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Claire Forlani: From Hollywood to Kilburn

She starred with Brad Pitt and Sean Connery but this week Claire Forlani will make her debut at the Tricycle theatre

Claire Forlani's star was on the rise in the mid-1990s as she landed major roles in big-budget films alongside Brad Pitt, Sean Connery and Ben Stiller. At the same time she built a solid track record in movies that would attain cult status, from directors including Kevin Smith and Julian Schnabel.

Yet the pressures of Hollywood, personal tragedy and fierce protectiveness of her privacy saw the British actress step back from the spotlight over the following decade. She has continued to work consistently in film and television but it is the work from close to 20 years ago that still have fans stopping her in the street.

"It's nice now when people come up to me," she says. "When people talk about films from two decades ago there's something very cool about that; it's nice they're still being watched." And what an eclectic set of fans they are. She can tell immediately, from the person, which film they will talk about. Stoners always want to talk about Mallrats, the 1995 follow up to Clerks by Smith, while "arty types" want to talk about Basquiat. "With Meet Joe Black it's fathers, that film is all about the father, daughter thing." Yet Forlani prefers to look forward rather than back. This week marks a significant new challenge: the 42-year-old, who divides her time between London and LA, will step onto the stage professionally for the first time in her career.

Her theatre debut comes at The Tricycle in Kilburn, North London in The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which opens tonight. Despite 45 acting credits, Forlani admits to a few sleepless nights before the curtain goes up. "This really is a feat. You're walking into the fire; you just have to come through it," she says before adding jokingly: "Hopefully you don't emerge completely scorched."

The new work by Adam Bock is a tale of socialite siblings in New York, inspired by the Miller and Mitford sisters. "There's the money, and glamour, but what's just beneath the surface is total dysfunction and total darkness," she says.

Forlani was born and raised in Twickenham, the child of an English mother and an Italian father and knew she wanted to be a performer from an early age. While she attended the Royal Ballet School and Rambert briefly, her love of American cinema drew her towards acting and she trained at the Arts Educational School in London from 11 years old.

Her acting debut came in the much loved TV show Press Gang – "I don't remember much about it, I'm afraid" – before she moved with her family to America.

Among the early credits was the seventh instalment of Police Academy, subtitled Mission to Moscow. The experience was an extraordinary one for a 22-year-old Forlani. The cast and crew were in Moscow for four months, which coincided over with the 1993 constitutional crisis as the President Yeltsin faced off against the Russian parliament. "Tanks were going by and Warner Brothers had their plane waiting to get us out," she says. "We were there when Lenin's tomb was closed, and when Rostropovich came back after 20 years of exile. We saw him perform in Red Square."

Her breakthrough came with Mallrats in 1995, which starred Shannen Doherty and featured a brief appearance from Ben Affleck. The offers came thick and fast from The Rock – "Nic Cage is the sweetest guy on the planet" – to Mystery Men with Stiller and Meet Joe Black with Pitt.

She says highlights from the time included filming the biopic of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat sitting with David Bowie, who played Andy Warhol. "Sitting with Bowie with that wig on and the nose, sharing Chinese food in front of real home movies that the [Warhol] Foundation had allowed us to watch... I was thinking: 'This is good.' I was such a Bowie fan."

Yet being thrust into the spotlight brought drawbacks. "It's really hard when you're young. I have a lot of young actor friends now and I try to help because I understand it's a terrifying business." It is worse for young actresses. "For a woman, it's absolutely a misogynist environment. You are prey, so if you don't have protections you're dealing with intense stuff. There are a lot of components. That's why drugs and alcohol are prevalent. The 20-year-olds have to turn to something. I was one of the unprotected ones, and it was tough at the time."

When she was 27, her mother died. "She was the one support, so that all happened at once, as it was getting magnified. It was so hard," she says. "I just, sort of retreated. I still worked but I wasn't taking risks after that. I took safe options. I was trying to find safety for a while. I wasn't brave and bold during that time."

Turning 40 can be problematic for an actress, as, according to one film producer, the scripts begin to dry up. Forlani is still regularly sent offers but, "it's an interesting moment. It's often stuff that is too young or too old".

Yet there is an upside as "the roles are more interesting," she says. "Playing the ingenue is not that much fun, but you kind of have to do it for a few years. You're the girlfriend or whatever. After that it's better, you get to play queens and crazy people."

She is no longer going for the safe options. "The brilliance of this job is that you can just go with it, you don't know what's round the corner then something shows up and it's the next challenge and a great group of people. Death to me would be doing the same thing over and over."

'The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania', Tricycle Theatre, London NW3 (020 7328 1000) 25 June to 25 July