Thirty-year old Neve Campbell is best-known for her acting career, both on television (“Party of Five”) and in features (“The Craft,” “Wild Things” and the “Scream” movies). But she actually began as a dancer, and that remains her first love. That’s why for some years she’s wanted to make a film about ballet–something she’s finally accomplished with “The Company,” in which she stars as an up-and-coming member of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. She also co-authored the story, eventually turned into script form by her collaborator Barbara Turner, and served as one of the film’s producers.

In a recent Dallas interview, Campbell was asked how long she’d been dancing. “Oh, a long time,” she said. “I started when I was six, and I was dancing professionally by the time I was fifteen. I trained with the National Ballet School of Canada and then got ‘Phantom of the Opera’ [in Toronto] when I was fifteen and did that for two years, did eight hundred shows of that…It was a natural progression to lead into acting, and that sort of took over. And then I really stopped dancing professionally when I was twenty.”

But even while she became a presence on the small and big screens, she never abandoned her devotion to dance. “I used to love watching films with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; I grew up loving those. I loved the fact that you could actually see the choreography…and I didn’t feel that any of the modern movies allowed you to see the choreography in the way those films do. I really felt like I’d been born in the wrong era, because I wanted to be dancing.”

She also kept up with her training, as much as her schedule allowed. “I took classes once in a while,” she recalled, “but to do it at [a professional] level you really have to be dancing every day, at least six days a week. And for six years I was doing ‘Party of Five’ nine months a year, fifteen hours a day, so there was no way I could get into a class. I was doing movies on hiatuses. And then I had a few years when I was able to go in and out between movies to do classes, but really, to be a professional dancer you have to do it all the time.”

Still, for seven years Campbell worked on the story that eventually became “The Company.” It’s a loose, elliptical piece about a season in the life of the troupe, in which her own role is important without being central and incidents like stumbles and broken bones don’t become the stuff of high tragedy, but occupational hazards to be endured and overcome. “You don’t want to make everything a drama,” she explained. “It’s much more real, that’s very normal. They’re athletes. That’s the way it is. People in America are so fascinated by football and sports athletes, and the rigor that they go through. I think people really have no idea how it is with dancers, and the reason for that is one of the first things you’re taught is to make it look effortless. You’re not a good dancer if it doesn’t look effortless.”

But Campbell’s preparation to make the picture was hardly without effort. How long did it take for her to get back into condition to do the role? “Six months, eight and a half hours a day,” she said. “For four and a half months on my own in Los Angeles with a coach and trainers, and then for another month and a half with the Joffrey Ballet, learning all the ballets with them and learning their technique. The whole thing’s hard. Classical ballet is a difficult thing to be able to do, and to come back after ten years is really challenging. Pointe shoes sucked. I’d say that was probably one of the hardest things. When you’re wearing pointe shoes when you’re growing up, you get blisters and then they close and you get more blisters and they close, and then you develop calluses, and that’s what keeps you from bleeding all the time through your shoes. But mine were all gone after ten years, so I had to go through that process again, which was no fun.”
But, she said, the pain was worth it: “It’s something I spent my entire childhood and adolescence and early adulthood doing, and I just love it. It’s my favorite thing in the world.”

Campbell also credited the dancers in the Joffrey with making her job easier. When she and Turner first approached them about situating the story in their company, the initial reaction was muted. “We went up to Chicago and started talking to them and started interviewing all the dancers and getting their stories. It took a little while. They were apprehensive at first, because most dancers will tell you that there’s never been a good dance film ever made. I think once they learned that I was a dancer myself, and that I was passionate about making a realistic view of the dance world, they became more open. Then they were willing, and it was just a matter of us getting the script together…getting financing, a studio, and all that stuff.”

One of the elements that had to be resolved was a director–and the choice was, for Campbell, obvious–Robert Altman. How was he brought on? “I begged,” Campbell said, laughing. “No, we sent him the script. Barbara and I, from the beginning, had said that this was to be Altmanesque. We really, really did not want this to be a typical A-B-C plotline with a beginning, middle and end. I felt that if I did that, or if I was the lead in it, then you would lose everything. You would lose all the other aspects of ballet that I wanted to be up there. Bob’s so into that. You look at ‘Gosford Park’ or ‘Nashville’ or ‘M*A*S*H’–so many of his movies–he has huge casts, all of them have certain small roles, but you understand they’re involved in the picture and why they’re there, and how they affect the picture in some way in that world…We sent him the script, and about a week later, Barbara called me and said he’s interested. I couldn’t believe it. I flew to New York and started talking to him. At the time, actually, I had a dislocated knee with a brace on it, but I had to go convince him I could dance. So I took the brace off outside the office, hid it in the hallway, and went in limping–well, I tried not to limp–sat down and said, ‘I can dance.’ He said, ‘Well, you better be able to dance, otherwise there’s no reason for me to do this movie.’ Meanwhile the doctor had told me I needed a year off and I needed surgery, but I was stubborn. I just talked to him about my passion for the project, why it was important, the sacrifices that dancers make in their lives, what amazing artists as well as athletes they are, what choreographers’ pieces I thought could be interesting. I showed him dance pieces, I sent him to the Joffrey Ballet school in New York to watch a class. He was waiting on a couple of other projects, and after a couple months, I think he fell in love with the dancers, and that’s what made him want to do it.” Campbell also thought that Altman came in a way to identify with the dancers. “He’s like [them], too,” she suggested. “He’s such an incredible artist who hasn’t really given in to Hollywood…He’s sacrificed things for that, and I think he was able to relate with the dancers.”

The actual shoot was assisted by the closeness Campbell had developed with the dancers she’d be working with. “Luckily I’d already gotten to know them from interviewing them,” she said. “Every time I was off my movies or my show, I would fly out there and I would hang out with them and take classes with them. But they knew that I wasn’t going to be up to par when I was just randomly taking classes. When the movie was finally coming up, I knew that they expected me to come up to their standard, and that was intimidating. I got to a place where I felt like I was comfortable, and it was only when I finally got into the studio with them and realized that I could do the pieces and could learn the ballet that I finally was comforted. But they were also so supportive; they were really amazing and supportive with me. It was important to me that they be comfortable with me, so I was in the studio at 8 in the morning with them every day. I was in their dressing room–I didn’t have a trailer. I didn’t want them to think I was coming in as a creator or producer when we started shooting. I had to feel like part of the company, so I had to become part of the company.”

Meanwhile Malcolm McDowell, playing the artistic and financial director of the Joffrey, was also working to fit in. His portrayal, Campbell reveaked, was “loosely based on Gerry Arpino, who’s the head of the Joffrey Ballet. A lot of it, not the megalomania, but a lot of the characteristics–the yellow tie, the way he speaks and calls the dancers ‘babies,’ the ‘broccoli, fish and no pasta’ expression, is not from the story at all. The dancers would give him suggestions, too, about the things that Gerry did. So Malcolm spent about two weeks with Gerry, following him around. He became Gerry–and a little bit more. It’s not exactly him, and Malcolm made it clear it’s not exactly him…Gerry didn’t mind. He knows who he is, and he loves his dancers; he’s so passionate about them.”

The shooting schedule was extremely short, so especially in the elaborate dance sequences, Campbell said, “we had to be really smart about it. We shot it on HD for that reason, that you’re not dealing with two-minute mags, you’re dealing with twenty-minute mags, so you could actually shoot the entire piece with five different cameras from five different angles. We couldn;t have asked the dancers to do even five takes of a piece–it’s too hard, and would just have become worse and worse. You only have so much strength.”

Campbell’s own centerpiece routine in “The Company” is the pas de deux to “My Funny Valentine” she performs during a rainstorm at Grant Park in Chicago. (The choreography is by Lar Lubovitch–“I thought it was just stunning” among the fifty or so tapes she watched for ideas, Campbell said. “It was really a good challenge and really fun to do.”) “We shot that about two weeks before the official day of shooting, because it was getting cold and Grant Park is on the lake. It was already cold–when we shot that weekend it was already freezing, and I broke my rib before the movie, so I did the whole movie with a broken rib. And Domingo, my partner, his back was out, and we were in the cold, and then we have a storm–fabulous! The idea actually came from a story the dancers had told us. We created that storm because they had been performing at Ravinia outside of Chicago, and a storm started and the audience decided to stay, so the dancers decided to continue dancing. I thought that was really lovely, so we decided to put it in the movie. It was my first time dancing in front of an audience in eleven years. But the audience were not typical extras. We had just put in the newspaper that the Joffrey Ballet would be dancing for free at Grant Park if you felt like coming out and maybe getting wet and getting filmed, and that Malcolm and I would be there. But they didn’t announce that I’d be dancing, so they were expecting the company and they got some of the company and they got me–which was pretty intimidating, but great.”

It sounds just like a movie!