The cover girl of the Tarantino generation talks about motherhood, family - and her naked ambition
Not every wild child is all that they're cracked up to be. Patricia Arquette is a case in point. Cover girl for the Tarantino generation, the actress who came to fame with True Romance, recent veteran of a secret wedding with Nicolas Cage - you'd expect her to be something fierce. Instead she's tranquil. Almost matronly? She says that she, Cage, and their two children by former relationships are "just a regular old American family".

This is an important year for Patricia Arquette. She has a chain of films coming out which should rubber stamp her authority as an actress. There's David Lynch's Lost Highway, a complex story of sexual obsession which, says Arquette, "looks at women through the eyes of a man who hates women ... I've been with men like that". It put her "through the gates of hell" with her phobia about nudity. ("I may not be able to take a bath naked alone, but I am going to take my clothes off in this movie.")

Then there is an adaptation of Conrad's The Secret Agent, and later there will be Nightwatch, with Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte. But first off, there's Flirting with Disaster, a satire of modern manners and - for Arquette's character - postpartum comedy. She plays a new mother towed on a transcontinental wild goose chase by her husband - suddenly desperate, after the birth of his child, to trace his natural rather than his adopted family.

"The whole nuclear family thing is blown out of the water," says Arquette crisply, explaining why this is a current theme in American mythology, "but the film is also about his avoidance of responsibility in his life.

"He's not going to get as much attention from his wife from now on, he's going to have to make a certain amount of money. She's not going to be the object of his desire because she just doesn't have time for all that and they're both going to be exhausted. There's that moment when you realise 'this is my life'." She herself - trim, pale bell of hair like a blonde Morticia Addams - wears her maternity more lightly. But then "as an actress, I can afford to have a trainer three hours a day. I think that's kind of shitty and irresponsible, presenting this 'immaculate woman' idea, actually.

"I like the idea of some lady looking at my tits on screen and thinking hers are just as nice. After all, I've breast-fed a baby." Arquette's soft, slightly breathy voice belies the decisiveness with which she speaks. It's hard to realise that until three years ago, when True Romance came out, she was just Rosanna Arquette's little sister. At 28 she has already notched up 10 years in the industry.

The Arquettes, of course, are an acting family, from the great-grand- parents right through to four out of the five siblings (including brothers Alexis and David) in the current generation. Even their mother started out as an actress, though she gave it up to be a poet and family therapist. Ironically, the Arquette parents split up just recently. Patricia did most of her growing up on a commune in Virginia. "Any day we weren't improvising little scenes we were tie-dyeing something." Or discussing religion, possibly.

Her mother is Jewish, her father is a Muslim convert, one brother is a Buddhist and Patricia opted to go to Catholic school. Words like purity and spirituality pepper her conversation (she's speaking of babies and relationships, respectively). Her background is the same combination of hippydom and Hollywood which went to form River Phoenix, but in Patricia Arquette they seem to have led to a curious stability.

At 14, she says, she remembers metamorphosing "from an angel into a Hell devil. I remember lying on the ground crying hysterically: 'I'll never be able to love anybody! I am totally crazy and I'm never coming back!' " But by 21 she'd had her son Enzo, now aged seven, by musician Paolo Rossi, with whom she broke up a month after the birth but still remains friends, and was soon extolling the virtues of young maternity.

"My body bounced back," she told me then. "I have the energy. A lot of older people get crabby and cramped out by the baby's demands but when you're young you're used to having to give in." But even then she was praising maturity. "The actresses who impact your mind are in their thirties. I don't like young stars. When I started out I was just learning to crawl. It's when I can run that I want to come into my own".

The combination of baby and break-up initially left her hard up "and hating men". But it sparked an explosion of creativity. "I was born to be a parent." Before that her films had been in the nature of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Warriors, and - really - Prayer of the Rollerboys. "Nice parts offend me."

Right after that, Sam Shepard cast her in Far North, Diane Keaton cast her in the award-winning Wildflower, and she was in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner and played the luckless orphan in Ethan Frome. Good credibility. But True Romance was turnaround time: she says she didn't have that much in common with Alabama, her sweet trainee hooker, but she kept the purple and leopard-skin Cadillac the director gave her anyway. Not that she found it politic to drive it around the streets herself very long. "I get a lot of heavy mail from prisons already."

She did Kathy in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, as wife to the famously transvestite film director, and Holy Matrimony, besides a jeans ad for Armani and the innocent discovering Burma's troubles in John Boorman's Beyond Rangoon. But when that came out 18 months ago people were interested as much in her marriage, to Cage, as in her movie. Yet that, again, isn't the showbiz story it seemed to be.

Word had it that the wedding was based on a two-week acquaintance. People today ask, "Are they still together, then?", rather surprisedly. In fact, though the decision to marry was taken at short notice, theirs was an off / on eight-year courtship, during which they were both involved with other people, but kept telephoning each other to talk about marriage, half jokingly. Arquette set Cage a list of tasks to complete. He had to get her J D Salinger's autograph, which cost him $2,000, and a black orchid, for which he shelled out the price of a can of black paint and a purple orchid.

When they first met, she was intimidated by his success. Now there is more equality. But Arquette still talks about Cage in terms for which glowing is hardly an adequate description. "The reason I've always loved Nick is his nobility.

"I don't know who made up this idea of the perfect lover who's going to solve all your troubles, because really when you want to fall in love you should say 'God, please send me someone with a whole new set of problems'. That's what love is. It's not about perfection, it's about working your whole life towards something."

Kevin Jackson reviews 'Flirting With Disaster', page 15