Juliet Stevenson feels like a basking hippopotamus, she says, hands running down her taut, round stomach, a smile almost splitting her face. She is so excited . . . so intrigued . . . so full of questions about this baby who has accompanied her across the Sahara desert and up the Atlas mountains during a recent film shoot, whom she has seen as 'someone so much its own person' since the first scan and with whom, rather as she did with Alan Rickman in Truly Madly Deeply, she has been having a one-sided dialogue.

Now the baby's arrival is imminent, 'anytime . . . any moment . . . The whole thing feels surreal.' Then suddenly she looks utterly childlike, and talks of how nervous she is about the actual birth and how, carrying on with life and work as a freewheeling individual, she has hardly stopped to consider what being a mother will mean. 'I'm not a great one for planning in advance, but of course life will be very different once this' - another caress of the stomach - 'is here.'

The birth of a first child makes equals of us all, and Juliet's words are those of so many ordinary women at this cliff-hanging moment. Yet her condition, her baby, her feelings are not allowed to be ordinary. Since it became known that the 37-year-old actress was with child, she has been hounded by the press wanting to know who the father is and by what means the baby was conceived.

One morning she found a young reporter on the doorstep asking whether it was a test-tube conception. She restrained herself from delivering a stream of invective and instead looked at 'this person, also a woman, who had chosen to do this for a living and I just said, 'Have you no self-respect?' Then I shut the door very firmly.'

It has upset her more for the baby and its father 'a man I love and who is very excited about the baby' than for herself, although she finds the media's prurient interest in her offensive.

Her face, which pregnancy has softened and made more conventionally pretty, mirrors her anger: 'Why am I not allowed to have conceived this baby in the usual way? What difference would it make to anyone if it were a test-tube baby? In fact it's a baby I wanted very much and so did the father, although like most things in my life it was not precisely planned.'

But she knows the answer: we live in times when the press seems less concerned much of the time with the state of peoples' lives than with tittle-tattle about show-biz personalities.

And if we scribes are not raking the muck it is, at least, de rigueur for interviewers to show how sharp they are by spotting the nasty bit in people as universally liked as this unpretentious actress, or to mock them for being politically correct.

It would indeed be easy enough to send Juliet up as the earnest woman of the people living alone in her north-west London house, a copy of The Chatto Book of Dissent on the arm of one chair, portraits of Dora Russell on the wall and a concern which embraces all the right political causes: Greenham Common, Amnesty, the Medical Foundation the Victims of Torture. Her great support now is for War Child, a tiny charity begun by two former film-makers who run a mobile bakery in former Yugoslavia and are 'quite heroic, putting their lives on the line every day'.

But that would seem churlish when she is so unguardedly open, talking guilelessly about her views and feelings and, to my mind, rightly, proud of not being a member of the giggling glitterati.

One way and another it's been a momentous year. Juliet's much- loved father, an Army officer, contracted cancer and died last year. It happened at a time when she should have been in New York appearing in Death and the Maiden, but that had fallen through. It was 'extraordinary good luck, although I was very upset at the time. I was in England and able to take the last months off to be with Dad. I would never have got over it if I'd been half-way across the world, unable to see him when he was so ill.'

By coincidence she had agreed to play Isobel in the film being made of David Hare's The Secret Rapture, a woman racked with pain at the death of her father. Filming began while Juliet was still mourning her own loss, and in the opening sequence of the film, where Isobel grieves over the body of her father, the raw grief in Juliet's performance is heart-rending.

She says: 'Yes, that was authentic and of course it was painful and stirred me up but being able to pour my feelings into a part was also a release. I was lucky not to have had to go back to a job where I was expected to be, say, a chirpy receptionist.'

And she is happy if the depth of her grief shows: 'If drama glamorises our emotional states and shows people dealing nobly with their misery, it disenfranchises those watching who cannot cope like that. Then what I do isn't helping humanity at all and I would like to feel that, in some way, it may do so.'

There were reservations about taking on this role: 'I wasn't in love with the idea of playing another morally upright woman with a virtuous centre because I have done quite a few of those, but I was interested in what David was doing with the whole piece. He is looking at this era, which is so much about caring for number one, shutting out concerns for others, where ambition and greed at their very worst are licensed, and asking what it is doing to us. How has it bled down and informed the way families relate to each other or lovers relate to each other? What are the personal repercussions?'

A change indeed from her last film, which was a documentary tracing the journey of the sexually ambiguous French writer Isabelle Eberhardt across the Sahara in Morocco, directed by her friend and neighbour, Celia Lowenstein.

The character was intriguing: 'She was the first hippie. She travelled with no money living from day to day; she had no concept that chastity was of any value and was sexually voracious; she was into kif-smoking; and she lived in Morocco dressed as a man so she could join the Sufi brotherhood.'

Otherwise she doubts she would have done this job: 'I have very mixed feelings about travel documentaries where 'abroad' is looked at through the eyes of a 'personality' and there's a lot of jumping up and down in nicely pressed slacks saying, 'This is awfully interesting'. This at least was an opportunity to open doors on little bits of the culture and the religion and at the same time get a sense of who Eberhardt was.'

It was also the first time she hit the conflict which she realises will probably now be a part of life, between motherhood and work. One evening, after a particularly gruelling day, she suddenly panicked and wondered what the hell she was doing there: 'I lost my bottle. I felt very scared and terribly guilty at what I might be doing to the child. I turned instinctively to a member of the crew, a family man who seemed very centred and who had no theories, but who told me a lot about the things he had done with his family. It was fantastically comforting.'

She plans to take four months off work when the baby is born, but hasn't yet thought about how she will divide her time in the future between child and career. She is contemplative about this: 'I know, like every single working mother in the country, I will be faced with endless, agonising decisions about whether to do a particular job or not, how much time and attention I have to give. But I believe I will want to be as hands- on as I can possibly manage.'

She thinks, too, that the legacy of her own happy childhood and the unconditional love she received have given her the tools to pass on something similar to her own child.

She talks as a single parent, although throughout the conversation she mentions the father's delight over the baby, his wish for involvement. But she is not planning to marry him, and we talk a bit about the current emphasis on marriage and how it is held up as morally important because it is about commitment to family.

She laughs - more a snort of derision - and says something about MPs who, having stated such sentiments, are off to Shepherd Market, and individuals who seem to think once 'respectably married' they can behave quite amorally. However, she does not feel it would be right to make a promise about how she will feel in many years' time.

Perhaps this time next week - almost certainly by this time next month - she will be grappling with the reality of motherhood. Meanwhile, as she puts a bunch of big pink-white lilies into a vase, serves tea and pushes aside the baby-carrier that sits in the hall, she reflects that life is not dull, nor likely to be, and that is a relief, as there's nothing that frightens her as much as the idea of boredom.

(Photograph omitted)