The Thursday Interview: Patricia Arquette

Born into an acting dynasty. Raised in a commune. Married to Nic Cage. No wonder she isn't your average movie star

The Arquettes are to America what the Von Trapps are to Austria. In South Park, the movie, a Scud missile attack on the Arquette house is enough to prompt a US invasion of Canada. And they have strength in numbers. There seem to be dozens of them: the father, Lewis; Rosanna; Richmond; Patricia; Alexis; and David - so many that any director who has worked with them all is probably eligible for a free set of wineglasses.

The Arquettes are to America what the Von Trapps are to Austria. In South Park, the movie, a Scud missile attack on the Arquette house is enough to prompt a US invasion of Canada. And they have strength in numbers. There seem to be dozens of them: the father, Lewis; Rosanna; Richmond; Patricia; Alexis; and David - so many that any director who has worked with them all is probably eligible for a free set of wineglasses.

But it's Patricia who is the most interesting. She is often cast as the femme fatale, the bruised victim who looks as if she needs to be rescued but who only drags the hero into nastiness that he has no power to assuage. Or she's the wallflower who serves up an unpleasant surprise for a man who takes her for granted - allowing Ben Stiller to catch another man licking her armpits in Flirting with Disaster, for instance, or beating an assailant to pulp with an Elvis statuette in True Romance, or - in her new movie, Little Nicky - blasting mace at the son of the Devil (played by Adam Sandler). There's a threatening vacancy about some of her performances. Something unpredictable and Lorena Bobbitty, which ensures that the male characters who come into contact with her never seem to know whether they should snog her or jump on to a chair and scream.

In next year's Human Nature, a film by the people responsible for Being John Malkovich, she plays a woman entirely covered in thick hair, who falls in love with a man who has been raised as an ape. "There's a lot of people who would never do this movie," she explains. "It's a big gamble. You may never be perceived in the same way again. I'm fully nude and covered with hair, running around the woods. It's very far-out. Very shocking. I don't look unlike drawings of prehistoric man walking across the tundra."

It's clear from the undignified things we've already seen her do in the pictures that she's not desperate for the camera's flattery. "I find that men are far more vain than women," she reflects, prodding a tiger prawn into a dish of Thousand Island. "Some people will stop a scene and demand a mirror and look at themselves and check which angles they're being photographed from. I don't do that. But that might be because I have a problem with authority, and I see that [vanity] as some weird rule that has no basis.

"It's just an abstraction invented by men. That's why I knew for a long time I never wanted to straighten my teeth."

The significance of Arquette's engaging gobful of clothes-peg teeth is worth considering. In an industry you'd think was run by some orthodontic illuminati, manipulating the studio system to ensure that only the capped and bleached survive, her wayward incisors are probably a more powerful symbol of rebellion against the hegemony than if she was club-footed. Old-time stars such as Joan Crawford and Gale Sondergaard had unspeakable things done to their jaws before they were allowed anywhere near a camera; Arquette, now 32, has wormed her way on to the list without resorting to lignocaine and whizzy drills.

She gives her mother credit for instilling this resolve. Mardi Arquette succumbed to cancer in 1997, but she remains her daughter's principal role model. "When she was pregnant with me she went on a lot of civil-rights marches. Martin Luther King saw her from his bus, and he made her get on and ride with him. Another time, she was waiting for a bus, and the driver refused to let this handicapped man get on. So my mom lay down in the middle of the road.

"I hear her voice in my head now," she adds. "And I talk to her. Right after she died she told me to go shopping and buy a load of presents. It was the weirdest thing. Even for people I didn't like very much."

Arquette spent her childhood on a hippy commune in Arlington, Virginia, to which her actor parents retreated when she was still tiny. Her mother ran a children's theatre group, and you might recall her dad, Lewis, as the mill-owner J D Pickett in The Waltons. The Arquettes' family life wasn't quite so pumpkin-pie idyllic. When, at the age of 14, Patricia discovered that her father was having an affair, she packed up her Sex Pistols records and ran away to live with her elder sister, Rosanna. By the last year of her teens, she was pregnant with her son.

"We all go through life living in little bubbles," she says, in her sing-song way, "which we share with people who think pretty much the same as us. When I had my son I felt I had to step out of everything. Re-evaluate everything. Having just gone through that bloody, deadly, amazing experience, none of that seemed important. But it was interesting being that young and considering whether I really wanted to give up being objectified for good." And objectification, she argues, has its pleasures. "You want your partner to objectify you. It feels like a good thing when it's at a certain level, but you sometimes meet disturbed people who take it too far. For some people, when you walk into a room, what your fame means to them can be like pointing a weird gun at them. It triggers something. They might get really giggly or flirty or cold or confrontational. And the more you work, the more you can end up feeling isolated." And whether that isolation grows or recedes partly depends upon what goes down on a Bahamian island that has just been purchased by her husband, Nicolas Cage.

The story of Arquette's romance with Nicolas Cage has become - along with that old chestnut about Errol Flynn rubbing pre-coital jalapeno on his penis - a minor Hollywood myth. Here's how it goes. They met in a Los Angeles deli in the mid-Eighties. Cage immediately proposed to her amid the cream cheese and gravadlax. She accepted, on one condition: that he went on an Arthurian quest for a black orchid, a tribal dress, J D Salinger's autograph and a Big Boy burger statue (that's the smiley mascot of a fast-food chain, not some kind of figurative mince sculpture). Sir Nicolas completed those tasks - but cheated by spraying a purple orchid with black paint. After a Wagnerian row in an airport lounge, they split, found new partners and had a child each. Cage fathered Weston with a model, Kristina Fulton; Arquette produced Enzo with a musician, Paul Rossi, naming the baby after a minor character in The Godfather, a film directed by Cage's uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. Then, exactly a decade later - yeah, I know, but this all actually happened, apparently - they bumped into each other in front of the same pickle counter and wondered why they'd hesitated before. They were married in April 1995, and the scandal mags have been speculating about their relationship ever since - paying particular attention to their disinclination to set up home together.

The gossips had plenty to chew over this year. Cage filed for divorce in February, withdrew his petition in May and bought a private 50-acre island for himself in July, which, according to the man who sold it to them, Cage and his wife intend to share. Here, presumably, they will renegotiate their partnership under the coconut palms.

In case that doesn't work out, Patricia Arquette has a Norma Desmond-ish vision of herself on her 80th birthday, staging a major retrospective of her work in her own living-room, congratulating herself on how pretty she once was. "I don't read my reviews, but I have a bunch of them and I will when I'm 80. And I'll go: 'You bastards! I'll kill ya!' " I suggest that by that time, they'll probably all be dead anyway. "Yeah. And I'll laugh." And she does: "Whoo-hoo! You're dead now!"

There is an alternative ending, however: "I might end up travelling round India on a boat, something like that. Hippy people had a hopeful idea of what they wanted the world to be like, then most of them changed into corporate Yuppies. But I still have that hippy thing underneath somewhere." And she describes how, when sailing somewhere in the tropics, she encountered a family on a remote beach who were the last survivors of some island commune established in the 1960s.

"Our commune collapsed because, though we'd tried to get away from society, we brought enough of it with us to sow the seeds of our destruction. But these children looked so brown and blond and happy. I wish that could have been me."

'Little Nicky' is on general release from 17 November