How we met: Imogen Stubbs and Tessanna Hoare

The actress Imogen Stubbs, 36, grew up in west London. After attending Rada, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, the start of a career that has seen her take leading roles in the West End (most recently in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'), on film and on TV - notably as 'Anna Lee'. She lives with her husband, the director Trevor Nunn, and their two children in west London. The artist Tessanna Hoare, 36, grew up in London with her artist parents Elizabeth Jane Lloyd and Jeff Hoare. A graduate of Camberwell College of Art, she has had eight solo exhibitions and has provided artwork for several films, including 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. She lives alone in north-west London

IMOGEN STUBBS: At first we were just small children who played in the same square in Hammersmith. But we became proper friends when Tessanna's cat had kittens and my family took me to choose one. I lived on a houseboat on the river; Tess's family had a wonderfully bohemian house, all whitewashed walls with little bits of mirror and suns and things, and a bathroom with tribal pictures. I always thought they had the most fantastic taste: I have been hugely influenced by it , and I'm still envious of Tessanna's creativity.

As kids we were both very tomboyish - we used to go off and play in the trees - and there was a lot of laughter. We were forever wetting ourselves. I re-member one occasion when I pissed my pants about four times from laughing. But our lives separated when I went to St Paul's School and she went to Godolphin. I was very envious, because she seemed to have much more fun and I was just doing academic things. Tess was surrounded by people called Scarlett and boys who wore bomber jackets, and I do remember being rather miffed because she had a very attractive boyfriend. I think we were both seen as pretty and blonde and slightly superficial. But we didn't feel that way at all.

We separated more when I went to Oxford and Rada, and Tessanna became very involved in her art. During my twenties, I was more or less living in France with a boyfriend so our lives continued to be divided - but it was during this time that Tess had a serious accident while riding her bike, and went through an emotional crisis. I realised that, apart from her physical problems, she was suffering a great deal in her soul, and that the best I could do was to be there for her. She was starving herself and her mother asked me to try to get her to eat, but I knew that wasn't the thing I should do. I just wrote letters letting her know I understood what she was feeling. I doubt I could have done this if I hadn't had a crisis of my own, but when I was 21 I had times of hyper- ventilating and I was totally paralysed on several occasions. It sapped all my confidence in myself, just as the accident did with Tessanna.

Of course our lives are very different these days. I am married with children and in a different professional world to Tessanna, so we don't see such a lot of each other, but our friendship is rooted in history - we still use childhood names (Tess calls me Midge and I call her Jet). The essence of our friendship is that we go back a long way and know we are there for each other. We've supported each other through some difficult times. We've both lost our mothers. Something huge is lost when that happens and we were able to share the feelings. My mother expected a lot of me, as Tess's did of her, and I think we are both cursed with having very high expectations of ourselves. They were divine, our mothers, and close, but there was a punishing sense of "nothing is enough".

Tess's art is very important to me, and I love visiting her studio, where I can see the way she is developing and changing. We have pictures of hers in our home and I still find myself trying to be creative in the way she is. For example if Tess writes a letter it will be decorated with a dried flower or a poem, and it'll look exquisite. If I try doing that, people say: "By the way, some bits of pot pourri got dropped onto your letter!"

One of the things Tess and I talk about now is how to face growing old. We both have this feeling of needing to change, knowing it's important, yet not being sure how to do it. She feels she has to find something new inside herself; while I want to shake off the image of "long-haired blonde girl" so that I might get offered parts with more depth and maturity. I also want, passionately, to maintain the thing Tess and I shared so much when we were younger: the feeling of being nomadic and aware that we must keep on discovering things. I am married with children, I have a mortgage and so on, but I can't bear the idea of becoming ordinary. I want to be a bohemian and live thrillingly every moment of the day. There's an empty thing in me that isn't filled at present and I think it's time for an adventure. My mother learnt tap dancing and Chinese, because she planned to go to China when she was 50 - I admire that spirit enormously. I said to Tess that I am going to take a sleigh ride across Norway and she said she wanted to do it too. We have many of the same yearnings just now, and so we are planning to do that together. I shall write about the experience and Tessanna will sketch in the snow.

TESSANNA HOARE: We were brought up with a lot of freedom in this wonderful square where all the children mixed, we went in and out of each others' homes and nobody worried where we were. I used to love going to Imogen's boat because it felt safe - by that I mean her parents were polite and civilised with each other, whereas my home was very volatile with lots of rows. And there was a machine for making Coca- Cola drinks.

Our lives went in very different directions once she went to St Paul's. She did brilliantly: straight As, a First at Oxford, a scholarship to Rada and then a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company. When I left school I modelled and worked as a waitress for a while before going to Camberwell College of Art.

But Imogen actually had a very tough time, because her father died while she was in her teens and a few years later her mother died. I think the pain was unbearable. I remember her doing acrobatics down The Mall, but not in a happy way. After her mother's death she became very close to my mother; as I detached from Mum she seemed to identify still more with her. I suppose I did feel a bit put out because it was a time when things were difficult between Mum and me, and Mum'd say: "Oh Tess, why can't you be more like Imogen?"

My mother died in 1996, which was terrible; I know Imogen was very upset too. Then with strange synchronicity two days later I got this job doing a stained-glass window for Trevor Nunn's film of Twelfth Night, which Imogen was in. I found myself depicting a blonde Botticelli-like woman who seemed to be a combination of my Mum and Imogen ... blonde Venus.

I admired Imogen very much in Twelfth Night: it really demanded a lot of her acting abilities. But in truth I don't get to see her acting very often. I did try to go and see her when she was in A Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange at the Haymarket, but then I found out it was pounds 60 a ticket, so that was that!

Imogen has been very generous in helping me financially, she's made a big impact on my life that way. She's bought paintings and asked me to do pieces of art in her house. There was a time when I was completely broke, I just had 50p in my pocket, and I rang Imogen. I think the fact that we grew up so close gave me the idea, subconsciously, that she was family and there to support me. Anyway she seemed to understand the urgency and she commissioned me to do a mosaic in tiles for behind the Aga in the house where she and Trevor live, which is in the same square I grew up in. The mosaic's of cows, because we used to play in a field of cows as children.

Although in our twenties our lives diverged and we didn't see much of each other, the important thing was that Imogen knew how to support me when it was vital. She got in touch after I had my bike accident 11 years ago. I was riding my push bike down Holland Park Avenue when a car swerved towards me. I came off and slammed my head against a tree. Half my face lost its movement and I haemorrhaged.

I was a physical and emotional wreck. I lost all my looks, so that ended the modelling work I had done, but also it changed my identity. I went manic for a time. Because Imogen was quite similar to me physically, and had shared the same sort of identity, she was able to understand. She didn't come dashing to my side, but she wrote me fantastic letters which were about knowing my essence. I stopped eating and I was about a stone underweight and people were judging me quite harshly. My mother would leave packets of biscuits outside my door and she wrote to Imogen asking her to get me to eat. But Imogen knew that wasn't the answer and that I needed to find a way to become a person I could like again.

I don't think her getting married and having children has changed our relationship, because she's not one of those people who make children the centre of her world so that you always have to relate through them; but she is quite occupied with the life she has now, so we don't see a great deal of each other. But we certainly are sharing the anxieties of mid-life. We found ourselves saying almost identical things when she came to my studio this morning: big questions about the meaning of existence are looming. I think we both hope this trip we are planning to take across Norway will provide some answers, or at least some guidance. And it should be quite an adventure going through the wild, deserted parts, sleeping rough and making fires in the snow. It will be like kids out exploring the world together again.

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