It is very easy to laugh at actors, who are widely regarded as pampered and self absorbed. But, in one particular respect - the fear and experience of long-term employment - they are far more familiar with social reality than the pundits and columnists who mock them. Dame Diana Rigg, for example, is generally considered a star and a success. She recently won her second Evening Standard Best Actress award in three years. Two years ago, she joined Judi Dench and Maggie Smith among the dames of British theatre. Yet for 22 months between 1990 and 1992, she was passed over by casting directors. "No work at all," she recalls, "just when I most wanted to be out there. It wasn't that I was going for parts and not getting them. I wasn't being offered anything at all."
Sipping strong coffee and caressing a Marlboro in the downstairs bar of the Halcyon Hotel, near her Holland Park home, Rigg explains that, like women in other professions, she suffered because of her domestic priorities: "I consciously dropped out while I brought up my daughter. (Rachael, Rigg's daughter from her marriage to the Scottish landowner Archie Stirling, is now 19.) I don't for a moment regret what I did. But I paid the price. I hadn't been around. I hadn't paid my dues."
The actress's long spenn of unemployment at the turn of the decade makes her resurgence in the last three years even more remarkable. In a trio of productions, directed by Jonathan Kent, a young director who became her champion and mentor, she has triumphed as three of theatre's big mommas: Medea, Mother Courage and, most recently, Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a devastating portrait of a brutal and unhappy marriage in which David Suchet plays the husband, George. In both London and New York, Rigg has already received award nominations, arts-page raves, and official readmission to the first rank of British actresses. The actress atributes this renaissance to the roles and also, somehow, to being on a roll as a performer.
In the Sixties, Rigg had become the wet dream of masculine Britain as Emma Peel in The Avengers on television. In the Seventies, she was the favoured female lead of the country's hottest stage playwright, Tom Stoppard, starring in his Jumpers and Night and Day. But subsequently, Felicity Kendal monopolised Stoppard's parts and, while Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave scaled the major classical roles, Rigg seemed to slip back in rank.
It was Vanessa Redgrave whom Rigg once identified in an interview as the actress who often got the roles that she ached to play herself. So, in the mid-Eighties, when Rigg's husband Archie left her, the lineage of his mistress must have seemed an added insult. She was Joely Richardson, the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave.
Rigg won't reveal her reaction to this experience. Such was the torture by gossip columns during her break-up with Stirling that it is a stipulation of interviews with her that no questions about her private life are asked. For whatever reason, however, she no longer has that air which she had a few years ago of an unhappy woman mourning an unwanted divorce.
Even at her unhappiest, theatrically and romantically, Rigg remained a fighter. For example, of those two years when she was unable to find work, she recalls, "I needed to work. I didn't have much money. So I worked up a lecture based on the history of the theatre and I managed to get on to the lecture circuit for awhile."
Rigg was born in Doncaster, so her practical response to unemployment may be regarded as an example of northern grit and indomitability. However, there is also in her character a strain of something more severe and Calvinist. Speaking of her jobless interlude, she says: "I had to be taught that nothing comes easy. I had chosen another priority, which was my life, and I had to be taught."
This suggestion of a cosmic system of reward and punishment touches on an unpublicised side of Rigg's psyche. Without ever having Blaired it out, Rigg is known as one of theatre's religious believers. "Yes, I do have a faith. Church of England. Church-going, when I can find the time. I think it's a two-way thing. You believe and yet you also want your faith to be sustained when you go to church. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a church that gives a sermon one would like; I'm slightly old-fashioned, love a sermon, love our hymns. The Church of Scotland, actually, is where I find all of the things I most like."
The restrictions on the interview prevent an enquiry about whether this preference is the legacy of a Scottish husband. In contrast to the England football coach Glen Hoddle - who believes that God guided him to take charge of the national team - Rigg does not think that the deity presides over casting sessions or first nights. "No, God takes no interest in my acting. He has bigger things to worry about."
In general, anyway, she believes that the theatre is more a matter of technique than mystique. "With Who's Afraid, for example," I asked, "would you draw on your own experience of marriage and relationships?" "No. No!" she declares. "Just play the text. Martha's mother died early, she was brought up the daughter of an academic. She plainly rebelled and felt unloved. All of that is in the text. You play that person."
Among playwrights and directors, Rigg is celebrated for her verbal precision. In Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies in 1987, she negotiated his most viciously rhyming lyrics, culminating in the triple twist "But no one thought to query her superior exterior." The part of Martha in Who's Afraid is full of "huh" and "uh-huh" and Rigg worried about producing each one accurately.
Most problems in performance, she finds, can be solved technically: "Driving home, I rewind the play. If I've lost a laugh, for example, then why has that happened? Timing? Inflexion? What was different in the way I said it tonight? I remember in Mother Courage there was a young actor and he got a very good, solid laugh in early performances and he lost it. And I could see no evidence of him trying to get it back. And so I said, 'Hey, you've got to find that laugh again. Think about how you used to do it."
She has never wanted to be anything other than an actress. She clearly remembers two moments of revelation. The first was when, at age six, she put on a red dress of her mother's and, standing in front of the mirror, she felt a thrill of transformation which seemed more than play. Nearly two decades later - after Rada - came the second epiphany: the realisation that she had made it as an actress. The moment occurred not onstage but in the kitchen. Looking through her handbag, she found a pound note which had not been accounted for. Until that moment, every penny had been dedicated to a purpose. This sudden surplus was evidence of success.
She claims to be bemused by her continuing reputation for sexiness, and points out that after her first stage nude scene, the American critic John Simon wrote that her body with kit resembled "a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses". Turning this insult to purpose in her flinty, self-improving way, she included it with other cruel reviews in a published anthology of critical invective, No Turn Unstoned.
Even so, middle aged men remembering her as Emma Peel - or seeing her for the first time running from helicopters in tight slacks in reruns - have been drawn to see her draped mausoleum in the theatre and have not been entirely disappointed by what they saw. She still gets breathy letters.
"It amuses me," she claims. "I mean. I'm 58 and people are still banging on about it. It's certainly not something I consciously project. I suppose I should be deeply grateful. Decreptitude is waiting just around the corner. The bit you really dread - and I think most people would agree - is being unable to do the things you used to do physically. The day - as an actor - when the body doesn't answer anymore."
At some risk to the body's responses, she has recently begun to smoke again. Even this, however, is presented as a technical decision. "I gave up. But Martha smokes. She smokes like a chimney on stage. You can't smoke those herbal things because the smell wouldn't be right in the theatre. I suppose I could have shown extraordinary strength of character and only smoked on stage, but I don't have that strength of character." She gives a catarrhal laugh, but there may be some actressy self-dramatisation here for, in interviews last year, before the part of Martha was offered, she was reported to be smoking.
The theatrical canon offers a logical career path for star actors - Romeo, Henry V, Hamlet, then Ibsen's and Checkov's menopausal men to fill in the time until King Lear and Prospero. But for actresses there is not the same obvious progression. "I think it is harder for actresses in maturity," says Rigg. "There's no King Lear, for instance, though Mother Courage is a kind of female King Lear with songs, but it isn't the same. The problem is that by the time you're technically equipped to play the big parts you're older than the parts."
As Rigg continues to improvise a repertoire of parts, her next move is to re-create a famous movie part for TV, playing Mrs Danvers in Carlton's new version of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Directed by Jim O'Brien, and starring Charles Dance as Max de Winter and Faye Dunaway as Mrs Van Hopper, it will be on ITV on January 5 and 6. "Our version is much closer to the book than the Hitchcock film was. I was just fascinated by this woman who has looked after Rebecca since childhood. The book is the story of their great love, bordering on obsession."
Rigg must, by now, be reckoned to have overtaken Big Van on the theatrical freeway. "I like to think that there's nothing outside my range now, apart from a juvenile. There's a wonderful quote from Sarah Siddons [grande dame of the nineteenth-century stage]: 'I read over a part to see if it's in nature. And, if it is in nature, then it can be played.' I understand that. That's the only limitation you should accept."