There are a lot of levels to the film that bring up different points. I thought it was really smart as well. It is the hardest thing to get a short film that is interesting, funny and brings up so many thought-provoking points. It is very clever to do in 30 minutes.
One of the recurring features in modern film and TV is the inclusion of actors and/or celebrities playing themselves. And while this is often done for comical effect, think Extras or The Trip, they are usually established acts and can afford to open themselves up to public dissection. Is it brave of Keeley to play herself in her first role? “I had to detach the character from me; I had to play someone else who was appearing to be me. People see pictures of me and they think they know me; it’s very different to how I am – or at least I think it is.
“In the film we had to show the other side of celebrity. It’s hard to just be open, to just be me. I tried to see the character as an impulse version of me. I saw it that I was playing Venus and then chose things I liked to make it personal. In a way it was easier to play that part, not as much work, but I had to see it as someone else, not me.”
As we chat, it is Keeley’s total normality that shines through. She comes across as you would expect any young, ambitious woman to. She talks comfortably about the strangeness of staying at her Mum’s while she’s back in the UK after having her own space for so long, how she’s not sure she likes shepherds pie anymore, and how since she moved home her bank no longer sends her a diary. With such a relatively normal life friends and family must have a view on her career. “They haven’t really got to see things I’ve been in as they haven’t come out yet. The only person to see anything is my younger sister; she saw an early version of Venus and the Sun and thought it was hilarious.
“Everyone’s been really supportive and said, “If that’s what you want to do that’s great.” I went to a family party at the weekend after getting back from LA. A lot of people said, “I remember when you were younger and all you carried on about was this, I can see you doing it.” So it hasn’t been a surprise for a lot of older family members. It’ll be good to get feedback when they eventually see the film; my family will be very honest – people in the industry see things differently.”
Despite all this normality things could change very quickly as a number of projects are coming to screen in the next few months and with it an increase in publicity. Keeley played a supporting role in Like Crazy, winner of the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I haven’t even had a chance to see it yet as I’ve been so busy and the makers have been busy at Sundance. I’m desperate to see how I performed and how much screen time I’ve got. It will be really interesting as the whole film was improvised from a 50-page outline.”
With further roles coming up in How To Stop Being A Loser and St Georges Day this very serious career move is building momentum but Keeley remains grounded, “Everything I’m in at the moment is small parts. Baby steps but I’m really learning how things work.”
And how does Hollywood fit in with this desire to learn and become established while maintaining her normality. “LA is very strange; it’s like a factory that is the entertainment industry. Everyone is involved one way or another and you find yourself living and breathing it. Conversations with friends so often come back to films, “have you seen The Fighter” then you end up reeling off a list of films and offering a critique, “have you seen this actor, have you seen what they’re doing.” But then I think it seems more glamorous from the distance. I’m completely anonymous when I’m out there. To be honest I don’t find it that bad when I’m back here, a lot of people know me by name and hardly by face; I lead a very normal life here.”
And there we have it again, so often in our conversation Keeley comes across as being modest, having a normal life, not being recognised. She is very earnest in this and I believe her but how does this sit alongside her career as a glamour model and all the exposure (excuse the pun) that goes with that. “There is such a negative connotation to the term glamour model. The whole stereotype gives it a negativity which is why I prefer pin-up. It is funny how a word can change something but I do think there is a difference between pin-up and glamour model. Celebrity doesn’t interest me; it isn’t something I ever wanted and everything that came my way, like reality TV, I turned down. They still offer it to me. I think it baffles people as they think it’s the job I do, that it’s a money making machine and I should take anything that comes my way. That was never my intention, I can’t think of anything worse than just being known for being known.”