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Swimming in the Depp end

YOU hear any number of stories of actors who toil unrewarded in dark corners: doing classes but always out of work, auditioning hundreds of times without ever being cast or being brilliant in things nobody sees. So to meet young Australian actress Bella Heathcote puts a smile on your face. Seemingly from nowhere, she has emerged to star in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, playing opposite no less a star than Johnny Depp. All power to her.

Dark Shadows is a big film. I meet Heathcote the day after its London premiere, with a giant screen showing the stars arriving and cameras flashing all the way up the red carpet. ''It was so unlike anything I've ever experienced,'' she says. ''It's pretty mental. Each time someone calls my name I turn around and I still expect it to be someone I know. To be honest, I felt quite detached from it. I got flipped between being present but feeling I'm playing a character - a girl who's in a movie - and feeling I'm watching it from the outside.''

Bella Heathcote is 24. She had done one Australian feature film - Beneath Hill 60, Jeremy Sims' World War I drama in which she played a girl left behind - a couple of shorts and a long run in Neighbours when she found out she was a finalist for the 2010 Heath Ledger Scholarship, which provides a young actor with the chance to live and study in Los Angeles. ''They gave me an airfare, so at that point I figured I might as well just go.

''So I went over and, thankfully, I won and got a bit of money, which kept me going for a while.'' At the same time, she started doing the round of auditions.

The first part was small: playing Amanda Seyfried's mother in a film called In Time. She is sure she was cast because she looked like Seyfried; she had only three scenes. ''But I think there is something about LA, fortunately: once you get one role people think, 'Oh well, someone employed her, so maybe we can.' I mean, that's my idea of it, anyway. 'She can put one foot in front of the other and say a line.'

''So after that it seemed a little bit easier.''

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Dark Shadows is classic Burton. Based on a long-forgotten '60s daytime soap about vampires that collected a cult following of young hipsters - the juvenile Tim Burton being one of them - it is a mix of horror, knowing comedy and artistic spectacle. As always, Depp plays the lonely figure at the centre of the film who seems to be the director's alter ego; he and Burton have now made eight films together.

His character, Barnabas Collins, is a vampire who has been imprisoned alive in a coffin for 200 years by a jealous witch (Eva Green), who sought revenge when he rejected her for another: the innocent Josette.

When the risen Barnabas makes his way back to the Collins family seat, now as dilapidated as his few remaining descendants, he finds that their strangely old-fashioned young governess is the dead spit - as a vampire might say - of his long-ago love. Heathcote plays both Josette and Vicky the governess.

Heathcote was as dumbstruck as any fan when she met her co-stars - Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter - on set for the first time. ''I think I got all my nervousness out of my system the first few days,'' she says. ''Johnny walked over to me the first day and I was just thinking 'be cool, be cool, don't make a dick of yourself'.

''Anyway, he went to shake my hand and realised he was wearing prosthetic fingers, so he held out his elbow instead. It was so endearing and awkward and defused the whole situation. You know, he's a bit of a rock star, but I think he's consciously learnt how to make people feel comfortable around him. Because otherwise, how could anyone act opposite him? The whole time you'd be thinking, 'My god, it's Johnny Depp!'''

Poor Josette, who drowned as a result of another of the evil witch's spells, appears to Vicky as a pale ghost, drifting through the corridors of the Collins mansion on the hem of her sodden dress. These scenes were filmed twice: once dry, with a wind machine blowing Heathcote's hair back, then underwater. She would be chained to the bottom, where divers hovered just out of shot with oxygen tanks, ready to give her a breath whenever she needed one.

It sounds terrifying but she loved it. ''There was something about it that was really soothing,'' Heathcote says. ''During the stunts I'm not worried about my performance; all those insecurities melt away and you just have to be there.

''All I had to do was hold my breath and move slowly. That consumes everything, so it's a bit of a holiday from your mind.''

Her dual role in Dark Shadows is, in fact, Heathcote's second substantial Hollywood role. Before that she worked with David Chase, best known for writing The Sopranos, on a film called Not Fade Away, about an aspiring rock band set in New Jersey, which will be released this year. Her audition with Burton lasted 20 minutes; for Not Fade Away she went to multiple workshops and auditions over months. ''I wanted it so desperately,'' she says. ''I just thought I had no chance, because that's my basic assumption … but the more I auditioned, the more I wanted it. The script is so well-written; he has this incredible knack for writing really heightened moments and then flipping it to comic relief, so that it's almost jarring.''

Heathcote grew up in Toorak, the daughter of a lawyer. There wasn't a hint of show business in the family but, somehow, she found her way to Johnny Young's talent school and then to speech and drama classes. At Korowa, where she went to school, career counsellors listened to her talk about acting, then told her to get a degree. She did try studying for a year. ''I hated it; it wasn't what I wanted to be doing and I wasn't passionate about it and I thought I'd rather keep the fallback plan for if I need to have a fallback. I just kept coming to [acting] - basically, I wanted to do it because it made me so happy.''

In Los Angeles, she met her partner, Andrew Dominik, the director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, whose new film Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt, screens at the Cannes Film Festival next week. Going out with a director, Heathcote says, has confirmed her belief that film is a director's medium. ''It's not really about the actors,'' she says. ''Ultimately, it's up to [directors], the way they edit it, the way they put it together. I mean it sounds so pretentious and presumptuous, but it's made me want to pursue directors.''

As for plans to work with Dominik down the track, she says every choice at this stage of her career shapes the way she will be seen in future. ''And I think Andrew is a master filmmaker,'' she adds, bashfully. ''I'd be really blessed to work with him. Who knows?''

Dark Shadows is in general release.