Minnie Driver for “The Phantom of the Opera”

Looking elegant in a New York hotel room, Minnie Driver, who gives a scene-stealing performance in Phantom of the Opera, is usually coy about her personal life, but happily admits to “going out with an Australian.”

Driver’s admission came as she was discussing her next film, The Virgin of Juarez, directed by Australia’s Kevin Dobson. No wonder Australia is the flavour of the month for the actress, who makes it clear that her Australian boyfriend is “nobody that you’d know and not famous. But he’s amazing. We met in an airport during a delayed flight, super-romantic. He’s an academic and I’m not telling you anything more,” the 34-year old actress says smilingly.

Driver’s love life has often been the subject of tabloid gossip, but the actress, who comes across as smart, funny with a self-deprecating sense of humour, Driver says that more comfortable with her fame now than she used to be. “Honestly, however self-righteous this sounds, through using it I sometimes feel it’s this useful thing now. It’s something I can actually do something with, as opposed to something that’s bestowed upon you, that doesn’t really have its roots in anything real. It’s ephemeral and it can be removed, what, the minute your movies don’t make money, the minute you get terrible reviews. That’s no barometer for who you are as a person.” Driver, who burst onto our screens in the small film Circle of Friends, said that if the acting were to suddenly stop, she would finally consider settling down. “Oh my God, I’d have kids, be a mum, garden, cook, and put a recording studio in my house and write music. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see me in 10 years time doing just that.”

Ironically, in Phantom of the Opera, Driver, who has just released her first album, is the only cast member who did not do her own singing, which she understood but still feels is a bit weird. “However, and I’ve used this analogy before, we all drive cars, but we’re not all race car drivers. To sing opera is not something that you can just pick up and do as that full sound is like a lifetime’s training. I could sing Chicago, West Side Story or a contemporary musical, but when you’re approximating Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, which is what Andrew had done with the operas within Phantom, it would have been arrogant to do so.”

In the mainly tragic romantic musical, Driver is the film’s comic relief, playing the temperamental, world-famous opera star Carlotta. It’s a fun, over-the-top character that Driver relished playing. “It was a laugh and hilarious, and in a completely different film to everybody else. They’re all in this big musical romantic tragedy and I’m not, but she’s just a brilliant character. After years spent trying to do less, not more, to then go that far, was tough,” admits Driver. “I can’t stand caricature and she’s walking a very, very fine line between character and caricature.”

Driver also has a song in the movie over its closing credits [and nominated for a Golden Globe no less] and with her album doing well, one wonders whether she will be focusing more on her music and slowly give up her acting. “I just don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, as they come from the same creative reservoir inside. It’s odd to me, this notion that in order to embrace something artistically, you have to relinquish something else to pay for it. I truly believe that they run in tandem inside me, but it requires extraordinary discipline of your time, so I really intend to do both.”

And Driver also has The Virgin of Juarez film coming out, which is very close to her heart. “It’s a subject matter I care very much about, and it’s to do with the garment workers who are being systematically murdered in Juarez, Mexico. I play a journalist and it’s sort of like the Heart of Darkness in that there is no answer. About 900 women have been killed since 1993 in Juarez, Mexico, and nobody is really doing anything. It’s become this killing playground, and it’s very bizarre and weird.” Since Circle of Friends, Driver has appeared in some 30 films and TV shows, admitting how fortunate she has become in an industry defined by constant rejection. “I am in the rare one percent of actors who actually work, which is extraordinary. It’s a rarefied business that I’m in, and today I am profoundly grateful for that. I say that genuinely, because so many of my friends with whom I went to college and drama school with are eking out an existence with kids and a mortgage, working at the Sheffield Crucible for 250 quid a week, so I’m really, really lucky.”

And while Driver uses her fame to spread the word about social causes, she’d rather do so quietly. “I think you become a bit of a dictator if you say, ‘Celebrities should do this.’ To me the rather useless limb of celebrity is that which will get you a great table in a restaurant and to the front of the queue at customs, if you can use it to be mouthpiece then, great. It’s not that what I have to say is anymore profound about what anyone else has to say about the situation in Cambodia or about poverty. However, people listen to celebrities, so if you can draw attention to something, yeah. I went to a school based on very socialist principles, and those are my politics. I think I have a responsibility, but for me I do. For somebody else it’s their life and their journey. I love it when they do, and you see the effect that people like Chris Martin and Bono and Michael Stipe and Bruce Springsteen and Dylan have on the world. How great it is when you utilize it, because it is this weird limb that you can put to some good use.”