She's not at all what you expect; her hair is still wet from the shower and she's made no attempt to disguise herself with layers of make-up. "I'm sorry to make you work on Sunday," Olivia Williams, the English co- star of Kevin Costner's latest film, The Postman, says sincerely.
She has sparkling, friendly eyes and offers a hearty handshake: she's a middle-class English girl, unpretentious and ready for fun. "Can I order an expensive glass of white wine?" she asks before the waiter arrives. All in all, she's much less siren, more blithe spirit, than I expected.
Her taste for the finer things in life has developed rapidly since she arrived in Hollywood a year ago. Williams has been constantly wined and dined by movie executives, producers and agents eager to have her sign on the dotted line. "The ride in Kevin's private jet was pretty exciting," she says at one point, providing an insight into how her life has changed.
The experiences that have transformed this 29-year-old classically trained stage actress into a leading lady in $100 million Hollywood productions would turn most young women her age giddy. Instead, she is mature and sensible enough to know that "the route back to where I was is extremely short and evident at all times".
Williams was only in town one day before she snagged the most coveted female role in the business. Based on that timetable, I reckon she must be one of the most ambitious women ever to hit the city limits of a place where ambition - not collagen or silicone - is the most important ingredient in a struggling actress's make-up.
She laughs. "I was very unemployed," she says, beginning the story of her road to stardom and six-figure salaries. "It had been four months since my last job and I was seriously considering jacking it in. Then, one miserable day last January, my agent asked me to do a taped audition for the new Kevin Costner film.
"I only went because I had nothing better to do. A secretary in the office read Kevin's part and I did the audition, went home, and forgot about it. A month later, my agent called to tell me Kevin wanted to speak on the phone. A few days later he called and said he liked my reading and would I do another one. I said, "Well no. I hate auditioning that way. It gives a false impression and there's nobody there to guide me. So actually I'd rather not."
Even now, a year later, the abruptness and honesty of her response makes her shudder. "I thought it was just a shortcut to the inevitable rejection that would follow," she says philosophically. "How did I know he'd call back the next day and invite me to Los Angeles?"
The timetable of events from that moment on are engraved in her memory. "I flew out to LA on a Sunday morning and had dinner with Kevin on Sunday night," she recalls. "On Monday morning I worked with him on the scenes and at mid-day he rang to tell me I had the job. At 3 o'clock I was in wardrobe for costume fittings and at 7pm I had dinner with (producer) Steve Tisch at Morton's. On Wednesday I was in Tucson, Arizona, rehearsing.
"It was extraordinary. I was very confused and quite unable to comprehend what was happening. It was terribly nerve-wracking because I knew they'd taken a tremendous risk with me. I certainly wasn't the first choice, but I think part of being an actor is realising that a part that someone else turns down isn't necessarily a bad part." She stops to think. "Wasn't Peter O'Toole second choice for Lawrence of Arabia?"
Despite getting good notices for her work, The Postman is a bit of a sore point because of its disastrous performance at the US box-office, where it's a bona fide bomb. "It was hard when people criticised it," Williams says. "The film obviously meant a lot. You hope it's going to be wonderful and everyone will love it, and then that doesn't happen and... that's OK. I still love the movie and am very proud of it."
Nearly all the criticism was heaped upon Costner, who also directed the post-apocalyptic tale of a drifter who, disguised as a postman, leads an army, re-unites a nation and falls in love all in about three hours. "There were moments when I thought, `This is American culture and I don't get it,'" Williams adds. "Obviously I wasn't the only one - maybe it wasn't critics choice culture either."
Does the criticism confound her? "It doesn't confound me. Sometimes I did feel, `Oh, that hurts'. But at the other end of the spectrum, my background is in theatre, and you stand up there every night not knowing if they're going to clap or boo... You can got booed off the stage! So being in a movie that doesn't make money pales in comparison to the humiliation of that experience."
Now, having just completed Rushmore, a romantic comedy for Dieney in which she plays a schoolteacher who's at the centre of a love triangle involving a 15-year-old pupil and his father (played by Bill Murray), Williams is the newest version of the American sweetheart, though such a term only embarrasses her. "America's sweetheart!" she exclaims. "Only last month I was an English Rose!"
Her credentials for that title are impeccable. She grew up in a stable, loving environment in Camden Town - her parents are both QCs and have been married some 30-odd years - and attended the South Hampstead High School For Girls, of which the slightly older Helena Bonham-Carter is also a former pupil.
It was when she arrived at Cambridge to study English that her flair for acting was spotted.
She graduated in 1990 and instead of applying for "a real job", took a year out to study acting at the Old Vic in Bristol. Still, she maintains, she never considered acting to be a viable career.
"I thought acting was a patently ridiculous way to earn money," she says. "As far as I was concerned, people who thought they were going to become rich and famous from it were deluded fools."
A year later, she had committed to giving it a bash. "I wanted to see what I was capable of. I did believe that at any moment I would walk away and get a `serious' job," attests Williams. "My deadline was 30. If I didn't achieve anything by then, I'd give up; Kevin got in just as the door was closing."
She's been through the whole gamut of emotions that out-of-work actresses go through, and has auditioned for everything from BBC costume dramas to soap commercials. "If I had a speciality before doing Kevin Costner movies it was reciting unperformable Jacobian text at the RSC," she says.
She was never the type who could be easily pushed around. "Once I went to read for a soap commercial where I was asked to turn up in a leotard," she recalls. "I got there and they looked at me and said, `You're not wearing a leotard.' I said, `I'm an actress. I'm not some Soho strip dancer. I don't consider turning up in a leotard part of the job.' I thought they'd throw me out, but instead they gave me the job!" She smiles. "So being direct with people seems to have worked wonders."
That single-mindedness and determination to stay true to herself should help in her journey through the jungles of Hollywood, where she will inevitably return. Right now, though, she's homesick for her Camden Town apartment, which she will enjoy after embarking on a European publicity tour for The Postman.
Still, she is under no illusions that, with two Hollywood films under her belt, it's going to be all plain sailing from here. "I'm not getting showered with offers and, to be honest, I don't think my getting job problems are over," she says sincerely. "My life is transformed in that people send me scripts to read now. So at least I'm in the door; before I just had my face pressed up against the outer gate."Reuse content