Rosamund Pike

First came a panicky trip to Mississippi. Then the nightmares. Rosamund Pike tells Nigel Farndale about the pain and pleasure of taking on Tennessee Williams

It is 9.25 in the morning. I take a sip of coffee, my first of the day, and try hard not to stare at Rosamund Pike’s chest. It’s not that her breasts are particularly large, or small, it’s just she is not wearing a bra and her low-cut halter top struggles to contain them whenever she leans forward, which is most of the time. I wouldn’t mind – really I wouldn’t – only I haven’t, as I say, had my first cup of coffee yet. And it is 9.25 in the morning.

She must have left home in a hurry, that’s all I can think. Her long, honey blonde hair is, after all, still wet from the shower. And she did sleep badly. In fact she is ‘completely exhausted’. Because? ‘Oh, only a two-and-a-half-hour play!’ Right. A play.

‘Mentally exhausted,’ she elaborates, her green eyes widening. ‘The physicality you can train yourself for, but it’s the concentration … and the emotional journey.’ Of course. The emotional journey.

‘I’m having horrifying dreams.’ She is? ‘Vivid dreams. All those references to birds. I dreamt I was being pecked by birds last night.’

The play is Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. It is directed by Adrian Noble and is about to open in the West End. Rosamund Pike plays Alma Winemiller, a neurotic Southern belle. ‘My character is terrified of sex,’ she says in a measured and refined voice. ‘She denies her sexuality.’

She went to the Mississippi Delta by way of research. ‘I just think it is arrogant to do a play that is set somewhere so foreign without trying to get a sense of it. You have to feel what the heat is like and that peculiar languor. I was quite frightened actually. I’d travelled on my own before but …’ she takes a bite of toast. ‘It took me about two hours to pluck up courage to leave the airport. No one could understand what I was saying. I was a strange creature there. I went in search of Southern belles but barely saw a woman. It was all beer and rednecks.’

Did she have any Thelma and Louise moments; unwanted male attention in bars? ‘No, because I found this self-help book in the airport: What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should). It turned out to be rather calculating – cynicism clothed in sugar about how to get men and keep them, how to flatter and ingratiate yourself, how to stave off unwanted attention.’

So how do you go about the staving? ‘By making a man feel at ease. So if I was on my own sitting here [we are in – well, sat outside – a cafe on the Brompton Road] and a man asked if he could join me I would pre-empt things by saying: “You’re probably shocked at seeing me sitting here so comfortably on my own, but don’t worry because my husband back home keeps phoning to check up on me”.’

I see. Did she get stared at in Mississippi? ‘A bit.’ Can she remember a time when she wasn’t? She glances up and down the street. ‘No one’s looking at me now.’ Trust me, I say, they are … What did she look like in her early teens? ‘I was a very late developer. I had no conception of sexuality. My first boyfriend thought me rather adult and mature but inside I wasn’t at all. I didn’t know about make-up or clothes.’

She is 26 now; how old would she have been then? ‘Eighteen.’

So she came across as aloof and distant? ‘I didn’t say that .’ She laughs indignantly. ‘Explain yourself, sir.’

Sorry, I say. Lapse of concentration. What was it she said? Mature and adult? Perhaps it was to do with her height: she is 5ft 9in. Also she does seem quite self-possessed. Did she have poise back then? ‘I was never the girl boys would want. They wanted the pretty ones with the lovely smiles and lots of hair. I was never that. I always felt awkward.’ She went to a girls’ boarding school in Bristol. ‘But I always had male friends. I wasn’t a recluse. I don’t know why people think that if you go to a girls’ school you never meet any boys … I didn’t choose to board; I just got this enormous scholarship, so it seemed rude not to.’

You can imagine why she got a scholarship. She is an accomplished cellist and pianist. She fences. She is fluent in French and German. I ask if she shone at school.

‘I don’t like these questions.’

Why not?

‘I’m so unattached to my schooldays.’

What about university? [She read English at Oxford]. ‘I never felt rooted to either school or university. I didn’t belong in either place. They didn’t reflect who I was. I was only interested in drama so I escaped by joining the National Youth Theatre … Are you staring at my breasts?’

Actually she didn’t say that last bit, but she clearly thinks it because she sits back and folds her arms, briefly … Come to think of it, she does have an amusing story to tell about her breasts. Just before she graduated, she was cast as a Bond girl in Die Another Day. When she had to do her inevitable sex scene with Pierce Brosnan, she wore ‘modesty panels’ taped to her nipples.

When, after the clinch, she and Brosnan pulled apart, she looked down to check the tapes and there were hairs sticking out. She thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m pulling off his chest hair!’ Then she realised it was just some strands from the furs that they were sitting on.

Though she won considerable critical acclaim for her last stage role – in Terry Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde at the Royal Court, full nudity in the name of art, that sort of thing – and though she won Best Supporting Actress at the British Independent Film Awards for her role opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine, it is for being a Bond girl at the age of 20 that she is perhaps still best known. ‘Just last night these boys on a stag night came up to me and grabbed me. They wanted to have their photograph taken with me. They were saying: “You should have killed Halle Berry”.’

Was it hard being taken seriously after James Bond? ‘Isn’t it harder for me to say I’m not serious? People see the pedigree: boarding school, Oxford, opera. It sounds so dull.’

Good answer. The ‘opera’ she refers to is to do with her parents. Her father, Julian, is a professional opera singer; her mother, Caroline, an opera singer and concert violinist. She grew up in west London, ‘surrounded by costumes and make-up’. Her parents would take her along when they were doing Verdi or Stockhausen: ‘Lots of short-wave radios in that one – didn’t go down too well.’

Although she is an only child, hers wasn’t as solitary a childhood as might be supposed. ‘My childhood was spent constantly sitting in rehearsal rooms,’ she says, ‘and I spent a lot of time in the company of quite theatrical adults … so I saw dramas off-stage all the time. Big personalities. I became quite watchful and curious. Interested in other people’s emotional lives. From early on I understood about people having affairs … people’s marriage problems … It is sometimes hard for people who aren’t in the acting world to understand.’

So it’s best to go out with someone in ‘the profession’, as she does? ‘Yes, we both understand the creative process and how vulnerable it makes you feel. Criticism and anger play much more deeply on you, but it is hard to express this to non-actors.’

She met her boyfriend, Joe Wright, when he was directing her in the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice (which also starred Keira Knightley). ‘You do expose yourself, so it is conducive to starting relationships, being on a set.’

Part of the exposure, I suggest, might be to do with being preserved on celluloid, in her case as a 20-year-old – never ageing on screen, only in real life … always in competition with her younger self. ‘Actually, I think people think of me as the picture of Dorian Gray – they assume I was much older than I was when I became a Bond girl. So that is the ageing one and now I look younger … I’ve lost my puppy fat.’

I ask if she has ever considered sitting for a portrait. ‘I sat for Stuart Pearson Wright … and I wasn’t very good at it. I haven’t got a very good face for that. I found it deeply embarrassing. I was really self-conscious. It lasted two days and I knew he was finding it difficult.’

Was it because she has the sort of features – rosebud lips, tiny nose, big eyes, all symmetrical – that bad street artists tend to draw because they want to flatter their sitters? ‘Yes, you want to be craggy, deeply furrowed and interesting, whereas I look like a doll … Also I think to be a proper artist’s model you must give yourself up completely, whereas I am always trying to hide.’

A telling and admirably self-aware answer. What about if Lucian Freud asked her to sit for him? ‘I don’t think he would because I don’t have the sort of interesting face he likes to paint.’ She leans forward. ‘I always think with his nudes that the breasts look as if they are being squeezed.’

What if he asked her to pose nude for him, her head turned away? She thinks for a moment. ‘That would be an honour. I’m better at doing the whole body than the face. I’m a bit scared of just being a face, actually.’