Francesca Annis once observed, "I don't want three million people digesting my private life over their cornflakes." Now that nightmare has come true. Following revelations last week about her partner Ralph Fiennes's affair with a young Romanian singer, the press has had a field day. Prurient headlines have ranged from "Why I won't stop my lover Ralph straying" to "Maybe now Francesca can understand the pain".
But then the media has long been gunning for Fiennes and Annis, apparently dismayed by a relationship between an older woman (Annis is 61) and a younger man (Fiennes, 43). The actress herself has always been philosophical about the age gap. "Ralph and I have been together 10 years now so, whatever happens, we have had a very good, different relationship," she insisted in an interview last year.
But the fallout has been worse than even she could have foreseen. A painful love triangle has been turned into virtual character assassination, with Annis portrayed as humiliated and "hurtling towards old age". The Daily Mail even claimed to know her innermost thoughts ("I can't fulfil all Ralph's needs, admits actress") based on that old media cliché, the "close friend".
But Annis isn't taking it lying down. Last Tuesday her lawyer issued a statement saying that she is separating from Fiennes (there was no talk of "working it through"). And she announced she had begun legal proceedings against the Mail for defamation and invasion of privacy over their story claiming she had forgiven Fiennes for the affair.
For all her legendary warmth and generosity, Annis is fiercely independent. She has never married (she has three children from her 22-year relationship with photographer Patrick Wiseman, whom she left to be with Fiennes).
Until recently, she shared her house in west London with Fiennes and her youngest son (who was doing his A-Levels). "I come from a very hospitable, close, Catholic, matriarchal family," she insists. She visits her 94-year-old mother every day.
Professionally, too, she is independent. Wryly observing that when she hit 40, "I was asked what was it like to no longer be a sexual object," she has proceeded to dazzle in theatre roles from Mrs Alving in Ghosts to Florence in The Vortex. Most recently she played a voracious divorcée in Epitaph for George Dillon, opposite Fiennes's younger brother, Joseph (the tabloids had a field day over their stage kiss).
But then Annis has never done the conventional Hollywood thing. Cast in Cleopatra aged 16, as Elizabeth Taylor's handmaiden, she soon realised she would never fit the studio system. "I marched. I cut my hair short. I picketed the Miss World contest. I turned down a lot of films." Fashionably radical during the 1960s, her circle included Jimi Hendrix.
Annis was born in 1944 in Brazil to a half-Brazilian, half-French mother and an actor father. She spent seven years in Brazil (her parents ran a nightclub on Copacabana beach), then the family moved to London. Convent educated, she flirted with becoming a nun, but her passion for acting won. At 14, she was cast as the lead of the 1958 film The Cat Gang, about a group of children who stumble across a smuggling ring.
Her big break came with Cleopatra where she witnessed at first hand the monumental scandal that erupted when Taylor left her husband, Eddie Fisher, for Richard Burton.
In 1971, she turned in an astonishing performance as a nude, sleep-walking Lady Macbeth in Polanski's Macbeth. Then her film career faltered. Most of her best work in the 1970s came on British TV, first as Emma Bovary in the BBC2 serial Madame Bovary, then as a Bafta-winning Lillie Langtry in Lillie. As she observes, "I have yet to see a drama that puts forward women who are successful and also have a family ... they are nearly always seen as victims."
But in 1995, at the age of 51, she was cast as Gertrude to Fiennes' Hamlet. The chemistry was electric (a reviewer noted, "Gertrude seems unnaturally fond of her son"). Annis admits she plunged into the affair "recklessly".
When the story broke, much was made of the fact that Fiennes was mourning the death of his mother, Jini, from breast cancer at the age of 55. Fiennes left his wife, actress Alex Kingston. "He arrived, all bright and breezy, and said that he was in love with Francesca Annis," Kingston told The Daily Telegraph.
Annis became the scarlet woman. Wiseman later revealed she had had three other affairs during their relationship, one with Ian Ogilvy and a co-star he refused to name (newspapers at the time alleged it was Trevor Eve, her co-star in the BBC drama, Parnell and the Englishwoman.) But she rode out the scandal, even playing a woman who has an affair with a much younger man in Paul Abbott's Reckless. "Thank God we're not like America," she said. "Everyone wants to look like they're 20. In Europe we admire grown-up women; I think men revere older women."
Whatever the pain of her private life, Annis still has a reputation as classy crumpet. "She's really, really beautiful," says Keeley Hawes, who played her daughter in the BBC's Wives and Daughters. "I saw her in Shoreditch Madonna at the Soho Theatre ... She has so much energy."
For 11 years Annis and Fiennes seemed one of the strongest partnerships in showbusiness. "She loves him and he loves her - that's the key," English Patient producer Saul Zaentz observed, describing Annis as "a warm, witty" woman who "doesn't take any crap, in the best way".
But cracks in their relationship began to appear. Despite rumours of his "closeness" to his Maid in Manhattan co-star Jennifer Lopez, and then actress Gina Gershon last year, Fiennes vigorously denied being unfaithful.
Last weekend, however, singer Cornelia Crisan, 31, kissed and told of their two-year affair. In a predictable tale of champagne-fuelled sex and narcissism (once, they re-enacted his sex scenes from The End of the Affair), Crisan claimed the actor regarded Annis more as a maternal figure. And that she suspected he was also seeing another woman during their affair.
There has been no comment from Fiennes, who is in Dublin in a play. But the scandal couldn't have come at a worse time - he is very much in the spotlight having been Bafta-nominated for The Constant Gardener. It would be impertinent to suggest that he knows that he's lost something precious. But clearly he has.
Annis, one senses, will recover. Of course, she knows the pain adultery can cause. Of Wiseman, she says simply: "I have apologised to him."
As for her own life, "It's like a fire. It goes through a journey, and each stage is interesting.
"I don't regret the passing of time," she adds. "I try to live in the present, which should mean my life's full."