Her West End debut has been praised by the critics. But the press hasn't always been so kind to Julie Christie, as she tells Melanie McFadyean, a journalist and friend
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BACK STAGE at Wyndham's Theatre one steamy night last week, with Julie Christie a few nights into her West End debut in Harold Pinter's Old Times. In her dressing-room there is a deep floral sofa, a marble- topped table with curly legs, a vase of flowers. Cards from well-wishers are stuck on the mirror, which is studded with 100-watt bulbs. There is a jade-green moire-silk screen, reminiscent of some old film, behind which the star would undress, tossing a stocking over the top as a gentleman clutching his hat hovers in the doorway. Very West End.

Julie clatters in shaking her umbrella and talking her head off. She laughs a lot - it comes in gusts and bursts, loud and unrestrained. Nice dressing-room, I say. "Yes, very grande dame of the the-ater." She's pouring coffee from a flask. "And I'm a grand old nothing of the theatre."

As successful as Julie is - an Oscar winner with 28 films behind her - she is genuinely modest. That's her image of herself, not a grand anything. I remind her that one of the critics said of the play, "Miss Christie's the thing." She isn't having it. "Lindy Davies is the thing, Harriet Walter's the thing, Leigh Lawson's the thing, the play's the thing," she says emphatically.

She has long wanted to work on big projects with Lindy Davies, her director in Old Times, which recently transferred from Theatr Clwyd - not that she thought they'd fetch up in the West End. She talks in a rush, intermittently stopping abruptly to gather straying thoughts. "I never wanted to do theatre, I haven't a clue about the technical skills involved. Lindy's worked very hard on that with me. Recently I have been asked to do theatre a lot, I don't know why, perhaps because it's becoming more commercial and famous people are becoming an asset? I turned them all down; they were star vehicles. Then Helena Kaut-Howson of Theatr Clwyd asked me and I said yes, if I could work with Lindy. Helena takes a lot of risks and she decided to take this one."

Lindy Davies comes into the dressing-room just before the voice warm- up prior to the evening's performance. Now there's a face - what charisma, what stories she must have to tell. Lindy sinks into the sofa; she is very laid-back. Julie is many things, but laid-back isn't one of them. It's a wonder she keeps so still throughout her performance as Kate in Old Times, because the rest of the time she's up and down like a firecracker. Leigh Lawson comes in. He plays Deeley, Kate's husband, threatened by her past intimacy with the other character in the play, Anna (played by Harriet Walter). Leigh Lawson is pissed off with one of the reviews; the others bolster him. Harriet Walter arrives. She is pissed off too: some photographer had asked her to lean nonchalantly on a sofa - a gymnastic impossibility. She demonstrates. They laugh. Their camaraderie is for real; they don't sound like phoney dressing-room luvvies. And as they go through their warm-up exercises, as they "ah" and "ooh" and say "bububub" and "mamama", the bond between actors and director is obvious.

Julie's been lucky, she says, she's worked with fine directors: Losey (The Go Between), Schlesinger (Billy Liar, Darling), Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451). "They were marvellous. I don't want to do anything but my best and I know what I do could easily turn to dross, so I like to work with people I can trust." She frowns. "Masses of what I did in film was dross." The subject is closed.

And what about Harold Pinter? "I always liked his plays, they make me laugh." Pinter hasn't been involved in the production, although he's seen it three times and his "very specific" suggestions on each occasion have been welcomed. Julie knows him from working for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in the Eighties, but they don't meet socially. She pulls a cutting out of a folder and quotes from Pinter: "Words are as often used to distort or deceive or to manipulate as they are to convey actual and direct meaning, so that a substantial part of our language is essentially corrupt." Julie likes this, it relates to real life.

JULIE CHRISTIE is famous for her acting talent and her remarkable, unfading beauty. To those who have followed her career closely, however, it will come as no surprise that she has an extraordinarily bad memory. "Ah yes, memory, the crux of the whole matter - I forgot! With Lindy you don't have to learn your lines because you go through so much investigation into the words that you learn the lines like that - that's another reason why I don't think I could do it with anyone else." She pauses, trying to remember a line from the play, head in hands, but she can't. "Got to go on stage and do this in an hour," she mutters.

What is it about her memory? "It might be something to do with being slightly dyslexic. I'm innumerate and can't get directions." A little later she attempts to calculate how many years she might have left. "How old am I?" She looks perplexed. "Fifty-five," I reply. She counts on her fingers. "Fifty-five," she mutters. "Sixty-five, 75, 85 ... Thirty years - that's not long."

Life's too short to go on being "scatterbrained", she says. She made forays into academia a long time ago when she was still living and working in Hollywood. She enrolled for a biology class at UCLA. "I am passionate about nature and the environment, so I thought biology would be a good subject for me, but my innumeracy made it impossible." She tried linguistics, but found that it too depended heavily on a grasp of spatial and numerical skills. And then a few years ago she started a history and politics course with the Open University. "It's wonderful, although I thought by forcing myself to do academic work I could make my brain into another brain. But unfortunately it has stayed the same brain." Her aim in pursuing these courses was to find something she could do besides acting, but she decided she was no good at anything else. The brain may be the same, but her hard work has paid off in another way - she's more confident, not as heartbreakingly humble, apologetic and brittle as she sometimes was in the past.

During her remaining 30 years, she'd like to go to places she's never been to, like Kate, her character in Old Times. "She says she'd like to go somewhere in the East where it's very hot and lie under a mosquito net and breathe quite slowly. I'd like to be somewhere where I could lift the tent flap and see the sand ..." This is Julie the romantic speaking. Julie the romantic is hotly pursued by Julie the person of unimpeachable integrity: "... a place we don't have any more, a country with a progressive government, an indigenous population that is not in the front rank of the first world, that's not spewing out waste and consumerism at every corner."

The place she'd go wouldn't be a city. That was the whole point of getting out of London and buying a house in a Welsh valley. Intending to find somewhere within easier reach of London, she originally cast about for somewhere in Sussex but found southern England to be an "extended suburb of London". She would have gone north but visited friends in Wales and decided that was the right place for her. "I hate the town, it's like a prison!"

Julie is often associated with speaking out against injustice and oppression and has lent her support to many issues over the years. Last Sunday she joined the demonstration in Trafalgar Square against nuclear testing in the Pacific. She cares passionately about the environment, about cruelty to animals, about any kind of inequality. Not that she has always been conscious of these things - it was a romance in her twenties that started her thinking. "I was the sort of person who wouldn't have gone out with anyone who had a regional accent and would actually vocalise that distaste. That changed when I came to London in my twenties." She fell for a young postman. "I met him when he delivered the post. I couldn't believe he didn't know things I knew from school - he opened my eyes to the privileges of my class."

Julie's commitment has sometimes irritated interviewers and profile writers. Their sneering tone suggests they'd prefer to know about the inside of actresses' handbags rather than their heads - unless of course they'd care to unburden themselves of their sexual intimacies. And so they get at her, call her right- on, suggest she should just get on and be a babe instead of reminding us of starvation, injustice and impending environmental disaster. Hollywood stars aren't supposed to be intellectuals, for God's sake! Since Old Times opened in Clwyd, Julie's agent has had dozens of requests for interviews; she has turned down all but a handful of them because she dreads being misconstrued or unable to put across things she thinks important.

What those who scorn her fail to realise is that having a conscience doesn't preclude fun or humour. I've been to parties with Julie and seen her getting on down in a leopard-skin mini-dress. She loves to dance, to eat and drink, and after a few glasses of Spanish red, bursts with largesse, sensuousness and indiscretion.

"They call me a recluse. I really object! Is it because I don't have children? Because I live in Wales? Because I don't go to press and publicity parties? I'm not a recluse." Recluses don't organise big, noisy surprise parties like Julie did for her boyfriend, radical Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell, on his 50th birthday.

But she's a celebrity, and therefore open to adulation and abuse, whichever fits the capricious appetite of the press that day. "I'm uneasy with stardom, it's so undemocratic. But I'm glad I've experienced it because now it's not something on the other side of the fence." Perhaps she rejects it because she has it.

Julie's had her share of media mischief - things she's said "turned into bland jelly". Recently she went to hear some Japanese drummers, and a photographer got a snap of her which appeared in numerous tabloids. It was a shot that Julie says made her look ugly, printed alongside one of her as a young star. "They gloated: 'Doesn't she look awful, this is what's become of that great beauty, isn't it sad?' It upset me so much." One of the reasons she was upset, she says, was that if she'd had plastic surgery - and she hasn't - they wouldn't have been able to catch her like that, in the glare of flash, which makes anyone over 35 who hasn't had plastic surgery look like old rope. Then they used her as an example of tragically spent beauty, while others who have spent fortunes on plastic surgery are admired, reinforcing a notion that only in youth is a woman desirable. "Apart from anything else it's sexist," she says crossly. "This obsession with celebrity is manufactured to prevent people thinking - just like religion. With religion you keep talking about God and the Virgin Mary and with celebrities you keep talking about their lovers and how many swimming pools they've got."

As they grow older male actors become ravaged and wasted, their remaining hair grey, their torsos spreading - and yet they are apparently the sexiest men on earth. Any woman who looked as raddled as Jack Nicholson, no matter how big a star she had been, could look forward to the bit-part hag, crank or grandmother. She wouldn't be paid big bucks to cavort naked with 20- year-old hunks. Even people who don't mean to buy into this seem to become victims of their own subconscious - one critic giving Julie a rave review called her "a miracle of science". She was simultaneously outraged and amused. "It makes me sound like something out of the Science Museum - pull strings to see if I move. What the hell does it mean?" I asked the critic what he meant and he was contrite, said he hadn't meant it. Julie's not going on about it, she's got past a lot of the ritual humiliation dished out to women over 35. But, in a rare and satisfying flash of vengefulness, she says, "And those women who collude in it - those columnists - they're going to get old and die."

A GONG sounds, followed by a voice telling the cast the time. That's the point in the interview when you mean to ask the most important questions of all, but for some reason I ask her about the patterns on her red dress - little beige mop-like things. She crinkles the fabric between finger and thumb and scrutinising it through the specs says, "Spermatozoa, I expect - just to show I'm still amazingly sexy!"

Half-an-hour later she's on stage, sitting on a sofa, her feet tucked under her. She is in character, creating an air of mystery, sexiness, danger. Old Times is a curious, powerful play, so suited to Julie Christie that it might have been written for her. She isn't the star - it's equally weighted between the three of them. They have taken their camaraderie from the dressing-room to the stage. As Deeley and Anna vie for Kate's attention, nobody upstages anybody - not even Julie's serene and unsettling beauty can steal the show. Because as she said, the play's the thing.

! 'Old Times': Wyndham's Theatre, WC2 (0171 369 1736); booking to 2 Sept.