It’s a hectic time for Naphakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasit. Still reeling from the recognition that her role in Mae Bia has brought, the 20 year-old actress has just finished her second film, Butterfly Man, and is about to head to the US to shoot her second TV drama. In fact, Mamee needs to call several times on the day of the interview to change the time we’re going to meet. She’s been trying to sort out her visa to the US. "I’m very nervous about going," she confides through an interpreter. "I’m worried that my English is not going to be good enough to get by!"

Given the dramatic changes Mamee has managed to live through the past few years, however, she shouldn’t have any problems battling a new language for a few weeks. She’s come a long way from nowhere; and she still sounds like she doesn’t quite believe how things started.

"I was walking along Silom Road when a talent scout from Traffic Jam spotted me and encouraged me to enter the Elite Model Look Thailand competition," she says. With her large, unusual almond eyes, fine bones and tumbling long hair, it’s hardly surprising that she caught a scout’s eye. She was 17 at the time; she entered the competition and came third. Elite agency’s staff, however, told her that she was a little on the short side for modelling, and that acting would probably be a more promising long-term vocation for her.

"So it all began on Silom Road!" Mamee says a little incredulously.

Although she had never harboured any desires to be an actress – "I always wanted to be up on the catwalk" – Mamee was interested in the agency’s suggestion. She headed upcountry for a meditation retreat, where a Buddhist nun recommended that she change her name if she really wanted to achieve success as an actress. She heeded the advice, and on the day of a lunar eclipse, adopted the name Naphakpapha while relinquishing her old name, Prapa. "And I believe that’s led to my success so far."

Indeed, soon after the name-change she was cast in her first role, as the conservative Islamic girl Panjai in Silk Knot, the TV series dramatising Jim Thompson’s life. Hot on the heels of that role came her second – as the sensual seductress Mekhla in Mae Bia. "My character in Mae Bia was very erotic and sexy," Mamee explains, as if there was some chance anyone living in Thailand could have avoided that knowledge over the past few months. "She wasn’t like me at all. It was very difficult."

It was also awkward for the actress, who comes from a large family of seven children in total, to watch the film with her professional body-building father. "My father couldn’t believe that it was his daughter actually on the screen," she says. "It was quite embarrassing!"

The film took a year to make. It’s said that the hardest things in showbiz to work with are children and animals; Mamee confirms that the three-metre cobra sharing star billing along with her and her co-star Puthichai Amatayakul, was an absolute handful. "The cobra was very unpredictable – we didn’t know when it would be happy or upset," she says. "We just had to wait for the cobra to show its hood and sometimes it simply wouldn’t. I would wai it, to show it respect and try to encourage it to interact with me."

It was not only a difficult co-star – it was a dangerous one too. "But I didn’t worry too much. I respected the handler we had on the set. He had 30 years experience working in Pattaya, and claimed he had never been bitten, so I trusted him. Plus we had medical staff, an ambulance and serum on standby."

There was only one incident where the serum came close to being used. "In one scene, I had to talk to the snake so I was very close to it. I had to move, too, and knew that could have upset the snake. In that shot, the handler was actually holding the snake off-camera – but it still took a strike. Luckily, cobras tend to strike low and at the same time, the handler pulled the cobra away, so it missed. I was quite frightened."

It so unnerved her that she had to take a break – for five minutes.

Despite the renown that Mae Bia has brought, Mamee doesn’t think the film indicates anything special about her acting ability. "I need to perform in many more roles, and in many different kinds of characters, before I can say that I’m a successful actress."

But it has made her face instantly recognisable. "I need to smile all the time when I’m out – I now belong to this society of actors who people recognise."

Butterfly Man, in which an Englishman falls in love with a masseuse (Mamee) on Ko Samui, will soon hit the screens, but it was more fun than a challenge to Mamee. "It fitted me really well. I didn’t need to do much acting; the role and my natural character matched well."

Offers for other films are now flowing in – Mamee reads the scripts herself – but few of them are for what she calls ordinary roles. "They tend to be a bit extreme, leaning towards the erotic after Mae Bia."

She’d like most to appear in an action film next – something like the Chinese movie The Professionals – would be right up her alley. While she’s yet to take up any martial arts, she has been studying yoga for nearly a year. The casting agent for Mae Bia originally encouraged her to take it up after passing a critical eye over her body. "I have a teacher who has been teaching me specific positions to help me improve my muscle tone in particular areas," she says. "I have lost weight, plus I like it. I do it every night before going to bed." Meditation is on the agenda, but at the moment Mamee just doesn’t have time. "I’m working from 7 in the morning through to midnight. There’s no time for anything else!"

And that includes a boyfriend. She cites The Professional’s Lee Ong and Tom Hanks as men she finds interesting, but adds that looks aren’t important to her. "A sense of humour is the one thing I look for in a man."

But Mamee does have time to offer some words of encouragement to young aspiring thespians. "To those individuals who are interested in entering this industry, I would like to say: I started from the bottom and made it. You could too. So don’t give up!" And, perhaps, consider changing your name.

/ People