When Noël Coward, actually sounding more like Oscar Wilde, commented: "Women with pasts today receive far more enthusiastic social recognition than women without pasts," he could have been referring to Greta Scacchi. "Having had a reputation for being sexy is a great prop to lean on now," Scacchi admits. "In many ways, when you're young and sexy, it's very annoying to be whistled at and to have someone always trying to attract your attention, but now when it happens I find myself registering the fact almost warmly. I suppose I am lucky that, without having to try, my reputation gives me confidence."
Scacchi might well agree with Coward's assessment of life. "The world has treated me very well, but then I haven't treated it so badly either." Yet the roles for which she achieved recognition as an actress - most famously as Olivia in Merchant Ivory's breakthrough movie Heat and Dust, later as the gold-digger in Michael Radford's White Mischief and as the predatory mistress in Presumed Innocent - seemed to dry up "the minute I became a mother", she notes a touch ruefully. "Scenes of a sexual nature" which seemed to be attached to most of her early appearances were now off limits as far as casting directors were concerned.
Now, relieved perhaps at not having to bare her breasts at every turn, the Milanese-born actor, daughter of a former Bluebell dancer and an Italian father, is rehearsing the role of Amanda, one half of the madcap couple who cannot live without each other in Coward's intimate comedy Private Lives. Does the dapper, suave sophisticate whose works epitomise the privileged class of England ring any bells today?
"Very much," she retorts. "Amanda and Elyot are having a mid-life crisis. Both have gone for younger spouses, needing to recharge themselves with youthful energy but they are a middle-aged couple, very comfortable with each other and able to start up a conversation about anything at any time. Coward was an extraordinary observer of human behaviour, yet when I was a student at Bristol Old Vic in 1980, we still doubted Coward's relevance and regarded him as rather boring and safe, the crowd-pleasing playwright suited to provincial repertory or amateur theatre and strictly for the older generation."
But Scacchi - who appeared in his Easy Virtue, directed by Maria Aitken (herself a great exponent of Coward in Vortex, Hay Fever and Private Lives) - has always hankered after playing the brilliant, brittle Amanda, a glamorous woman behaving badly. It's the "chasms of emotions" in the play that grab her and, intriguingly, she compares her own relationship to the barbed repartee and inextinguishable attraction between Elyot and Amanda. "Comical, vile, ludicrous," she ponders, "their sparring, the games they play and how they wind each other up are so well observed." Unlike Amanda, though, she draws the line at breaking her partner's records.
That partner is her Italian boyfriend, Carlo, with whom she lives in a Sussex cottage near to where she spent some of her own childhood. They have a son, Matteo, six, and Scacchi has a daughter, Leila (at 13, a promising young actor herself), by the actor Vincent D'Onofrio. Now, though she regrets that a good few Shakespearean roles have passed her by, and after a slackish time in the past few years, she's recognised how important acting, going to the theatre and to selected films are to her wellbeing.
"I had to turn down things that were sometimes at the expense of my career in order to find variety, in an effort not to be pigeon-holed." Those roles included the steamy Sharon Stone part in Basic Instinct and, five years ago, a reputed million-pound deal for three days' work over three years on a Parisian cosmetics ad campaign. With her clear, cool skin and shining eyes (that's Elyot describing Amanda - "you're growing lovelier every second"), Scacchi has little need for cosmetics, though it was on the grounds of principles that she didn't do the commercial in the end. She's amused at Coward touching on cosmetic surgery in Private Lives, dismissing "pumping that weird stuff into your cheeks to put off the ageing process".
As her image as a femme fatale dims, without slipping entirely away, Scacchi seems a firm believer in Coward's adage that "old age needn't be nearly so dreary and sad as it is supposed to be, provided you greet it with humour and live it with courage". Having gone back to Hollywood last year for the first time since her daughter was born, Scacchi would probably agree with Coward's quip that "work is always so much more fun than fun". She'll shortly be seen in Syriana, a political thriller about US intelligence efforts in Middle East hotspots in which she is the disaffected wife to George Clooney's character Robert Baer, on whose autobiography the film is based. She also plays a "short but intense" scene with Jodie Foster in Flightplan and features in Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea. How was it being back in Tinseltown? "Oh pretty ghastly," she relies cheerfully, "but there are some perks." Such as being back in the Hollywood game, which she realises is essential to fuel the rest of her career.
Last year she worked on a film in Australia where she spent part of her youth working as a cowgirl and Italian translator and which is the third country to claim her as its citizen. She also spent four months touring Italy in Pinter's Old Times in Italian, directed by Roberto Ando with whom she previously worked in Sotto Falso Nome in which she performed her role as Daniel Auteuil's wife entirely in French. It was in Australia in 1991, she says, that she played the role that has given her most pleasure, that of Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Perth Festival. "It was a turning point. I felt the thrill of a journey in a play where the writer gives you the power to take the audience with you, to have it eating out of your hand. People say that Hedda is the Hamlet of women actors but for me it's Nora with her thrilling, chilling lines."
Perhaps because women directors expect different things from her, Scacchi seems to have gone out of her way to work with them including Gillian Armstrong, Margarethe von Trotta, Diane Kurys and, most recently, Ana Kokkinos. She wrote and directed The Book of Revelation, set in Amsterdam, where a dancer-choreographer, on his way to buy a pack of cigarettes, is abducted by three hooded women who keep him prisoner, subjecting him to painful humiliations, including rape.
It's a far cry from Private Lives in Peter Hall's season at Bath Theatre Royal, directed by the talented Thea Sharrock. Not surprisingly for an actor who was weaned by Merchant and Ivory, Scacchi depends on a real collaboration with directors. "I look for people who're passionate, dedicated to the text, and in whom I trust completely. You seldom get that in film where you're lucky if you get any say at all in the final cut. On the stage, you alone hold the key, and on the night you have to trust that the director has inspired you enough to take the material and run with it. With a theatre audience there's always the additional sense of a sustained challenge of which I'm acutely aware and for which you need to have the tools ready - your voice, physicality, brain.
"Theatre is a sacred space for actors. You are responsible; you are in the driving-seat." And that is where Greta Scacchi now likes to be, rather than in the missionary position.
'Private Lives', Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844; www.theatre royal.org.uk), to 6 August