'I think people should do whatever they want to do. That's the point. Why should you care what other people think or say? You're not living in their pocket."
So says actress Francesca Annis. She is sitting opposite me on a bright winter's morning in the Westin Hotel. It may be early on a Monday but there is nothing groggy about her. Minutes earlier, she had bounded up the stairs in a baggy black leather jacket and hiking boots. Dressed for rehearsals of the Gate's production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (in which she plays the mother, Amanda Wingfield), she wears simple black trousers and a polo neck. Why gild a lily? She pulls a woollen cap off her head and shakes her hair a little. Quite simply, she looks great.
"Nothing so much excites the envy of the female sex as seeing a person set above them in appearance," wrote Jane Austen. Looking at Annis, you feel envious but more than that, there is admiration. An exotic beauty in the league of Sophia Loren but with the independence of spirit of Katharine Hepburn, Francesca Annis is a real woman. She exudes serenity combined with a good sense of humour.
Here is a woman who, at the age of 62, is brimming with life. In the hour that I spent with her, laughter was never very far away. Francesca Annis is good company, her chocolate brown eyes full of fun. She enjoys the absurdities of life and people. As she says of herself, "I like having a good time. It's probably my mother's Brazilian genes in me -- party, party."
Let's get the Ralph Fiennes thing out of the way. (Their former relationship is a subject she refuses to discuss.) In 1995 at the Hackney Empire, Francesca played the role of Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) to Ralph's Hamlet. They fell in love and she left Patrick Wiseman, her partner of 23 years with whom she had three children, to be with Fiennes; while he left his wife, the actress Alex Kingston. Ralph was 18 years younger than Francesca.
Of course, the papers had a field day. Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas can hook up with women decades younger than them and nobody bats an eyelid, but the public found it inconceivable that a woman was older than her lover. After a little more than a decade together, Ralph and Francesca are no longer an item. It was reported that his alleged philandering was the beginning of their end. Only they know what really happened.
At the time of the break-up Joanna Trollope pinpointed the problem with the media coverage. She told me that she felt quite sorry for Francesca, as it suddenly reduced her to being nothing more than Ralph's lover, when the truth was that back when Fiennes was a scut of a boy in short trousers, Francesca Annis had already set the world on fire with her Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanksi's film and playing the lead role of Lillie Langtry in a hugely successful television series in the Seventies. (Not to mention her breakthrough part in the film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.) A bright and beautiful talent, Francesca Annis was always so much more than Ralph's appendage.
I once met Ralph with Francesca. They were in Dublin airport and we were all about to board the same Heathrow-bound flight. Both of them had their hair cut to the bone, making them look like spring chicks. The haircuts looked a little odd, in the way that couples often unconsciously mirror each other's appearance or clothes. But that was the only peculiar thing about them. Having interviewed Ralph before, I said hello and spoke with him about a play he had been in -- the Morecambe and Wise tribute, The Play What I Wrote. Then Francesca appeared. I told her that she had been my heroine, I had dressed as Lillie Langtry for Halloween. When I told her this, she laughed warmly. Then I left them alone. On the plane, we ended up sitting in the same row. Naturally, I couldn't help observing them during the flight.
They sat reading scripts, content in their silence. (It's a silly detail but I remember she took off her shoes on the plane.) They were too busy getting on with their lives to pay any heed to people gawking at them.
But back to Francesca.
She was born in London but when she was one, her parents brought her and her two older brothers to Brazil. They lived there for six years.
"It was after the war and everything had changed. My mother, who was half-Brazilian, had a huge family in Brazil. My mother's fantasy was to be a nightclub singer, so they opened a nightclub on Copacobana and she sang.
The story of Francesca's parents -- Mariquita and Anthony -- would make a film of its own. As she says herself, "this is not an interview about my mother", but still, there are some parts of the story which must be told, if only to show that Francesca didn't lick it off the stones.
"My mother was madly adventurous. My father was an actor -- he worked with Gielgud -- and my mother came from a very wealthy family. She definitely wasn't meant to marry an actor but she eloped with him one lunch-time. She never told her parents that she was married until she was five months pregnant."
Her parents brought her on a world cruise the next day and told her that she should never mention Anthony's name again. In Vienna, Mariquita fell ill and a leading doctor instructed that the young girl be reconciled with her husband, so she could lead a normal life. And so she did. Up until this, Francesca's mother had only ever lived in hotels. Soon she was in a bedsit in Acton with her husband, clueless about domesticity.
"She said it was the most romantic thing that ever could happen. She thought that the Ascon, which provided the hot water in the corner, was absolutely wonderful. And she said that my father was the kindest man because he tolerated all her ignorances."
Years later, after he fought in the war, he came home badly injured. The roles reversed completely. She nursed her husband back to health -- he was given two years to live -- and against all the odds, they carried on for decades enjoying their diamond wedding anniversary and their life as grandparents. Anthony died five years ago while Mariquita, frail but alert, is still going.
The family lived in Kensington. Francesca was brought up a Catholic and was sent to a Carmelite convent school. As a young girl, she had two great ambitions -- to become a ballet dancer and a Carmelite nun.
"I think the religion and the ballet went hand in hand. When I was a teenager I found the passion, the austerity and the sacrifice very appealing. It's that slight masochism that tends to come out in girls. I personally think that if you're a Catholic and your hormones start going, to love God was the safest bet. So I put all my eggs into that basket."
Francesca even began getting religious instruction with brown scapulars but it eventually passed and ballet won out. She got a small acting role and from that she was asked to go for an audition for Cleopatra. The casting call was at the same time as her ballet class and her strict Russian dance teacher wouldn't release her from the class.
"Being the good middle-class girl that I was, I went to apologise that I wouldn't be able to make the audition. The casting lady said that the director Mankowitz was just leaving, if I wanted to speak with him. I did, he chucked my cheek and he asked me if I would like to come to Rome for a screen test. I said, 'Yeah, try and stop me' and off I went.
"But isn't that fate? If I'd gone at four o'clock I assure you that a hundred other girls would have been picked."
Elizabeth Taylor took the 16-year-old girl under her wing and made sure Francesca stayed in the big hotel with herself, her family and Richard Burton.
And that was the beginning of Annis's acting career. She acknowledges that she was incredibly privileged to get the fine work which she did and it afforded her a good quality of life and time to enjoy motherhood. She could do this because Patrick Wiseman, her partner, worked as a freelance photographer, and the two of them worked around each other's schedules.
"Patrick was 100 per cent supportive to me. He believed in female equality and that my work was very important to me."
But there were times when she had to juggle motherhood with work. She remembers when she was in A Month in the Country in the theatre. There she was with a baby in a sling, rocking the other baby, in a seat on the floor, while ironing at the same time. And later that night, she would be going on stage playing an aristocrat.
Francesca went to Hollywood but it was not for her. She says that there are only a handful of actresses who get meaty parts there.
"I didn't want to be looked on as a sex object. I wanted to be an actress. Unless I played their game, there was no way I was going to be offered marvellous parts. So I went back to England. I made that choice.
"The biggest privilege I've had in my life is being able to make a choice. If you make a choice, it can't be a wrong choice because it seemed like a good idea at the time."
She tells me of how, when she was 27, she cut her hair to half an inch all over. This was, in some ways, a feminist statement. Her hair had been a beautiful mane and she didn't want to be defined by beauty alone.
When I ask Francesca how she looks so fresh, she tells me that she eats well, sleeps well and does more exercise than most people, although she is not a slave to it. She still has plenty of ambitions in life -- she wants to become a better skier.
And while Francesca may not have become a ballerina, she still dances.
"My kids take me out clubbing. It's wonderful. We were out 'til six in the morning. We had such a laugh. Their capacity to laugh -- and sometimes to laugh about nothing -- is absolutely life-enforcing."Can she do this without the press peering at her?
"What can you do? I've recently been door-stepped, coming to my door late one Saturday night. How dare they? Not only how dare they, but how do they feel about themselves? Don't they feel like scum doing that? Especially as they usually have got it all wrong, as usual, but we won't go down that road. But good Lord, no, it's not going to stop me living. I don't know how they sleep with themselves but I don't have to sleep with them, so that's okay."
And there's that laugh again. Francesca Annis will always be fine.
Tennesssee Williams's 'The Glass Menagerie' opens at the Gate Theatre on Tuesday. Call 01-8744045 for information and tickets. Tickets cost e28-30