Tim Walker talks to Greta Scacchi about her new role in The Deep Blue Sea, the gaucheness of Bill Murray — and being offered the lead in Basic Instinct

Greta Scacchi is lying in bed beside Laurence Olivier. His head is resting against her shoulder. Suddenly it feels damp. She looks at the old man and sees that he is crying. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asks. He looks back at her imploringly. ‘Oh, Greta, I haven’t got any more work after this for six months. Nobody wants me any more…’.

The bedroom scene in the television drama The Ebony Tower took a whole day to shoot and so there was plenty of time for confidences with the man she always addressed as ‘Sir’. Miss Scacchi was then 23, and Olivier 78, but he was looking older and frailer after a bout of pleurisy. ‘Here was this man who was acknowledged as the greatest actor of his day and yet he was riddled with insecurities,’ says Miss Scacchi. ‘I decided there and then that I would never allow myself to get like that. There has to be a point when you can say, “Look, this is who I am — take me or leave me.”’

Miss Scacchi is now nudging 50 but has a youthful, luminous complexion and bright, intelligent eyes that still seem to be full of wonder. She is talking to me in a restaurant around the corner from the Vaudeville Theatre, where she opens this week in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. This woman has always had more than her share of confidence — perhaps sometimes, she concedes, too much. It enabled her to disrobe in films such as Heat and Dust and White Mischief, to go on Film 85 and tell Barry Norman quite what a disaster she felt The Coca-Cola Kid had been for her, and unhesitatingly to turn down the part that made Sharon Stone a star in Basic Instinct.

‘How different it would have been if I had done that film. I imagine they would be paying me ten times as much to do this play and there would be a car to come and collect me from some grand hotel and it would have blacked-out windows. I like my life as it is though. Honestly, I like being able to walk down a street and be left alone. I would have missed out on half of life if I had taken that route.’

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She made one or two films in Hollywood — such as Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford — but she looks back now on that town and its values with a sense of indignation. To be young, attractive and female there was, as she tells it, to be in a very vulnerable position indeed. ‘I remember going to casting meetings in hotel rooms and there would be all these men looking at me. I went to one with that guy who was in Ghostbusters. Oh yes, Bill Murray. He asked me for my telephone number in front of everyone and I gave it to him. It was important to show the team that there was chemistry between their two putative stars. “Yeah, sure, come over tonight,” I said, doing what I was expected to do.

‘And, sure enough, Murray came round. I had an eclectic collection of friends in my apartment and we were cooking, playing music, dancing, all completely stoned. He just sat on a sofa, utterly out of his depth. He was wearing his stupid farmer’s boots, a lumberjack shirt and looking like the country bumpkin from the Midwest that he really always was. And he left, shaking his head, and I never had to see him again.’

This woman could write an extraordinary autobiography and, yes, she says, she has thought about it. If she hasn’t yet put pen to paper, it is probably because there is an aspect of her life that remains unresolved: her relationship with her father, Luca Scacchi Gracco, an Italian art dealer and painter. He hit her when she told him that she wanted to be an actress, and abandoned her mother and her when she was still a child; they moved to live in Sussex without him.

‘He was brought up in Como, which is one of the most bourgeois towns in all of the world. He accepted me as an actress eventually, but only when it became a useful badge for him to wear. It is not for nothing I guess that a lot of the most enduring friendships I have had in my life have been with men who are my father’s age — Joss Ackland, for instance, and Michael Blakemore.’

Her relationship with the Hollywood actor Vincent D’Onofrio, the father of her 16-year-old daughter, Leila, is also problematical. She is reluctant to be drawn about it but says ‘it makes me livid that we are unable to come to an accommodation for the sake of our child’.

She lives now in Sussex with her cousin, Carlo Mantegazza, by whom she has a son, Matteo, who is nine. Their farmhouse is not far from the home where her English-born mother Pamela, a dancer and antiques dealer, had brought her up singlehandedly and took her to the local theatres, which was the beginning of her love affair with acting. ‘I remember a teacher I had, too, called Mrs Grove who taught me about poetry and literature and how to savour a great line. I used to come out of her classes feeling as if I was walking on air.’

Miss Scacchi has some high-profile film work coming up — a part in the cinema adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and Shoot on Sight, a television film about the 7/7 London suicide bombings, in which she plays the wife of a Muslim police officer — but the theatre is her greatest love. ‘It always amazes me with film the way they can Sellotape together some bits and pieces an actor has done, normally in no particular order, and make it look part of a logical narrative. With theatre you do the whole thing from start to finish and you grow and grow in the parts you play.’

She has always been drawn to Rattigan — she appeared in Ronald Harwood’s brilliant 1994 film adaptation of The Browning Version — because of the power of the words. She certainly seems to have a special affinity with them. When she was on tour with The Deep Blue Sea, the peerless Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer said that, as an actress whom he had previously regarded as ‘little more than eye candy’, Miss Scacchi was a ‘revelation’ in a role that ‘demanded acting of the highest order’.

‘My agent didn’t think I would like the bit about eye candy, but I loved it because of the sense of acceptance that went with it. Most actors spend 20 or 30 years trailing around theatres and then maybe they get into films. With me, it’s been the other way around and, you know, I feel I saved the best bit till last.’

Tim Walker Is The Theatre Critic Of The Sunday Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated