Although best known to British audiences as a film actress, American Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is no stranger to the stage. She made her Broadway debut as an understudy in a revival of West Side Story and went on to appear in Amadeus, also on Broadway.

Her other US stage credits include Northeast Local, The Human Comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, Sunday in the Park with George and David Hare's The Knife. Her Shakespeare in the Park outings in New York include performances of Henry V, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night.

Mastrantonio’s impressive list of film has seen her working with leading men such as Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Gene Hackman and Paul Newman in films including Scarface, The Colour of Money, Consenting Adults, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Abyss, The January Man, White Sands, Class Action and The Perfect Storm.

This month, Mastrantonio makes her West End stage debut, playing a fading but still beautiful prima ballerina, in Michael Grandage’s revival of Broadway 1989 musical Grand Hotel, set during the decadent days of 1928 Berlin.

Date & place of birth
Born 17 November 1958 in Lombard, Illinois.

I trained a little bit at the University of Illinois, doing a music major, but I left there without graduating, feeling frustrated (which is why I left), and started working. When I eventually got to New York, I studied acting with Harold Guskin, whose book How to Stop Acting came out recently, and also did bits and bobs with different voice teachers and whatnot over the years. But mostly it was Harold, and blessedly, it was one Joe Papp who used to hire me a lot and put me in things that were in many ways beyond what I had done at that point, especially as I hadn’t gone to any acting conservatory. But if you learn a technique, you learn a technique. Once you’re into a process, be it music, dance, or whatever, you know how to approach things, which I always appreciated and to this day applaud. But without going to a conservatory, you lose the exposure to different styles of theatre and genres that you’ll never do, particularly in America, in a professional context. You may never do Racine, Moliere or Chekhov, because they’re not going to pay the bills and no one is going to hire you to do them, unless you go to Kansas City. There’s nothing wrong with Kansas City, but you mightn’t want to go there to do Chekhov. That’s the one real regret I have about not going to a conservatory.

Lives now in…
I live here, in west London, W2, and have for years. I moved here 15 or 16 years ago. We have been back and forth, but once the children were of school age, they started to think of this as home, which is really funny to me but they do, so this must be it. My husband is Irish, Pat O’Connor, a filmmaker. I thought it was a more movable feast than it turned out to be. Having said that, we have a lifestyle that, if it existed in New York, we simply couldn’t afford. One of the things that struck me first about living here is that it’s far less consumer-orientated than New York. I used to love seeing people driving around in their old bangers here and not really caring. That has changed, sadly, but you don’t feel the same drive to keep up with it all as you do in New York. I couldn’t be bothered to buy another pair of shoes, I already have one, thank you.

First big break
I was never particularly ambitious. I never had my ear to the ground in terms of how to get into the business. I got my first big break in Chicago when I showed up to an audition for Evita, a show I didn’t even know about or much care about, but everyone else was going so I went. I was plucked out to go to New York by Paul Gemignani, the musical director, to be seen for a revival of West Side Story – they needed someone to understudy Josie de Guzman who was doing Maria. He called me up to the apron and said, “someone you’ve never heard of is going to call you, just go!” They did, and I got the part. The girl I was sharing a make-up mirror with in the dressing room in Chicago, said “my college roommate is an agent in New York, so when you go, you should ring Andrea”. I moved in August, and I knew that in September I would be on my feet doing this role, and I rang her. She was a member of a fairly good-sized agency and her boss came to see the show. I remember this rose and his card coming through my dressing room door. He told me to call on Monday. And I just started working. The big break after that was doing the film Scarface, though I didn’t know how tawdry the whole Hollywood thing was. I think I was raised well. I came from a really good background, so I was unflappable.

Career highlights to date
Before Sunday in the Park with George went to Broadway, it was first a workshop for a summer at Playwrights’ Horizons. I was a part of that, and I have to say, that is probably one of the highlights of my career. I was one of the Celeste’s, the shopgirls who date the soldiers – and Kelsey Grammar was an original soldier, so you can’t begin to know how much laughter there was. It was an extraordinary experience to think of those tunes coming in every day. Paul Gemignani was the musical director again. I don’t remember anything being transcribed on paper. I’m sure it was written down somewhere, but it was this phenomenal group of people. I didn’t go on to the Broadway production, because I figured I’d really done it. If I’d needed the job, I would have, but the challenge had been met, and I figured it was time to move on.

The funny thing is that sometimes it’s more fun being the third tree on the left in a show. You’re so capable and responsible and you meet all of your challenges, but you get none of the criticisms. New York theatre is tough. No one goes to work every day to have a love-fest, but one should enjoy one’s work and feel more secure in it, rather than feeling it’s going to be criticised so thoroughly that you’ll not even be able to get out of bed the next day, whether or not you read reviews – because somehow you know what they’ve said. Believe me, it is like osmosis – you can smell it! Two Broadway shows I did had very short runs. Oh Brother ran one night, and The Human Comedy ran ten nights. In fairness, the latter ran many months downtown, it just didn’t have the scale to fill a house on Broadway.

Another highlight was doing Henry V some years ago in the Delacorte Park with the most extraordinary company. Wilford Leach, God rest his soul, had a way of directing that was about putting the right people together. He could be wholly non-specific and maybe a bit frustrating. I wouldn’t even know as I was so young at the time, but it was a wonderful summer.

Favourite productions
We did a Twelfth Night that was very controversial, but I absolutely loved it. Because I was living here and doing some film and having children, there was only so much theatre I could do. I did do a play called Northeast Local at Lincoln Center with Anthony LaPaglia, that was fantastic, written by Tom Donaghy. Of films, one of the few I made and actually look forward to seeing is Limbo. I also look forward to seeing The Perfect Storm because I was in it so little – it was just a few days’ work for me. Film-making is an odd thing. There are so many elements that need to be functioning properly for a film to be good. Some days you walk in and think, “no one has made a decision”. There are 100 people in front of the camera, 150 behind it, and they don’t know where they’re going to put the camera. This is poor planning. I get very cynical when I’m making films. If somebody had given me $40 million, you can damn well be sure I would have planned something! My husband Pat, who I met while filming January Man (so that’s a personal highlight), is a wonderful director. He’s so well organised and runs a set brilliantly. He knows how to do it, but very few directors do and they don’t know planning is part of the job.

Favourite co-stars
If I’d had a personal assistant, I would have written notes to these people all these years and had more friends! But Kevin Kline, always – he’s funny and dear and fantastic. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Ernie Sabella, with whom I worked last year on Man of La Mancha on Broadway, are absolutely wonderful. I like anybody basically who’s present: Anthony LaPaglia, David Strathairn and George Clooney all come to mind.

Favourite directors
I have to say Pat, but I would love to work with him again. We know each other so well now! Since January Man, we did an independent film called Fools of Fortune. I took a long time to get comfortable in film. As a singer, I’m solid, but on film, I was less sure, so I need guidance. Wolfgang Petersen is terrific. I loved Alan Pakula, such an interesting man, though the film we did, Consenting Adults, ultimately wasn’t very good.

In the theatre, David Hare directed me years ago in The Knife. I knew exactly what play I was in, and everyone on stage did, too. I worked with Jonathan Kent in Man of La Mancha. There’s a difference between the way British and American directors work, but every director works differently to each other anyway. What’s interesting is that I feel that the British aren’t as worried about the critics and all of that, because the environment here is so much more fertile and there’s so much going on. This is a job, not a make or break your life. This is not to get you a film career or anything else. This is about today. I look at Michael Grandage. While we were rehearsing, he was also holding interviews for future productions, which he has to do running the Donmar year-round. He can’t just sit here and think about us the whole time, he’s also thinking about another group of actors who have to be on their feet, too.

Gerard Gutierrez, God rest his soul – he died last year – was fantastic. I don’t know that the Americans really appreciated him. He directed Northeast Local. Everybody in the audience knew exactly where to look.

Favourite playwrights/musical writers
Stephen Sondheim, of course. I also love Maury Yeston. The more I listen to Nine or Grand Hotel, the more I start hearing recurring themes. It’s not as obvious as say, Sweeney Todd, which is my favourite musical, though in fact it’s an opera. I like anything that’s about soliloquising but to music. I’m not really much interested in singing “I love you” on a High C. I suppose, too, I always liked musicals where the voice had to follow the acting. I’m not interested in getting up there and just producing a pretty sound. Of playwrights, I know so many of them only on the page: Chekhov, for instance, or Shakespeare or Pinter. I would like to do them, but somehow with two kids and families and homework, I don’t think I could.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I’ve also wanted to do Masha (in Chekhov’s Three Sisters) and to appear in Harold Pinter’s Old Times.

How different is working on stage to working on screen?
One is definitely the director’s medium and the other is the actor’s. In film, you never know what they’ll choose to reveal about you. It depends on what angle they’re using, whether it’s a reaction shot or it may be of the dog, so you cannot really control how the story is told. On stage, it’s the difference between running in place or running a marathon: it’s so alive. Every decision you make, every gesture you do means something. It’s far more challenging and far more satisfying. But it’s challenging in every way: on your family, on your body, everything. If you have a bad day on a film, you can get away with it.

The skills required shouldn’t be different, but dammit, they are! So many people go to film and never really learn what it is to act for more than 20, 30 or 45 seconds at a time. The whole notion of through-line and subtext – all of that is innate. No one teaches you that. They feel like two different jobs to me, but both are still very much me.

What’s the difference between performing in a musical & a straight play?
I think the challenge in a musical is that there’s so little text between the tunes to make your point that often the acting gets short-shrifted. In the States, musical actors are not considered actors – they do musicals. You can suffer if you’ve never faced the challenge of just the text. It’s a different technique, a different kind of personal. If someone says they don’t like your singing voice, it’s crushing, because you only have one, the one sound. Acting, as opposed to singing, is somehow more distant on the one hand, but on the other, it’s only you and it’s all you and you have to be willing to go to those places where the performance needs to be. In a musical, because it happens so quickly, the actor has to remember to go to those places and drain it for all of it’s meaning without bogging the production down.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I loved Conor McPherson’s Shining City at the Royal Court. It was so well directed, and everything about it was great.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Funding and supporting the education that supports the art, so it’s not just about a bunch of young kids wanting to be stars but that there’s a process of depth and breadth of learning that’s ongoing. Sometimes I listen to theatre directors speaking. The other morning Peter Hall was talking on the radio about a truncated version of Hamlet that’s opening soon. He said it’s fine, but I just think Shakespeare knows more than I do, he’s bigger than I am. I don’t think we have that where I’m from. It’s all about immediate things, who’s hot, and what’s good for now. So all the leading ladies and men are coming from Australia, and all the juveniles are coming from England, and somewhere in the middle is this huge continent of North America where there are people wondering, “what about me? What happened?” So supporting the education and the time it takes to become a painter or an actor and allowing them that time is important. I read an interview with Meryl Streep in the summer, and found out she didn’t become Meryl Streep – she didn’t crack it – till she was in her late 20s.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I wouldn’t swap places, I really wouldn’t. The only peace of mind I would ever ask for is financial peace of mind – is there enough for the children? But if there are things I could do as myself rather than someone else, if I could go back in history, I would be a fly on the wall in one week of my husband’s life in rural Ireland, and of my immigrant parents’ lives in say 1925 Chicago. But I wouldn’t swap places, because I think that’s just too tricky and you’d end up horribly unhappy!

Favourite holiday destinations
The Caribbean – because it’s the Caribbean. That water! There’s something in me that wants to be in a fairly arid landscape, and I just like the heat – the clean dirt of the Caribbean.

Favourite books
I love Philip Roth, and I’m looking forward to the new one. Someone years ago gave me Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I’d like to go back and re-read it.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would like to have become a head nurse. It’s important and filled with responsibility.

Why has it taken you so long to get on the London stage?
I have been asked to perform here before, but because I was having a family and spending a lot of time back in the States doing what I could with a film career, it’s been tricky. A few years ago, I was offered a play, but I realised my youngest was still just too young for me to live in that world psychologically and emotionally and then go home afterwards. If I don’t absolutely have to leave the children – I look at the bank balance and I really don’t have to – then I can’t. It’s easier to do as they get older. They’re now soon going to be eight and twelve, their birthdays are on the way.

Why did you want to accept your part in Grand Hotel?
All kinds of reasons. I love the Donmar, and I needed to get on my feet here before I chickened out. It’s also a musical, which I feel more comfortable in – because it’s so second nature to me now. I’ve learnt over the years that it’s okay to enjoy what you actually can do! Are you sure I shouldn’t be out there on a unicycle and juggling, as I can’t do them? The time slot was also perfect, the length of the run is just right.

My character, Elizaveta, is so self-absorbed. She’s a woman who’s coming to a time in her life when she has to admit that she really isn’t a girl anymore. We were talking the other day about that moment when you finally do give away the small jeans since there’s no reason to have them in your drawer because you’re never going to wear them again and it only depresses you to look at them. Elizaveta has reached that moment, but she keeps ploughing on. The thing about Grand Hotel, that maybe is what intrigues me, is that the characters are not likeable. It’s interesting to play a character that’s not very sympathetic.

Did you see the original Broadway production of Grand Hotel? Is this production going to be very different?
No, I didn’t see the original, but I’ve worked with several actors who did it there. Brent Barrett was the Tony when I did West Side Story, and David Carroll, who was the original Count, was in Oh Brother with me. Our Grand Hotel is going to be very different, I think. We a company that’s half the size, a lot of the extraneous dancing has gone, and the spectacle that makes a Tommy Tune show a Tommy Tune show won’t be there.

What’s your favourite song from Grand Hotel?
There’s a beautiful telephone sequence that I don’t think is even on the album. It’s gorgeous. My own song will be absolutely fine on the night. It’s great fun, actually, it’s like Jacques Brel somehow ended up in Berlin!

What’s the funniest notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals of Grand Hotel?
We had so much work to do that we had this wonderful, affable environment and really just got on with it. It was very well organised.

What are your plans for the future?
None yet. It’s one season at a time. That’s the actor’s life, and the truth is, you can’t imagine it any other way.

- Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was speaking to Mark Shenton

Grand Hotel opens at the Donmar Warehouse on 29 November 2004 (previews 19 November) and continues until 12 February 2005.