‘No one felt guilty about having fun’ – Sadie Frost on the 90s, Dracula and turning her back on Hollywood

<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

In the pub, in a village so quaint it has a duck pond and jars of homemade pickled onions for sale outside cottages, they are talking about the celebrity who has moved in nearby. At least one customer does a comedy double-take when, five minutes later, Sadie Frost walks in. For it is she – actor, fashion designer, 90s cool girl turned director, sausage dog owner and now countryside dweller.

Frost and Cherry the dog moved here in the summer, to a cottage with a perfect thatched roof and views across the hills. She still has a flat in Primrose Hill – the north London area to which she is forever linked – but she has let it to a friend, and when she is in London, she stays with her mum or sisters, so Wiltshire is home now. It has been a time of change. The youngest of her four children has just started university and, at 57, after more than 30 years of parenting, she can suddenly do pretty much whatever she wants. Time, she says, “was always taken up by the kids and, being a single mum, every bit of the day was planned, fitting around them”. When they needed her less, she was left with so much time and energy, she says: “I just thought: ‘I’ll throw myself into as many things as I can that I really feel passionate about.’”

Frost and Gary Kemp on their wedding day in 1988.
Frost and Gary Kemp on their wedding day in 1988. Photograph: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Frost’s documentary, Quant, about the fashion designer Mary Quant, came out last year to decent reviews, and now she is making another one – more fashion, more 60s – about Twiggy, which the model herself asked Frost to direct. As much as she is enjoying this new work, it seems to be a surprise to her. When she was approached to make Quant, she says: “I was like, ‘This is impossible – I would never know where to start.’” She had been an actor first, then a film producer for years, and had directed shorts, but now she submerged herself in research and learned from the team she assembled. “It became fascinating and I lived and breathed it for two or three years.”

She considers herself primarily a director these days, although we are meeting over a pot of tea to talk about acting – specifically her first big role. She was cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which has just been resurrected in cinemas to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Frost played Lucy, an exuberant young woman turned sexually voracious vampire, seduced by Gary Oldman’s Dracula. The slight problem is that Frost hasn’t seen the film recently and it is not entirely clear that she has ever seen it – “I never watch anything I do” – and it was made such a long time ago that although her memories of working on it are good, they are hazy.

At the time, Frost was in her 20s, married to the pop star Gary Kemp – they met when she was in one of Spandau Ballet’s videos – and had a baby son, Fin. “I just remember one minute being a young woman in London, just had a baby, not thinking I was going to get a break like that to do a film in Hollywood,” she says, “and then I get a call: ‘Can you be in Hollywood tomorrow for a screen test for Francis Ford Coppola?’”

Coppola made it feel, she says, “like you’re in this family with him. He mentored me, really helped and he made everything exciting.” Despite her inexperience, she doesn’t remember it being intimidating, partly because the cast, including Winona Ryder, were supportive. “Any job is nerve-racking, and there were days that I was nervous, but you have to take a deep breath and think: ‘I’m going to make the most of this.’”

If I may jog her memory, in her 2010 memoir Crazy Days, Frost writes of going to stay at Coppola’s house before they started shooting. Ryder and Oldman were there, staying in character, she writes, and she was expected to act like Lucy, a sexually confident woman. In reality, she writes, she felt shy and like “a plain young mum from Camden Town”, a bit drunk on a martini. To make matters weirder, Frost writes that Coppola tells her a hairdresser will be coming to take care of her – and she soon finds out that it is to shave her pubic hair. Frost shrugs it off now. Lucy had red hair and Frost’s was black, and she would be wearing a see-through dress; there was a belief, she says, that European women were strangers to a razor. “I was like ‘Oh, come on, steady on – it’s a little bit personal’,” she says. Did they do it? “Well, you know, there’s all the hair and makeup tests, and on that level of doing film for Columbia [studios], they’re doing the full works – you’re supposed to be perfect for the character.”

She talks vaguely about the 90s being a different time, including attitudes to sex scenes. “Now, when I do a film, and there are young actors doing a love scene, they have a choreographer. When I did love scenes in my 20s, it would just be like: ‘Action!’” On Dracula, it was different, she says. “In that sense, they were quite structured, like: ‘You’re going to be doing this, and this happens, and your [vampire] teeth are there and there’s blood going to be coming out there.’ That’s Hollywood, in the sense that when you’re doing a scene on a film that size, they would go into detail in an in-depth way to make you feel comfortable. It was a long time ago.” She laughs a little. “I’ve got no bad memories or scars from it. Visually, it was a beautiful film. It was an exciting time in my life. It’s nice to have those memories.”

Frost had been modelling and acting since she was a child, and there were other times on other jobs, she says, “where I felt like, ‘No, this shouldn’t be the way’ and I’ve made a correction or spoken to my agent.” She doesn’t want to get into specifics. “You might be working with a team of people who maybe aren’t too respectful of certain situations, but I’m not going to bring up one particular thing,” she says. “I’ve dealt with everything as I’ve gone along – I said things at the time. I stood up for myself, and I would stand up for other people. That’s all you can really do – and it’s good that the industry has changed, and people are more aware of exploitation.”

After Frost’s high-profile role in Dracula, she could have stayed in Hollywood and capitalised on it – her agent wanted her to – but she returned to London. “What mattered to me was what I was doing at home, and Fin.” A big movie career “didn’t matter enough”. It was partly her need to feel settled and grounded in the real world, not Hollywood. Also, for Frost, who had grown up with a father who was an artist and nonconformist, success didn’t necessarily mean movie-star riches, but an interesting, creative life.

Frost was born in London; her mother, Mary, was 16 when she had her, and her father, David Vaughan, was an erratic man who suffered periods of mental illness but was also wild and creative, a psychedelic artist who did work for the Beatles. Life didn’t settle down much when Vaughan left the family and Mary married Frost’s stepfather (she took his surname) – the family did things like take off for Marrakech for several months in a Citroën 2CV. When Frost got a scholarship to the drama school Italia Conti, it was, she says, “a healthy thing for me at that age, to get out of the environment I was in”.

How did the chaos of her childhood affect her? “I always describe it as really colourful,” she says. “Me and my mum are incredibly close, and I’ve got lovely sisters and lovely brothers [she has nine siblings between her mother and father]. I had a very odd relationship with my dad; it took a long time to come to terms with some of the stuff that happened.” At the time of his death in 2003, they were estranged, “so that was a difficult thing. I’ve worked really hard at accepting it and loving him for what he was, and taking all the positive experiences I had out of my childhood. He showed me a lot of very creative things, how to think outside the box and not to conform. He didn’t want me to fit in.”

To anyone who followed the so-called Primrose Hill set in the 90s, Frost was very much an insider, but she at least increasingly thinks of herself as an outsider, now she has more time alone. “I had all the kids and I think I filled everything with that noise. But I’ve got a real internal life and creative life that is very insular sometimes, and I realised I spend a lot of time on my own. Which is something about getting older, I think.”

Related: Sadie Frost and her mother get ready for a wedding: ‘I imagined this amazing princess life ahead of me’

She met Jude Law on the set of Shopping, her next film after Dracula, and her marriage to Kemp ended. She and Law went on to have three children, and for a while the couple seemed to be at the heart of the cool London scene. Frost was in Pulp’s video for Common People, became best friends with Kate Moss and set up a production company with Law and others, including the actor Jonny Lee Miller.

When I bring up the 90s, with perfect timing Cherry the sausage dog lifts her head from the chair on which she is sitting and sighs wearily, but Frost indulges me. “Everyone had fun, and no one felt guilty about having fun,” she says. “Music was brilliant, London was brilliant, there was an amazing, exciting vibe.” It was uncomplicated, she says, in an age before social media. “It wasn’t manufactured – everyone was just who they were. You were making mistakes and learning as you’re going along, whereas now everyone’s so scared of ‘This has to be like this’, and status.”

Frost and Jude Law in October 1997, a month after they married.
Frost and Jude Law in October 1997, a month after they married. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Did she ever buy into the idea that she and her friends were the cool crowd? “I don’t think you know,” she says. “Now, everyone judges if they’re cool by how many likes they have on social media and how much attention they’re getting. Whereas at that time, it just happened.” Somebody knew somebody else and suddenly whichever hot rock star or actor was part of the gang.

Her house wasn’t, contrary to tabloid opinion, the party house, she says. She had “four kids there, and tea and Sunday lunch”. And while other members of the gang have had struggles with drugs and alcohol, Frost insists she wasn’t a big partyer. “I’ve always exercised, done yoga, been a vegetarian. I always had to put the kids to bed, so I had a routine. I went out, I had fun but I’ve always been quite disciplined.” She does miss that time, she says, and not just for the vibe. “I miss the kids being little as well. I wish I had a time machine, to go back there every now and again, to the kids sitting around having tea after school, doing their homework.”

After the birth of her last child, Rudy, in 2002 (for a snapshot of cool London at the time, Frost’s friends Moss, Moss’s then-boyfriend Jefferson Hack, the actor Rhys Ifans, and the model Rosemary Ferguson were all waiting outside the delivery room), Frost left her acting agent and didn’t really start going for auditions again until quite recently. Did she worry about her acting career and whether she would be able to get back to it? She did, she says, but adds: “If I didn’t get an opportunity to be in a film, or someone was brushing me off because I’d been in the media too much, because they were hacking me [Frost was awarded damages in the phone-hacking scandal], the saddest thing would have been if I’d let that affect me, and been depressed and not been a good mum. We don’t all get what we want. Why should we? I’m nothing different.”

While bringing up her children, she started a fashion company, FrostFrench, and produced films. She also dealt with postnatal depression – the last occurrence so bad, around the time her marriage to Law was also imploding, that she ended up being sectioned in California for four weeks – and intense and damaging tabloid scrutiny. Frost is not someone who seems to dwell in the past. “I’ve learned that you can get through anything. Just make the most of every day, be grateful for the good things, don’t look at the bad things. I do feel inspired and excited about the future.”

Now, she is at a stage, she says, where “I’m not dissecting any one part of my life, I’m looking at it as a whole.” She has more time, and choices. She is still acting, and reels off a list of projects, but seems more keen on directing – she has written a screenplay she hopes to make next year. “I feel stronger, wiser, more grounded now than I’ve ever been. A lot of women are written off at that age, that you can’t do something different, and you can’t go back to work.”

Three years ago, Frost took a master’s degree in film production. She had set up her own production company and thought, she says: “If I want to do this, and I want to be taken seriously, I’m not good with figures. I needed to get it drilled into me.” Did she really worry about not being taken seriously? “I think all my life I’ve had people judge me and have their own opinions,” she says. She used to feel more unsure of herself, but less so now. “When you get older, that’s one good thing about it – you just do not care about a lot of that stuff.”

  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula is in cinemas in the UK now and in the US from 23 October.