Amanda Donohoe: She's got a nerve

The Sholto Byrnes Interview: After a decade of Hollywood highs and lows, the outspoken star explains why she's glad to be back in Britain

We are talking about stools. How extraordinary, says Amanda Donohoe, that during the ancien régime every movement of the French kings and queens was subject to the scrutiny of the court. What if Tony Blair's evacuations were examined and judged in the same manner? "We all know he's full of shit anyway," she adds, dissolving in a throaty laugh, convulsed by the sheer naughtiness of her suggestion.

By this point, near the end of an afternoon spent sheltering from the rain in a Hampstead pub, I have come to the conclusion that there is no subject one could not discuss with Amanda Donohoe, nor anything that could shock her. From suffragettes to reincarnation, men with small penises to the iniquities of Camden Council, our conversation has taken a series of diversions and abrupt U-turns, with plenty of pauses in the lay-bys of humour, such as when our photographer, Tim, crouches low close by. "Just for the readers," announces Amanda into my tape recorder, "they should know that the photographer's now under the table, shooting up my nose, so I'm relaxed and thinking this is going to look really good - not!"

Such high humour was not entirely expected. Previous interviewers have described her as being a little tricky. She told one that she'd never get any jobs if she was as sloppy at her work as he was at his, and asked another how much he earned. "I was a feisty little creature, wasn't I?" she says when I mention this to her. "What nerve."

Nerve is something she has in spades, which is fortunate, as one imagines it might come in handy if you spend large parts of films naked, as she did in Castaway and The Lair of the White Worm. Nerve also explains her adventurousness in career choices, and equanimity when they haven't always turned out to be the right ones. But, it can also be an armour, and allied to the hauteur she often brings to screen roles - or forcefulness, in the case of her character DI Susan Alembic in the current ITV series Murder City - it's easy to see that it could be quite intimidating.

Fortunately, the woman who meets me is not bearing any armour apart from an umbrella, which proves totally inadequate against the downpour. By the time we reach the nearest hostelry, we are soaked. Instead of expressing annoyance, Amanda laughs and orders food, wine and fags. There's something very down-to-earth, and British about her, this diplomat's daughter with the commanding voice of a lacrosse captain. The fact that she moved from a London private school to selling plastic trousers and slashed T-shirts in a punk fashion shop and going out with Adam Ant has conjured up the image of a more rebellious youth than she probably enjoyed. "I've never been much of an anarchist," admits Amanda, who has regularly described herself as one, "except in my punk-rock days. But I always went home to nice, middle-class Golders Green. So how much of an anarchist could I really have been?"

Exactly that kind, is the answer. I'm sure she was the talented but slightly wayward schoolgirl, the type summoned by the housemistress for a chat about setting an example to the younger girls, and warned that, although she had much to offer, the school was worried about the direction she was going in; after which she would light up (in defiance of school rules, naturally) and go off to meet the unsuitable boyfriend, part of whose attraction was the look of shock that never failed to register on her parents' faces when he turned up on the doorstep (although they were later to be won over by his surprisingly good manners).

Amanda may be the kind of woman to dance on the tables until four in the morning, or surf on them, as she and her Murder City co-star Kris Marshall did during filming, but she'd also be the type to take charge in an emergency. A brisk, kind, no-nonsense figure who'd abseil down a mountainside to fetch help, or piece together a parachute from a couple of Fortnum's bags and a hair grip. Ultimately a good egg, to use a phrase that could spring from the lips of a girl of Amanda's background.

Such an attitude must have helped her survive 10 years in the weird transit lounge known as Los Angeles, a city that never sleeps well after a non-decaff coffee and where the smokers and drinkers cower in the shadows cast by the all-night gyms. "I've been so browbeaten by the Americans that wherever I go now I find myself putting my head round the door and saying in a very English way 'do you mind awfully if I have a cigarette?' " she says. "Especially when I'm inside anywhere. I was in the Warner West End the other day, and to my delight they allowed smoking at the bar - well I stayed there for a long time, I can tell you. In a public cinema, that's probably grounds for a law suit in California. That's why they're stopping smoking. It's bollock all to do with health."

Amanda was down to her last few dollars when she won the part of the bisexual CJ Lamb in LA Law. She left the series early after the scriptwriter David Kelley (later responsible for Ally McBeal) departed. Other work followed, not always of the greatest artistic ambition; let us merely mention The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, and pass smartly on.

"I didn't expect to stay working in Hollywood as long as I did," she says. "The main reason was that my dog was still alive, and I couldn't leave because I couldn't put him into six-month quarantine. He was very ancient and would definitely have died. As it transpired, he died in the most ghastly circumstances while I was here presenting a Bafta award, the year I did The Graduate. I came off stage, someone handed me a mobile and said it's your dad. He said your dog is dying in a hospital in California, and the lady who's taking care of him needs you to call to decide what to do. If it was England they'd just say 'sorry, but he's a gonner'. But this vet was all over the place - well we could do this, we could do that. And I'm - 'so he's got complete organ failure, if you did operate it would be a waste of time."

Finally, she discovered that her dog was in pain, and gave the go-ahead for him to be put down. "I was crying, tears, the make-up's gone, the ballgown's drenched. And the dog's dead. I spent the rest of the evening bursting into tears at the most inopportune moments, because it was like a bereavement and I've never had a bereavement. I'd had this dog for 10 years, and in Hollywood this dog - isn't this sad? - had been my closest friend."

Theatre roles in England - Hedda Gabler in Manchester and Wallis Simpson and Mrs Robinson in the West End - eased a transition back to this country. Certainly no romantic ties - her last major relationship, which ended several years ago, was with the film-maker Nick Broomfield - exerted sufficient strength to keep her in LA. Yet romance is an area of Amanda's life which has long intrigued the press, which seems to subscribe to the view that a woman who's prepared to drop her clothes, and about whom trails the whiff of the imperious dominatrix, must have a scandalous private life. A small forest has been felled to serve the fourth estate's ponderings on this momentous matter.

Being on record as having said, "I regret not being promiscuous" hardly does anything to dispel the impression. "Tabloids do have an old-fashioned prurient view of it all, don't they?" she says. "If 'smutty' didn't exist what would they peddle? If we all said 'oh, we don't give a sausage who's having an affair with who, your private life's your private life', we wouldn't have gossip. They have to describe how a couple made love, 'romping furiously' being a favourite. And the way they always include a woman's age and hair colour makes me laugh. Chesty blonde, 34. What about male, small penis, pot-bellied, 48. Never happens, does it?"

She does concede that she's sometimes been "very provocative". You've been very open, too, I say. "That's because I'm never specific about anybody," she replies, sounding quite delighted about the successful effect of her strategy. But you did once admit fancying Paddy Ashdown. "I think I just said he was more attractive than most of the rest of a pretty poor bunch." (Later, I check. She did say "fancy".) Free-spirited she is, yes, but her willingness to converse on men and sex has obscured from the public view a very strong sense of morality.

"The openness is the subterfuge," she agrees. This seeming femme fatale has very strict rules. "We are the sum of the choices we make," she says, "and if you go into a situation where you know somebody isn't available then any adult must be clear about the consequences; which will be many and immediate, and often bloody painful. I think I have a responsibility, not to anybody else, but to myself, because I think that's important. When issues of morality are very murky, if you don't have a strong definition of right and wrong, you can get lost. I've been in Hollywood, and I saw people get lost."

She may have played Mrs Robinson and have gaily held forth on her fondness for younger men, but no one should confuse Amanda with the character. "The darker basis to Mrs Robinson is that she is a bored, lonely, miserable housewife who hates her husband and hates herself. These are her motivations. It's not that she's bohemianly carefree and just fancied a fuck with an 18-year-old. With men, it's always connected to something fabulous, something forbidden. Stocking, erection, it's a done deal. Men are so delightfully easy to please. For Benjamin it's a rite of passage, a young man's journey into the quagmire of right and wrong, and Benjamin does the worst thing possible as far as his girlfriend is concerned - he's fucked her mother. This is territory that is Shakespearean." But in the film, I say, Anne Bancroft was far sexier than Dustin Hoffman's girlfriend. Didn't his character have a good thing going? "That is so sick!" she exclaims. "She's not going to give him anything except a sexually transmitted disease, and maybe a little experience."

Experience is something Amanda Donohoe has embraced, accepting, for instance, the inevitable trio of references to Adam Ant, Castaway and LA Law. "They're my life, they're what I am," says the charming, funny woman opposite me who bears little resemblance to the slightly spiky younger version who told journalists off. She is passionate about everything - about Camden's failure to provide her with recycling bins, about how bad the food is in supermarkets, about the failure of the welfare state to provide an effective safety net, about her plans to bring a play to London by the end of the year - but her passion is interwoven with humour. Talking of the camaraderie on set during the filming of Murder City, she says: "I like the army feeling of 'we're going to do this boys', even though we're knee-deep in shit and it's freezing cold. I've got a bottle of brandy, it's all right boys."

And an afternoon that began with a drenching ends after several glasses of wine, a mountain of cigarette butts, and much laughter. Yes, it most certainly was "all right", to use that British understatement that Amanda Donohoe may not often employ, but knows so well.

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