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Wild child who went over the edge
(Filed: 23/07/2003)

As she returns to the stage as Ophelia, Emily Lloyd tells Cassandra Jardine of her decade-long battle with mental illness

Physically, Emily Lloyd looks just as dazzling aged 32 as she did when she first delighted audiences 16 years ago as the hoydenish teenage rebel in the film Wish You Were Here. Reviewers then hailed her as "the new Marilyn Monroe", and she's still playing up to that image with her ash blonde-dyed hair, clingy dress and sultry glances through half-closed, heavily lined eyes.

Emily Lloyd: adverse reaction to Larium

It's her mental state that is worrying. She wants everyone to know that she is working again as an actress - playing Ophelia in a touring production of Hamlet - and is eager for further roles. But she is having difficulty delivering the message. She starts a sentence, only to lose track, muddle words, stare into the middle distance and appear lost in her own thoughts. Then, suddenly, she will say something loud and boisterous but entirely unconnected.

Her mother, Sheila Ball, does her best to keep her to the point, prompting specific reminiscences and bolstering the view that she is now "quite well". But, eager not to appear a pushy stage mother, she keeps leaving the room and then, once again, Emily loses the thread.

So what is wrong? Emily gives a one-word answer: "Larium." In 1997, when she went to India to play a blind girl in a film, she took "too much" of the anti-malarial drug and then, while waiting to meet the Dalai Lama, was bitten by one of his temple dogs. She says the combination of the drug and the dog unhinged her. "Some people jump out of windows after Larium," she explains. "I had a breakdown.''

When her mother and younger sister, Charlotte, met her at the airport on her return, they were horrified. "She had only been away a week, but she had lost a stone in weight," says Sheila. "We hardly recognised her and she hardly recognised us. Charlotte and I burst into tears.''

Larium has a reputation for side effects, which can include insomnia, headaches, mood swings and psychosis, that accord with what Emily calls her "pain of the mind" and what others have called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She doesn't repeat actions constantly, such as washing her hands or switching lights on and off; in her case, it is all in the mind. She talks of being plagued by anxieties, unable to still her thoughts or focus.

For a year after her return from India, she lived alone in the Notting Hill flat she had acquired from the proceeds of the film parts that came her way after Wish You Were Here. But her mother worried that she wasn't managing the basics of life - eating, sleeping, paying the bills - so she brought her to live in her small rented house in Hackney. Although Emily now rents a flat nearby, it is at her mother's house that we meet.

"What she needed was love, support and understanding," says Sheila, who has the tired air of a woman who never expected to be a full-time mother in her sixties.

Emily should not have taken Larium - contra-indicated for those suffering from depression or anxiety - because long before 1997 she had bouts of mental instability. As a result of these "chemical imbalances", she spent a fortnight in the Priory in the early Nineties and, long before the India visit, had acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with.

During the filming of Cookie, co-star Peter Falk became so exasperated with her that he slapped her and she slapped him back. Bruce Willis could hardly bear to speak to her while making In Country. She was dropped from Mermaids and Tank Girl and Woody Allen sacked her from Husbands and Wives after two weeks of filming. "She knew she was floundering but Woody Allen should have been more sympathetic," says Sheila. She was also dropped from a London stage version of Pygmalion. "The other actors were older and not very understanding," Sheila explains.

Excuses apart, Emily has always been hard to control and bad at learning lines. "If someone says, 'Go right,' I go left," she says. Defiantly, she makes out that her inability to "adhere to Western civilisation" is a strength, not a weakness: "It gives me an edge over other actresses."

A good director, she and her mother believe, can "harness" her anarchic spirit. Certainly, David Leland got a fine performance from her in Wish You Were Here and her cry of "Up yer bum" became one of the catchphrases of the day. Robert Redford also took a gamble when he cast her in A River Runs Through It; and again, it paid off.

"Quirkiness", as Sheila calls it, has always been a feature of Emily. Her school reports always remarked on her lack of concentration and ungovernable nature. Even while she was at the Italia Conti stage school, she was tricky, walking out when asked to portray a strawberry cream chocolate.

Shooting to stardom at the age of 16 and then watching your fortunes spiral downwards is enough to tax any psyche, let alone a temperament such as Emily's.

"She seemed to be coping so well, at 16 and 17," says Sheila, who let her move to America, unchaperoned. "I didn't want to be the type of mother who tags along."

As Emily tells it, she coped well despite her youth. "I was very sensible," she says. She spent evenings with wild men such as Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, but she didn't do drugs or drink too much and, in her spare time, she jogged around the Hollywood hills. "When I was working, I was very together," she says. "When I wasn't working, I went into another world.''

A string of rejections left her depressed and anxious. She found it hard to take criticism or to stop criticising herself. For a while, she fell under the influence of a New Yorker turned Sikh guru. Then, to her mother's relief, she got cross and knocked his turban off: "I thought she was getting back in control," says Sheila.

During the days when she was "rich and hot", she saw several psychiatrists. One of them, whose dogs were called Prozac and Valium, advised her to wear a rubber band around her wrist and ping it whenever she felt that a man was abusing her. "You have to have humour," says Sheila, wearily.

There was plenty in Emily's childhood for the psychiatrists to get stuck into. Her father, actor Roger Lloyd-Pack, left her mother when Emily was two, and acting soon became her passion. "My sister, who is a lawyer, was more academic and incredibly determined," she says. "I was more into escape."

Her mother had to pretend to be a director, giving her parts, letting her dress up. She badly wanted to be famous. "I suppose I wanted my father's attention," she says. Sheila struggled to bring up Emily and her younger sister, Charlotte, while working as Harold Pinter's secretary.

"A spenderella" by nature, Sheila was more gifted at enjoying good times than saving for bad. It's a characteristic that Emily shares: when she left Hollywood, she didn't sell her cars and furniture, she gave them away.

Emily has long since spent the proceeds of the sale of her London flat. She's not in touch with the Hollywood set anymore, nor does she have a steady man in her life, but she no longer takes medication. She acts out amusingly the time when a drug gave her muscle cramp at an aunt's party; she had to go to accident and emergency with her jaw locked and her body hunched up "like Quasimodo". But even though she is so much better, she is finding it hard to get back into acting.

There have been rumours that she may be cast in Denial, a British version of Sex and the City, but her diary after Hamlet appears to be empty. "There is a stigma attached to mental illness," she says. And it was a mistake to take film roles in flops The Honeytrap and Riverworld before she was well. Nor may her performance in Hamlet - which one reviewer described as leaving the audience "visibly cringing" - do the trick.

"Ophelia," says Emily, "is a victim of her circumstances." Reluctant though she is to brand herself a "victim", circumstances have played an important part in her own troubles.

It is plain, however, that she is much better than she was and, importantly, that she is learning to cope with her malady. "Going to the gym is uplifting and, when I feel anxious, I breathe deeply and focus on a bright thought," she says. "That's from my own A to Z of surviving."

For publishers wishing to reproduce photographs on this page please phone 44 (0) 207 538 7505 or email syndicat@telegraph.co.uk

  • For more details of the Hamlet tour, see www.openairshakespeare.com
  • 28 August 2002[News]: Suicide warning on malaria pills after Cambridge student's death
    14 January 2003: 'I was convinced I was going mad' [on obsessive compulsive disorder]

    External links
    National Association for Mental Health

    OCD Action [resource on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]