Before I meet Greta Scacchi, I had a mental image of her strolling along a beach in deck shoes in a film I saw 20 years ago. I can't even remember its name - but I vividly remember how she exemplified careless beauty for me at the time.
"Ah, one of the all-time hotties," my friend sighs when I mention her. Now, sitting in the library of a smart hotel in London, I'm told that Scacchi has arrived for our interview - the actress is appearing in the new film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. First I hear her, apologising to her PR in a precise, definite voice for being late, and then she appears in the doorway. It's quite a shock: the blonde hair is now dark brown, and a lot shorter. She is a middle-aged woman. She is wearing a blue Whistles jumper and not a scrap of make-up. But it's all still there, albeit without the taut skin of youth: the peculiarly sweet mouth, the mesmerising blue eyes with the delicious bags underneath and the somehow perfectly put-together face and teeth.
"Do you know," Scacchi says, setting her hands squarely on her denim knees, "I don't normally drink coffee, but I'd love a coffee. An Americano. Long and black. I wouldn't normally, but it's all too? much." And her mouth forms that familiar, dazzlingly smile that made her such an idol in Heat and Dust and White Mischief. Her role as Cara, the mistress of Lord Marchmain, alongside Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder and Hayley Atwell as Julia Flyte, is part of what looks like a career resurgence after years away from the public eye. She recently starred as Hester Collyer in a West End production of Terence Rattigan's 1952 drama The Deep Blue Sea and received some of the best reviews of her career. She has also just made two other films: Miss Austen Regrets for the BBC and Shoot on Sight with the director Jag Mundhra. But she dislikes the word comeback.
"Because I've had the same commitment to my work and good material since I was a child," she says in her direct, straightforward way. "But you go through ages when you're not so desirable, not so easily placed, and there's definitely a strange gap. I'm 48. God!" She stops suddenly. "I can't believe it. I still feel I'm starting off, you know. But, yes, it just suddenly changed when I became a mother. Plus, it was a traumatic time for me, and I started to look like a haggard older person."
The gap began in 1991, the year she met and married her now ex-husband, Vincent D'Onofrio. She was 30, he was a 32-year-old Italian-American actor whom she'd encountered on the set of the film Fires Within. "He was Adam to my Eve - it was as if we shared the same skin," she has said of their romance. But it was a tempestuous relationship. He was insecure, with a "titanic ego just like my father, and he did to me exactly what my father did to my mother".
She left him twice before the wedding. He begged and wept until she returned; but, in the end, he was the one who left her, six months after their daughter was born. She bought herself a farm cottage near Hurstpierpoint, in West Sussex, where she still lives, and hid. She didn't answer the phone for four years in case it was him. (Years later she saw a healer who said, "Oh, my poor darling, I think he must have killed you in another life.") She has called it a time of "total wretchedness, like a constant groan. It was like having no skin." She barely worked, though they should have been her golden years as an actress; she had too little confidence to go to London to parties. Occasionally, at breaking point, she would call her brother and tell him he had to come around before she threw the baby from the window. She sobbed to her agent's secretary on the phone that she was hideous.
"I've got a magazine saying you're one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world," the woman replied. I ask if it's nice to be a world-class beauty. "Well, I don't know, because I remember the first time I saw myself on screen, in Heat and Dust, I just hated everything I was doing, I just hated myself," Scacchi says, putting her hands to her neck in a strangling gesture. "I kept sneaking out at the Baftas to dry-retch in the loo. And when the lights came up I ran out, down the stairs and on to Piccadilly and hid in a doorway gasping. But, over the years, seeing the rushes on screen, I started to swallow that? allergy to myself."
She smiles faintly. "I don't think it's particularly paranoid, or I'm particularly weird in that way. And then," she goes on matter-of-factly, "in my mid-30s all I could see was the ageing process, and it became impossible." Even when Scacchi could recognise her beauty, though, she didn't appreciate it. Quite the opposite. Her stunning looks and bluestocking brain were perpetually in conflict. She turned down £1 million (Dh6.6 million) for three days' work on a make-up advert because she thought it was frivolous.
That period has long gone. Today, Scacchi is happily settled with her husband - who is also her first cousin and oldest friend - Carlo Mantegazza. They live with their son, Matteo, nine, and Leila, 16, Scacchi's daughter by D'Onofrio. "I've really been the sole parent," she says of raising Leila. "[Vincent] gets to see Leila for holidays but he's never wanted to participate in any of the parenting things. Just the fun things."
She pauses. "It's very difficult when you've done something as enormous as having a child with somebody and then they become your enemy." Is he still her enemy, after so long? "Well, he's? No, I really shouldn't use that word, it's too strong. But the relationship is still a struggle: antagonistic beyond belief." She herself was three and her twin brothers five when her father, Luca Scacchi, an Italian painter, separated from their mother, Pamela. He turned up during holidays with amazing presents. Then he would unexpectedly leave, breaking all his promises to the contrary.
Pamela was quite different: English, very disciplined, a dancer turned dance teacher. "I've got a lot of her inside me, I think," Scacchi observes. "That's why I scrutinise and I'm quite hard on myself. My mother was a Bluebell dancer and the model for the statue in the middle of the fountain in Sloane Square." Does she get along with her father these days? "I can't talk about my father," Scacchi says flatly. "No. Too dysfunctional."
Pamela also lived in West Sussex, in Haywards Heath, after her break-up and brought up her children single-handedly, until she married an Italian professor, Giovanni Carsaniga, when Greta was 15. The family then moved to Perth, Australia, where, she says she felt she belonged for the first time. It was the same feeling she had when Mantegazza came to live with her in Sussex 11 years ago. Some of her neighbours were disapproving of how messy he looked. One observed, "it's like the Lady and the Tramp."
So she went from a turbulent relationship to a very steady one? "Yes, but it's not that I haven't had my antagonisms with Carlo," Scacchi replies. "Relationships are so hard, because it's two characters exposing the worst most dysfunctional sides of themselves to each other and making the other person responsible for them. What I've got with Carlo is a fondness that goes way back to when we were good friends, before we got together. I think if we hadn't had that I might have sacked him years ago."
Scacchi still feels the pain of those long difficult years raising Leila. But "she has become a very nice person, very talented, with all the problems. She won the drama scholarship at her school and promptly decided to leave - she was at Brighton College. I don't think people thinking she'd be a great actress is a comfortable position for her." Scacchi is absolutely lovely: honest to her own detriment, anxious to be understood, without a hint of pretence. There is something almost childlike about her lack of glamour and sophistication. She seems unable to see that people hold her in awe.
"It's like the people who I've known from school days who come to the theatre and leave a little note saying, 'I'm in tonight,' or, 'I saw you the other night'," she says in her sweet, certain voice. "You think, 'Why didn't they say hello?' And when you do find these people, by sending your company manager out to scour the rows and ask people, 'Are you Valerie? Are you Valerie?' they say, 'I didn't think you'd remember me'."
I ask how she likes the new Brideshead Revisited. Early reviews have been mixed. "Very much," she says. "It's clever how they've twisted it about. I think they thought they needed to honour Evelyn Waugh by making it as powerful and dynamic in a short space of time as the book is in its entirety." Scacchi feels the film has finally offered her a chance to move on from her foxy image, which she never liked.
How does she feel about herself now? "I've realised when I'm working it makes me happy," she replies. "I was just so happy to be working in the theatre six days a week, and going home on the weekends, and Carlo realising that I couldn't cook lunch on my day off, you know - either we just get takeaway or go out to a restaurant. I'm just so grateful to him for being a hero and holding the fort. He might feel grumbly with me, but I just adore him for allowing me that. I think, 'How could I have done it without him?"' And she gives that dazzling smile that is impossible to resist. © Marianne Macdonald / The Daily Telegraph / 2008