Greta Scacchi is supposed to meet me on the platform of the quaint little railway station near her Sussex home, but as I step off the train I see her striding back to the car park. "Oh, I'm sorry," she says when I catch up with her. "I couldn't see anyone who resembled a journalist." In the course of the morning, she cheerfully reports this misunderstanding to her nine-year-old daughter Leila ("He doesn't look like a journalist, does he, darling?") and her husband Carlo ("Carlo, listen to this, I nearly left him on the platform!").
She would, you feel, say anything that popped into her head, which might help explain why she was never destined to be a straight-arrow Hollywood star. At 41, she still has the looks for it. There's the organic glamour of a Jane Birkin or Julie Christie; thick hair through which she purposefully ploughs her hands, as though dispelling those old fizzy curls that suggested a shaken-up bottle of pop in films like The Coca-Cola Kid (1985). But the outspoken personality, with its hard truths and sharp edges, would not pass so smoothly through Hollywood's digestive system.
It is only appropriate, then, that she should be playing the actress Gale Sondergaard in One of the Hollywood Ten, a film about the struggle by Sondergaard and her husband Herbert Biberman (Jeff Goldblum) to make the left-wing drama Salt of the Earth after being blacklisted as alleged Communists. The real clincher for Scacchi in taking the part was Sondergaard's gracious reaction to being dropped by her husband from the leading role in favour of an unknown Mexican actress. "I would've whacked him round the face, taken the children and moved to Siberia," she sniffs.
Sussex isn't quite Siberia, but it might as well be. Often on the move as a child, Scacchi was keen to give her two children – Leila, from her marriage to the actor Vincent D'Onofrio (he was the murdered screenwriter in The Player), and three-year-old Matteo, her son by Carlo – a secure base. The cottage is surrounded on all sides by memories. To reach it, Scacchi has to negotiate the same spindly, pot-holed road down which she used to ride her sled in the frozen winters. Her garden stands beneath the hills where her mother took her walking as a child. Two white-socked cats pad around the grounds. A trampoline in the far corner of the garden looks as teeny as a postage stamp. Nice if you like cats and trampolines. But, honestly, the hills aren't alive with the sound of anything much at all.
"There's very little going on around here," she sighs, "and my London life has pretty much fizzled out. People just think, 'oh, she won't come all this way'." She does, at least, have her Feldenkrais classes. "You can lie there for an hour, with someone saying, 'Now lift your left hand. Now drop your left hand. Now think about how that feels'. I spend most of my life telling other people what to do – 'Eat your breakfast! Put your shoes on!'. It's nice to let go."
In the cottage, Matteo, who has Shirley Temple ringlets, leads me to the bathroom, to show off the tiles that are decorated with his and his sister's multicoloured handprints and footprints. Leila, who according to her mother ate woodlice as a baby "to get my attention when I was spending too long on the phone", occasionally wanders over to the piano to pick out "Greensleeves" with one finger.
Scacchi's own childhood was split between Sussex, where her mother lived, and Milan, home to her art-dealer father. Later, she followed her mother to a new home in Perth. "I felt divided," she recalls, lounging in the sunny room at the back of the cottage. "It wasn't just that I was speaking in a different language. I was choosing to say different things when I was in Italy. I identified this when I was eight years old. I thought: 'I'm two people'."
By the age of 10, she was being packed off to Italy with her older brothers for the summer. "I had a dinky handbag with my tickets and passport inside, and mum put us on the boat at Newhaven." Those bursts of vibrant socialising in Milan couldn't have been more of a shock after Sussex, but when asked what she learned from her sojourns to Italy, Scacchi becomes pensive. "My brothers and I know better than anyone how to wrap things up that could be breakable," she says enigmatically. "How to handle fragile objects." I think she might be talking about something other than antique urns and vases.
Then there is her mother, a former dancer. "She's very critical," says Scacchi. Do you find that positive? "Yeeesss..." she says hesitantly. "It helped prepare me. It meant I wasn't going to get exploited. When I started off – young, photogenic, all of that – I was never starstruck by opportunities." Perhaps, I suggest, she finds those qualities less appropriate in her mother now. "I suppose it would be nice for her to be not quite so critical any more," she concedes. Hasn't she given her approval on anything you've done? She thinks for a long time, her eyes scouring the walls. "I'd rather not answer that," she says, finally.
If we're going to accentuate the positive, then it is as well to point out that this stiff-sounding upbringing gave Greta Scacchi the requisite tools to forge the career she has chosen. She has something: the pluck to steal herself off on eccentric detours just when it seems that she might take over the world. Did you know, for instance, that she turned down the Sharon Stone role in Basic Instinct? "I thought it was crap. I don't like shoulder pads and I never will." And although she would be the first to admit that her choices were sometimes flawed – "Every film the Taviani brothers made was a masterpiece until I worked with them," she once remarked of Good Morning Babylon (1987) – her risk-taking has been vindicated by a number of quite dazzling performances.
She coped handsomely with the burden of playing one of the few non-reptilian characters in Altman's The Player (1992), which she now calls "the highlight of all my film work". For me, that description better fits her portrayal of the adulterous wife in Mike Figgis's remake of The Browning Version (1994), a woman so cornered and used-up by life that she seems prepared to hiss and claw at anyone within reach. Few actresses would have braved so unflattering a character, let alone invested her with real hurt, real heartache. Scacchi's relationship with Hollywood remains ambivalent. "I'm off the boil over there at the moment," she muses. "I must get on the boil again." This is said casually, even distractedly, as though she is making a mental note to pick up something from the corner shop. You imagine that, should it slip her mind, she won't feel unduly troubled.
Back in the late 1980s, she lost a number of high-profile roles because she wasn't familiar enough to US audiences, even after movies such as Heat and Dust (1982) and White Mischief (1987). It had never even crossed her mind to put herself about a bit. "I thought, 'I've got Australia, France, Germany: why should I need another territory?'" Eventually, she spent a grudging fortnight in Los Angeles, and for her troubles landed the plum role of Harrison Ford's mistress in Presumed Innocent. "I raced back to England immediately and did a radio play." She makes it sound like taking a shower to scrub off the grime. "I used to think that the Hollywood environment would eat into my brain. There's a contagious mentality there that I'm susceptible to because I'm weak. When I'm in Hollywood, I find myself watching the same celebrity interviews over and over. I start thinking: 'Why aren't I Nicole Kidman? It's not fair. I ought to be Nicole Kidman.' So I get myself a manicure. World news ceases to be important because it's simply never discussed at dinner parties. It's like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? over here."
I must have given off an unwitting spark of recognition, because she lurches forward. "You watch that, too?" she demands, seizing the chance to unburden herself of a dreadful guilt. Sometimes, I admit. "There's this area in the fifth or sixth round about which I know nothing," she complains. "It's always a question about sitcoms. It's like they're talking another language." That's when you ask the audience, I say. The audience always knows the answers to the Only Fools and Horses questions. "You're absolutely right. Of course, it gets interesting again after that. Although I always become annoyed when they don't know that, say, Oberon is from A Midsummer Night's Dream. How can anyone possibly not know something like that?"
'One of the Hollywood Ten' is screened on Tuesday at the London Jewish Film Festival, which begins Saturday (020-7435 3366)Reuse content