Darling of the Slacker generation

IT HAS BEEN a tough morning for Julie Delpy. A press conference, two radio interviews, and now three newspaper interviews on the trot before catching a plane to Paris at 5.30. Trying enough in themselves, you might think, these commitments meant she had to stay cooped up in a London hotel overnight while Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke - respectively the director and co-star of her latest film, Before Sunrise - flew to Germany to receive the Berlin Festival's coveted Silver Bear award. She shakes this disappointment off, though, in a statement which would not be out of place in one of her recent films: "I don't really believe in prizes. We had a standing ovation in Berlin, and that is much more of a reward for me."

Since playing the madonna-whore love interest in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours: White, presented last year in Berlin, Delpy hasn't looked back. She has emerged as the European representative of the group of twentysomething American actors riding the wave of post-grunge alternative cinema. She played a student-cum-prostitute- cum-bank clerk in Killing Zoe, directed by Tarantino protg Roger Avary, and began filming Linklater's Before Sunrise - an extended conversation about life between two people who meet on a train - almost immediately afterwards.

Acting runs in Delpy's blood: her parents - an Italian mother and a Russian- Irish father - were both stage actors in Paris, where they brought up their family. Two weeks at drama school were enough to convince Delpy that she could get where she wanted without formal training ("I don't like the way they try and break natural spontaneity"). Instead, she relied on her parents. "I enjoyed acting from an early age; I used to dress up and play characters with my Dad - he played Romeo, I was Juliet." Her film dbut came at the age of 14, as a clarinettist in Jean-Luc Godard's Detective, an experience which she found "easy, because Godard is a very kind man with young people. I was very nave and not very strong and he didn't want to hurt or traumatise me." From there, she starred in several European films, including Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang, for which she was nominated as best newcomer at the Csar awards, France's equivalent to the Oscars. She didn't win - but is proud to say she has "been working more than any of those who got nominated that year".

Delpy admits to having been dogged by what she calls her "pure look", especially during her early career. "Before, when I used to act, I was a bit tortured. My personality is not just that of a pretty, young, fresh girl, and people did not know how to handle me. Now it is easier, because I know what I am like, and I am more balanced between my looks and my personality."

She is coy about her recent success, saying only, "Yeah, it's true, I have been working more lately." Celebrity is clearly not a concept with which she is comfortable. Her conversation is littered with Nineties idioms - she wants to "find" herself, Linklater is a "good person" and Before Sunrise is "deep". She tells me earnestly that, "I want to grow in my life more than I want success. I want to be a person before being a star . . . I don't think you are really balanced if you are unhappy in your life."

Before Sunrise is full of this kind of talk. No surprises there, given that both Delpy and her co-star Ethan Hawke had a hand in writing the script. "In a way, Celine (the part Delpy plays) is close to me. She is on a quest and that's how I feel in my life. I am looking for something, and I don't know what it is. But in the film I only explore one side of me - the romantic, sweet side. I have this other side which is much darker and more real.

Delpy's caring-sharing thoughts are interspersed with "Like"s, "Yer'know"s and "cool"s, picked up while "hanging out" in New York. She began travelling regularly to America in her late-teens and finally moved there five years ago. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she steers well clear of the French community: "I don't feel very French. French people in Hollywood all stick together and I don't like that. My friends are from all over Europe and the US."

She has just finished directing her own short film for Franco-German television: "It is called Bla bla bla, and it's basically about nothing!" Her immediate plans are to "get serious about finding new work". Beyond the short term, however, "I don't know where my future will take me. I like my life in LA for the moment, but when I am bored with it I will leave. I want to have fun."

! `Before Sunrise' (15) opens at the Odeon West End, WC2 (0426 915574), on Friday; and nationwide from 5 May.