There’s a moment during our shoot with Agyness Deyn when it becomes obvious what all the fuss is about. She is wearing a gold sequinned tunic teamed with knee-high socks, the perfect stage for the show that is her ludicrously long legs, and as she sidles past the crew in the hallway, everyone is taken aback. The girl who arrived in a corduroy jacket and brogues an hour earlier is gone, and a bona fide supermodel has taken her place. In her broad Lancastrian accent, Deyn politely asks how much time we have left, before adding that she had “better go put summit else on then”, and slides away, leaving everyone a little dazzled in her wake.
Not so long ago, in the pre-Cara era, Deyn was one of those first-name-only supermodels: for a time, it was all about Agy. In 2008, i-D magazine put her on its cover with the simple word “icon”; the fashion world and the tabloids fell for the former chip-shop girl from Rossendale with the peroxide-blond crop (“the Agy”, naturally), while Zara commissioned mannequins inspired by her body.
When she wasn’t on the catwalk, she was being photographed on the fashion week front rows, next to Nick Grimshaw and Lily Allen, behind the DJ decks with Alexa Chung or in the back of black cabs with Pixie Geldof. Most of all she hung out with fashion designer Henry Holland, her best friend from home. When she first moved to London she lived with him (secretly) in his university halls, and the two went on to conquer the fashion scene with their blase northern swagger.
Deyn remembers the time she and Holland gatecrashed a Teen Vogue party in New York and were introduced to American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. “I was maybe 19 or 20, wearing a Jeremy Scott jumper dress with burgers and hot dogs all over it, and she invited me and Henry to the CFDA awards [the Oscars of fashion]. I didn’t know who she was, but I thought she was great. I said yes, and I remember thinking, ‘This is so glam.’ I had never experienced parties like that. It was crazy.”
But Deyn’s former life seems remote when she arrives at our shoot in her civilian clothes (pencil skirt and jumper teamed with ankle socks), at 32 looking more like the prettiest girl in the sixth form than a cover girl. It’s not that she’s not strikingly beautiful: her face is perfectly proportioned, with plump lips, neat nose and blue, almond-shaped eyes. But the Agy crop has grown out, replaced by distinctly normal shoulder-length brunette hair. “Yeah, I don’t really get recognised any more,” Deyn says. “And my mum loves it! When we were growing up, my sister had white blond dreadlocks and I shaved my head. Now my sister has long hair, too, so my mum is like, ‘Oh, you both look so lovely.’”
After eight years living in the States, her accent is as broad as ever. Deyn moved to New York in 2006, and for the last three years has been living in Los Angeles, generally avoiding the media glare, except for the odd paparazzi shot of her in a supermarket with her husband, Giovanni Ribisi (the actor best known as Phoebe’s brother in Friends). But despite her three-year hiatus from modelling, Deyn has still very much got it. “Is she back? Is she back?” various fashion brands ask our stylist, who was inundated with clothes for Deyn to wear on the shoot: everyone wants her to be seen in their stuff.
The answer is, well, no, not really. Deyn is more interested in acting, specifically her new film, Electricity. The new hair is not a style statement, either; it’s for her next film, Sunset Song (she’ll be cutting it off again once shooting has wrapped). “When people ask what I do, I say I am an actor,” she says, though this took a little bit of getting used to on her part. Deyn had done a couple of short films at the tail end of her modelling days, but it was only after she finished filming Pusher in 2012, in which she played a heroin-addicted stripper, and overheard director Luis Prieto describe her as an actor, that she felt the career shift was real.
Her next two films see her take lead roles. In Electricity, based on the bestselling book by Ray Robinson, there is barely a shot without Deyn in it. She plays Lily, a young woman with epilepsy who is dealing with the fallout of a troubled family life – a strong, committed and occasionally gruelling performance. In multiple scenes her character suffers fits, and the brutal physicality of epilepsy is vividly depicted. Deyn slams to the floor face-forward in one scene, and thrashes about naked in another. This took its toll. “At the beginning of the shoot, we were painting the bruises on. But by the end I had that many of my own that we had to cover them up for continuity. I wasn’t doing anything unsafe, but I bruise like a peach, and whether you fall on a mat or fall on a floor, you’re still falling on something.”
Deyn has already received feedback from one person with epilepsy, who emailed the director. “He said that he’s never really been able to articulate what it’s like, and it was so moving to watch… the film has helped him be OK with it. I read his message and burst into tears.” It’s those moments, Deyn says, that make being in the public eye worthwhile, “to emotionally connect to people. That’s the joy of it.” But what about the flipside, all the unwanted attention? “Sometimes I think I am not really that famous. But fame is not such a bad thing. It’s just the way you see it and the way you experience it.”
She is fiercely protective of her private life, so much so that back in June 2012 the tabloids had a field day when it was announced she had “quietly married in Los Angeles over the weekend”, especially because no one knew she was even dating Ribisi. Added to that, Ribisi is a Scientologist and Deyn is not. Did she not have to convert? I explain that I’m Jewish, and that the subject of conversion comes up a lot. “It’s my husband’s religion,” she shrugs. “It’s like you going out with a Catholic, and obviously you know a little bit about it, but it is what it is.”
Narrow-mindedness of any kind makes her angry, she continues. “Life’s too short. You should accept everyone for who they are. Whether it’s people’s taste, people’s sexuality, race, religion.” She’s speaking in generalities, but it’s clear she’s talking from experience – of people with preconceived ideas of “something they don’t really know much about”.
Electricity’s director, Bryn Higgins, says one reason Deyn was right for the role of Lily is because she “has lived a lot in a short time”. What does she think he meant? “I suppose by the time I was in my early 20s, I had done a lot. I went from being up north, having a normal job, and then all of a sudden going around on the world on my own. I’d be in China for a day and then on a plane to America to do something else. There was a two- to three-year period when I was just on the go. It was like I was thrust on the world.” Plus, she says, this was all in her 20s, that decade of self-discovery, which she’s glad to have finished with. “You get to 30 and you’re like, thank God, my 20s are over!” Surely her 20s were more chaotic than most? “Yeah, but all of my friends are the same. You get there and think, ‘I made it!’”
She remains as close to her old friend Henry Holland as ever. He visits her in LA and she sees him when she’s back in England, but these days their get-togethers are a touch more tame: “We go out for Sunday roasts, take the dogs for a walk, watch telly together.” When she’s away, she misses it – the countryside walks with her family up north, the dampness in the air (“It’s so dry in LA”) and the tube in London. She also misses the people. “You don’t really have to say anything and you feel understood,” she says. She especially misses her mum, a former nurse who is on the shoot today, a warm and homely presence who often visits her on set. “She will come and stay for weeks, cook my tea, make me a brew and just look after me.” Out with her model daughter in London, Deyn’s mother says she has to walk around elongating her neck, to iron out any wrinkles for the paparazzi. She is clearly very proud, though at one point laments the fact that none of her three children has yet given her grandchildren, prompting an eye-roll from Deyn.
If she sounds a little homesick, her LA life doesn’t seem all bad, with lots of hiking and horse-riding in the mountains. Ribisi and Deyn go out for dinner with friends, and occasionally on to a friend’s bar, but she is usually in bed by 10.30 or 11pm and up again at 6am. “I just enjoy that pace.”
And her new routine of lying low in LA in between shoots suits her – she seems calm and grounded, and unfazed by any preconceptions about her acting talents, or about her new life in the hills. She puts this down to being from the north: “There’s something uncomplicated about northern women, a get-up-and-go thing.”
And with that she hugs me and heads off to prepare for Electricity’s premiere, where she plans to keep it “very low key”. On the red carpet later that night, she wears her own black silk shirt-dress and low heels, her hair down and loose, just a touch of red lipstick. The next day, she receives a fraction of the column inches of her former years – something, I suspect, she is quite pleased about.
• Electricity is released on 12 December. For more information, go to sodapictures.com