Next week sees Kerry Fox blazing across the screen as the foul- mouthed daughter of a wildly dysfunctional family in Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden. "I was on holiday with Andrew McDonald, the producer of Shallow Grave," remembers Fox (right), "and Thom had given Andy a copy of his script for The Hanging Garden. Andy threw it across his desk, saying `you'll probably like this kind of arty shit'."

Fox did, and soon found herself on a gruellingly quick shoot with the debuting Canadian director. "When I think about it, I was very stressed. We shot it in 12 days - I'll never do that again. It cost a lot of energy to look relaxed in the film. There were a lot of inexperienced people working on it, people who'd only worked in TV, so I think that lowered the level of expectation. I worked really hard trying to get it up to my level, getting it as good as I wanted it to be. Getting it fresh and alive and passionate, without imposing my own ego. That was exhausting."

Happily, Fox succeeded, giving a bravura performance in what seems to be the latest in a line of fearsome female roles. From her debut in An Angel at My Table - Jane Campion's fabulous biopic of author Janet Frame - through TV's A Village Affair, to her greedy yuppie in Shallow Grave, Fox has always opted to play charismatic, often unbalanced figures. In life she shares a certain up-front quality with her characters, although she's puzzled by the English desire to pigeon-hole her as "the Strong Woman".

"I suppose people in England are quite shocked by that kind of behaviour, even on screen. The number of times I've heard people say `Kerry's very direct'. I think it's the restrained English nature. I went for this photo shoot recently with this photographer who kept saying `I photograph strong women', but, when I started being assertive and saying `I don't think this is working', he got all childish about it. I thought `you don't like photographing strong women. You hate strong women. You're frightened of them'."

But while netting parts other actresses would give their eye-teeth for, has Fox ever found her career stunted by her lack of traditional, screen beauty looks? "I think the really beautiful women sometimes have a harder time," she says before letting out a peal of laughter. "There was that argument between Helena Bonham Carter and Kathy Burke about that whole thing. Must be so hard for her," Fox chuckles. "Poor Helena. Really beautiful women just live a different existence. I remember when I was hanging out with my gorgeous co-star in A Village Affair, it was extraordinary. Men's tongues would literally be lolling on the floor. You walk into a restaurant and you get the best table, just like that. I'd never seen such behaviour. I wondered `Do you get that treatment all the time?' It must be such a weird way to live your life. You probably think that that's just what the world's like. It's really funny."

In fact, Fox says, not looking like a Baywatch babe has "made it easier, because I've been more able to alter myself for various roles." Indeed, so convincing was Fox's metamorphosis into the lumpen Janet Frame, that she found herself type-cast as a cardy wearing victim, and didn't get any work for more than a year. "When you're not working, you just freak y'know? It's awful not doing what you do, not being productive. I used to think I'd never work again. When you start out, you're filled with a false idea of being a movie star. You think you're going to be rich and successful and work all the time. But it doesn't happen like that. Work comes up erratically and you have to be ready for those opportunities."

Brought up in a large family in New Zealand, Fox says she felt shy as a child, but was "a real show-off" as well. "New Zealand is a very constrained society. Acting made me feel secure and happy. I suppose it might have been a way of bringing things out in the open, saying things you otherwise weren't allowed to say." Now, she says, she has become a little less ambitious, a little more comfortable with the vagaries of the business. "You have to make your own chances, but you can't take yourself too seriously," she smiles.

For a moment, the "direct" and gloriously confrontational Kerry Fox appears almost mellow. Until, that is, I ask her to name her worst habit. "My worst habit? I don't have any bad habits," she guffaws, before admitting - "talking over the top of people I suppose... and thinking I'm always right." More chuckles, "AND WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT?"

`The Hanging Garden' is released on Friday