FILM / What Mia Farrow did next: Mia Farrow has many regrets, but, while she rues the day she ever met the man, meeting Woody Allen the film- maker isn't one of them. The actress, making her first film without Allen in 12 years, talks to Sheila Johnston

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Journalists who met Woody Allen late last year, while he was promoting Manhattan Murder Mystery, were struck by the almost comical cloak-and-dagger proceedings. One interviewer was flanked by 'security advisors' bristling with walkie-talkies which announced the director's advent from afar. Another met him in a darkened hotel room, where Allen materialised, as if by magic, out of the shadows.

In the other corner, Mia Farrow is conducting herself with less of a theatrical flourish. She has never been much of a one for interviews, and her press cuttings are sparse, at least up to 1992. Her sole big gesture is to conduct all European press for her new film, Widows' Peak, the first in a decade without Allen (wags have been calling it Woody's Pique), in Dublin - a city which she seems to regard as something of a safe haven from the intrusions of the sensation-seeking media.

She is 49 now, but looks years younger. She arrives in smart-but- casual dress - jeans, white shirt, black jacket: the only ornament is a large gilt crucifix. The two production drivers, who have seen it all and have no time for bigheads (Tom Cruise, who shot Far and Away here, is still in the doghouse for strutting round with a bodyguard and never talking to anyone) are charmed. She's very laid-back and sociable, they tell me. The Sun said that she had, one evening, sunk 11 pints in a Dublin pub crawl. She proposes talking casually in the hotel bar, but the film's co-producer hovers by on lawyers' orders.

The storm broke in the summer of 1992. It had started quietly enough, with the announcement that the couple was splitting up, and that Allen was suing for custody of their natural son and two adopted children. Even hardened gossip-mongers were surprised at how quickly it all escalated from minor skirmishes into global warfare. Only the previous year, the Independent had described them as 'the perfect couple for the New York Nineties' and now suddenly the post-modern idyll was spontaneously combusting in accusations of violence and child molesting.

Farrow, who dramatically and poignantly declared herself 'perilously close to a genuine meltdown of my very core', ended the victor in law, although neither side emerged with much moral credit. Few condoned Allen's affair with his 21-year-old stepdaughter, but Farrow was also widely portrayed as hysterical and unbalanced, a woman who had once stitched a sentimental tapestry with the date and place of the couple's first lunch together and was now sending Allen sinister Valentines containing photographs of herself and her children with skewered hearts.

Today Farrow is cordial, but predictably distant. She listens intently to questions and formulates her answers with huge care. 'I may have this story wrong; I've lost confidence in this story, but this is the way I've been telling it' (she is responding to an innocuous opening question about Widows' Peak, a high-spirited period comedy).

'My mother (the actress Maureen O'Sullivan) had mentioned to Hugh Leonard, or to his agent, that she had never worked with me, and then Hugh Leonard went and wrote this script, which had good parts of both of us. It bounced around under various guises; my sister Prudence tried to produce it, but it never got off the ground, then it disappeared . . . but even if they had got it going, I wouldn't have been able to do it as well as all those Woody Allen movies.'

It is naturally understood that we shall not broach the court case, but Farrow is willing to talk about their long professional relationship. There's just an odd, small coldness about the way she never calls him by his Christian name, referring throughout to her ex-lover and close collaborator as 'Woody Allen' or more often simply 'him'.

Their teaming was unique in contemporary American cinema: apart from a cameo in Supergirl (1984), Farrow worked exclusively with Allen for 12 years, starting with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy in 1982 and ending, 12 films later, with Husbands and Wives (1992). 'I regret the day I ever met him,' she has said, but doesn't extend that to their professional relationship. 'It suited the way I lived and the way I worked. And of course he's a good writer and a good director, so everything combined to make it a perfect situation. The one film a year I did with him was quite enough. He took a long time to shoot. Sometimes we'd begin in October, we'd shoot through till February, then take three weeks off to edit, then we'd be back shooting again for a couple of weeks, then he'd edit that, then we'd take a week off, then shoot three days, then a month off, then shoot six days.

'Then we'd be in June and I would take my kids out of the city for a welcome vacation. And that was really my year; it was unthinkable that I would do another film in that time. He preferred that I didn't - I think he wanted me not to be away, for the relationship. And I'm not so ambitious that I would have wanted to do two or three films a year. It would be foolish to complain that it was restrictive. I was completely happy.'

Now Farrow must rebuild her life from scratch, professionally as well as personally, touting for work in a shrinking market: roles for older actresses are thin on the ground. And she has 11 (12 according to some counts) children to support. 'It's more complicated,' she admits. 'It's no longer an assured thing that every year there'll be something, and it doesn't matter what it is, you just do it. On the other hand it's more interesting. It's true that there isn't a great deal around, but I think there's enough . . . I hope there's enough to keep going. My agent was talking to me about setting up my own production company, but there's something so passive about me; my tendency has always been to sit and wait. I have a lot of children and so much of my energy goes into them. It's hard for me to feel motivated, you know, I really need a shove.'

But Farrow has several trumps up her sleeve. For a start, unlike Allen, she was never the quintessential Manhattanite. She was born in Hollywood, to an Australian father, the director John Farrow, and an Irish mother, O'Sullivan. During her marriage to the conductor Andre Previn, she lived in England for nearly a decade.

'I was based in New York because I had a relationship in New York and because I was filming in New York. It's actually a very difficult place to bring up small children, dangerous and confining. I'm far from a New Yorker and I was far from comfortable there. My family's still in Ireland - my mother's three sisters and all my cousins. I spent most of my childhood summers here, so there's a strong connection. And there are no better people anywhere.' So: there is life for Farrow, in cities and countries where she can walk unrecognised or, at least, unharassed.

There's another difference, even more fundamental. Allen has always played variants of himself in his movies - or has been popularly perceived as doing so, which amounts to the same. No one will ever watch his work without thinking of the man off-screen. Some of Farrow's characters have been drawn from life too, in Hannah and her Sisters, New York Stories and, most notoriously, in the ultimate film-a-clef, Husbands and Wives. But she also developed under Allen's custodianship a formidable reputation as a character actress.

Before they met, she was mainly remembered as the doe-eyed waif in Rosemary's Baby. She was famous by proxy, for the men she knew - Salvador Dali, who took her to an orgy in Greenwich Village, Frank Sinatra, to whom she was briefly married in the late 1960s, Previn, and still others in between. Neither Sinatra nor Previn encouraged her acting career and the roles had become meagre by the time she took up with Allen.

He saw the comedienne in her, casting her in Radio Days as a woiking-class goil from the Bronx who takes elocution lessons to shed her high-pitched adenoidal whine. In Broadway Danny Rose, she was a gum-chewing floozy; in Alice, a bored uptown housewife; in Zelig, an earnest, bespectacled shrink. She approached her roles as technical exercises, and reports from her film sets repeatedly wondered at the skill, the way with accents, the ability to slip into character, and then, just as quickly, quietly to return to her knitting.

'I guess during all those years with Woody Allen I just fitted into whatever he was writing. I was often given my choice of the female parts, but I don't believe he wrote anything specifically for me.' The exception was Broadway Danny Rose. 'He says I mentioned wanting to play a character we saw in a restaurant, and he may have written her into the film. It was fun assembling that person, the wig, the falsies and the lavender clothes, even though it's a black-and-white movie, and another accent. That was the biggest stretch I'd ever made.

'I found the only way I could get away with it was if I put on sun- glasses, because I've got these eyes that just give me away: a touch of Bambi or something. Even with a massive amount of eye make-up, I couldn't get them tough enough. There's one scene where he has me take off my sun-glasses, just for a second, and my whole character comes apart completely. He left it in anyway, he wanted her to be softer or something. But I haven't seen most of my films - I'll feel depressed that I've failed, or something. It undermines my confidence.' Farrow presents this image of a vulnerable, childlike un-together lady (even Mia was originally a baby-ish contraction of her real name, Maria). But I wasn't entirely convinced - you sense a resilience there. Allen would call it the 'passive-aggressive' syndrome.

One could take the cynical, silver-lining view that the whole sorry affair has been rather beneficial to Farrow. We like our Hollywood stars outrageous and disorderly: where, after all, is the fun in Meryl Streep? Farrow disagrees, vehemently. 'It's not helpful to anything. It's not part of reality, my reality, in terms of how I live my day. It brings people around that you don't want, it brings attention that's unnecessary.

'Here I am giving an interview because they say it's good for the film, but ideally an actor should be almost invisible. I don't think that the media help to bring you roles; it's a whole other market-place that feeds off itself in ways that I don't understand, or care to. You can read it or not, you can let it affect you or not, but only to that degree can it have anything to do with your life. Don't you think?'

'Widows' Peak' opens on 15 April

(Photographs omitted)