Though she declined a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, lack of drama school credentials doesn't seem to have impeded actress Diana Quick's success on stage.

During a varied career, Quick has appeared regularly on stage, including stints at most of the country's major theatrical institutions including the Royal Court, National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Soho Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic as well as in the West End. Her many productions have included Mother Teresa Is Dead, Be My Baby, Hamlet, The Changeling, Troilus and Cressida, Look Back in Anger and King Lear.

On screen, she is well remembered for her role in Brideshead Revisited, while her many other credits include The Woman in White, Rasputin, Nostradamus, Saving Grace and the recently released Revenger's Tragedy starring Derek Jacobi.

Last year, Quick took to the road to star in English Touring Theatre's production of Ibsen's Ghosts, for which she won both the Barclays/TMA and Manchester Evening News awards for Best Actress.

This spring, she's on the road again, now taking the lead in Shared Experience's After Mrs Rochester. The new play is based on the life of writer Jean Rhys, who, in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, gave full literary scope to the character of the title, first made famous as the "madwoman in the attic" in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

After Mrs Rochester is written and directed by Shared Experience joint artistic director Polly Teale, who has previously directed the company's staging of Jane Eyre.

Date & place of birth
Born 23 November 1946 in London.

Lives now in...
Camden, north London

I was in the National Youth Theatre and then at Oxford University, so I learnt on the hoof. Later I had a place a RADA, but didn't take it as I had been a student for five years. So instead I did some voice training with the National Theatre's Kate Fleming, who is sadly no longer with us. I also went to The Place for dance training and took classes in Alexander Technique and Pilates.

First big break
I suppose I was extra lucky early on because I was a student and a professional actor doing various telly jobs. Then, when I first came to London, I got to work at the Royal Court where I did two plays by Edward Bond - Lear and The Sea - which was rather wonderful as I was such a fan of the Royal Court and had been there on school trips.

Career highlights to date
I don't think in those terms really. But doing Brideshead Revisited was an extraordinary experience and The Duellist with Ridley Scott got a lot of attention for me, too. I loved doing Ghosts last year because it helped me overcome quite a prejudice against Ibsen. I think I've been lucky and I must reiterate that I don't think in terms of 'highlights'. The next job is always the one I'm excited about.

Favourite production you've ever worked on
In the last two years I've been doing less work to write, but I've managed to squeeze in three movies. AKA is a small-budget English film by Duncan Roy which was nominated for a BAFTA. My character gives a job to a young man who starts impersonating my son. In fact, it's Duncan's story - Duncan lived as this young lord before he was busted. That was great, it was nice to play a bitch. Then I played the Duchess in Revenger's Tragedy with Eddie Izzard and Derek Jacobi was my Duke. It was enormous fun; mad, but fun. Finally, I did a Dutch film called The Discovery of Heaven with Greg Wise and Stephen Fry. It's a great relief to find that, once over 40, one isn't relegated to playing mothers all the time.

Favourite co-stars
I've been very spoiled. I adored working with Albert Finney at the National Theatre. I fell in love with him and lived with him for six years. Then I did Map of the World there with Bill Nighy who I now live with and we have a child. Other favourites include Daniel Evans, who was my son in Ghosts, and Alex Jennings. And I adore Madeleine Potter who plays the young Jean Rhys in After Mrs Rochester. She's marvellous, and we do a great deal together.

Favourite directors
That's a very long list really. I loved working at the Royal Court with Bill Gaskill because, as I said, it was my first job there and my first break. John Dexter and Michael Blakemore at the National Theatre - that generation of directors are very good on stagecraft. They teach actors about being economical and how to use the stage space, so they were very important to me as a young actor. In terms of film directors, Jeroen Krabbé, who did The Discovery of Heaven, and Ridley Scott. Directors who have worked as actors are very good because they understand actors. Other favourites of mine are Stephen Unwin from English Touring Theatre and Abigail Morris from Soho Theatre.

Favourite playwrights
I don't really have a favourite. I am very interested in Chekhov at the moment as I've done relatively little of his work, just The Seagull on the radio with Helen Bonham Carter and Alex Jennings. I love his letters and short stories. Contemporary writers: well, there are so many it's invidious to choose. I very much enjoyed David Edgar's play The Prisoner's Dilemma, which I saw two years ago at Stratford. I also admire Caryl Churchill, and there are lots of young ones coming up through the ranks who I like, too.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Cleopatra, Beatrice before I'm too ancient, Chekhov women I've mentioned. I'd also like to do The Physicist by Durrenmatt, and some musicals as I haven't done any since I was a young thing.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I adored Daniel (Evans) and Derek (Jacobi) in The Tempest at the Old Vic.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
To make money available and to regard theatre as a necessary part of our civilisation, not a frivolous extra. In Eastern Europe, as an actor you are treated with respect rather than thinly disguised scorn. Theatre is important, and it survives because it holds a mirror up to nature. You can do things in a theatre that are too difficult to discuss in real life; it enlightens.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Currently, even though it would be hell to do, it would have to be Jean Rhys. There's a line in the play, which is taken from an interview with her where she is asked, "If you had to make a choice between being a writer and being happy, which would you choose?" And she says without hesitation, "Being happy of course." So it would be terribly difficult but would help me with my characterisation.

Favourite books
I read a great deal. My favourite of late has been the Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials, which I enjoyed very much. I bought them when they came out for my daughter but have only read them recently since meeting Philip, and I couldn't put them down.

Favourite holiday destinations
Italy - I walked from Siena to Rome over two weeks last year and that was wonderful. I love the Himalayas and the North West Frontier, which is where my family are from, and I'm sad that at the moment it's not possible to go back there, but I will. I also love Ecuador and the Amazon - I think that is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world. Dominica in the Caribbean, where After Mrs Rochester is set, is really like paradise, it's a tiny island but has rain forest with 365 rivers, waterfalls and hot springs and it's very green. I have never been to Trinidad but long to go there.

Favourite after-show haunts
In London, it's the Ivy because they are so good to actors and so kind to Bill and I. They always find us a table. I also go to Wagamama a lot and my local curry house.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I really don't know the answer to that. I spent a long time studying and thinking I'd be an academic - I do teach a bit once a year - and now I'm becoming a writer too. I'm working on a memoir, a fictionalised biography of my family in India from 1850-1950s, which will hopefully be published early next year.

What made you accept the part of Jean Rhys in After Mrs Rochester?
I love her. I grew up on her books so the subject is very close to my heart. I did a TV series called The Orchid House and we went to Dominica to film it, so I have a connection to the place. I had also seen Shared Experience's Mill on the Floss, which I found very exciting, so I wanted to get involved with the company.

Had you read Wide Sargasso Sea?
Yes, but I'd read her other novels before I came across it - Good Morning, Midnight, After Leaving Mr MacKenzie and my favourite, Voyage in the Dark, which she also thought was her best book.

Why do you think the character of Mrs Rochester awakens such a curiosity in people?
There's that book of American criticism called Mad Woman in the Attic, and it suggests that we all have a person like that who haunts us. I know from talking to friends that the idea of a self-sacrificing young woman is appealing. Jane Eyre was never one of my favourite books, but I do think the idea of retelling the story of Brontë's madwoman is a brilliant one. Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of genius and I really mean that. It is so well crafted and finely written - the colours and images, it's almost like poetry.

What are the best & worst things about touring?
The worst bits are being in towns and not knowing where you're going to stay, also the big mobile phone bills. The best thing is going away to a new place and getting to know new parts of England. The reality is that most plays have to tour. This disqualified a lot of work for me over the last few years because of my daughter, and I must say, I rather enjoy doing it again. But touring allowances are bad. I can only rarely do it because I have to subsidise my life on the road. I don't know how anyone does it full time. I was very out of pocket last year after doing English Touring Theatre's Ghosts. That wasn't really their fault; the allowances are awful, though.

What's the strangest thing that happened during rehearsals for After Mrs Rochester?
It is very odd to have three people playing different aspects of the same character. You have to constantly check if you are duplicating each other, and that is rather odd. When it works, though, it is great. The lines are often reallocated, and sometimes we go to say the same thing and that's then incorporated. We did spend a long time being a pack of dogs in rehearsal, and we were rather good at that.

What are your plans for the future?
Once the play finishes, I will bash out another draft of Waiting for Dr Quick, the book I mentioned; Dr Quick was my grandfather. I'll also be directing at some point.

- Diana Quick was speaking to Hannah Khalil

After Mrs Rochester continues its UK tour to 24 May 2003, including a limited London season from 22 April to 2 May at London's Lyric Hammersmith.