Actress Diana Rigg is so contained that you get the feeling she has put herself into a mental corset-cum-chastity belt and swallowed the key. her face is resolutely held together by formidable cheekbones and has a mask of clingfilm serenity. She emits neither warmth nor hostility. Her expressions, from smile to frown, are fleeting. Like cameo parts in an epic production, they arrive at the required time, do their stuff, then vanish without a trace.
I felt I was facing a blank canvas, which she fleshed out as required. Because she is a talented actress it works well when she plays a part. On a personal level, however, it is less appealing.
Her gestures are polished and regular and I learned to read that a skittish turn of the head to the right meant 'Next question, please.' Wide open eyes with blinkless stare meant 'That is all I am going to say on that subject,' and so on. In a further effort at distancing herself, she rarely used the first person.
We met at the Almeida theatre, where from Thursday she appears in All For Love by John Dryden, a Restoration tragedy charting the final days in the lives of Antony and Cleopatra.
"I love the play," she said. "The way Dryden sees Cleopatra is completely different from Shakespeare. Dryden has a greater insight into female psychology and I find Cleopatra much more accessible and understandable. She is less of a queen and more of a woman. She is guileless, open, honest, direct, fascinating."
She particularly loves rehearsing and "the voyage of discovery. The first day one thinks, 'I will never be able to do this.' Then there is a point in the middle when one feels rather like someone recovering from the flu - 'Thank God I am better' - but the next day you feel as bad as ever. It would be nice if it was an upward graph but it isn't. There are always spontaneous moments, however, that you do in terms of the character. That is the gift."
Appearing in the play is the reason for her agreeing to see me: "I try not to do an interview unless I have something to hang it on." She is, in fact, so sure what she will and will not say that her comments have the slightly stale flavour of a long stage run. She is most delighted to talk about her resolutely positive attitude to life, hinting obliquely that although some might think her personal life has not been all that it might - she has had a dramtically failed marriage to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen that lasted 11 months and a bumpy second marriage to wealthy Scots landowner Archie Stirling, father of her 13-year-old daughter Rachael - she is neither down nor out. She started divorce proceedings against Stirling but they have since been dropped.
"I have always been positive. When I was 17 I used to get a frisson of excitement in my stomach every morning when I woke up at the thought of what the day would bring. I called it my bubble." When did the bubble burst?
"It still comes back from time to time. I had it this morning. I think whatever happens to you - if you take it the right way - it is positive. Nothing is 100 per cent negative." What about when you are hit emotionally?
"All sorts of other things happen." Like what?
"You find you have all sorts of resources." Like what?
"Friends, family and loved ones. I think the greatest strength is laughter. A lot of misery is extremely funny." Surely not?
"Yes, it really is." Did she find it funny discovering her husband had a relationship with Vanessa Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson? Her facial canvas remained blank.
"That is private," she said, "and the meaning of the word private is that you don't share it, because you choose not to. I don't have the same enthusiasm of some of my peers for revelation." Has she ever been depressed?
"Scurrying around as a slightly hopeless, helpless person is not me at all. I very very seldom felt sorry for myself and then I despised it. It's a pointless exercise."
Apart from being resolutely happy, she is resolutely determined to improve her mind. "I think the power of the mind is astonishing and intellectual stimulation is the greatest excitement. It has the capacity to transport. I feed on it. Two days ago I felt the need to go to the British Museum. So I did and fed my appetite.
"I am a great reader of biographies and poetry. I think middle-aged women of about my age (she's 52) have a second flowering in intellectual development. Not because the carnal side of life has disappeared, but because they have something else in tandem with it - whereas a lot of men feel they have been blown out, particularly if they are in the big-business sector.
"I cannot bear being in the same intellectual place for long. It is like not changing sheets, I feel grubby. My curiosity drives me and it never dims." It all sounded a bit like a script so I asked if she was happier behind a role than being herself.
"I don't try to escape from myself. Most actors and actresses are grounded. My theory is that they have to know themselves first so they can measure the difference between this person that they are and the person that they are playing" she said. Diana, who has an elder brother, was born in Doncaster but spent her early years in India where her civil engineer father worked on the railways. She was sent away to boarding school when she was seven.
"Although I hated it at the time it seemed a normal thing to happen. It wasn't until I grew up that I realised how abnormal it was." Was she naughty?
"I seem to remember I was a nuisance in the dormitory. But it was all perfectly normal. I grew up quite self-contained and that has stayed with me to quite a large degree." Does she find it difficult to confide in people?
"I do it very easily but I select very carefully the people I confide in. I have several long-standing friends, including two from boarding school."
She began acting in school plays and then went to drama school. "My ambition was always to be an actress. When I think of all the things the good fairy delivers to your crib, ambition is the most useful. In the early stages it doesn't encompass stardom. One is constantly surprised, out of that jumbled unfocused approach to a profession, how far one has progressed. Now my ambition takes on what I am doing here and now. I want to realise the part of Cleopatra. I don't have any gnawing or hunger or feeling that should be somewhere else.'
Although some feel she has not fulfilled the promise of her early years, she feels resolutely lucky about her career: "I was incredibly lucky having parents who allowed me to become an actress when they found the idea horrendous. I was lucky to join the RSC when I did and get a solid grounding in my profession." She was (find word) as "one of our best Shakespearean actresses."
"I didn't have long years out in the sticks. I have had a lot of wonderful breaks and have been incredibly lucky having a life that has had so much more besides." She won a BAFTA award for her art of the obsessive mother in Mother Love last year, but remains best known for playing Emma Peel in The Avengers in the mid-60s. She rarely watches herself.
I think the spell might be broken if I saw my machine at work. I might believe it was better than it was and, seeing it, discover that it wasn't." How does she cope with the times when she isn't working?
"I go 'Yummy'. I am perfectly happy pursuing my own interests I have turned a lot of things down. I take the view. "Will it be any good? Will one learn anything? is it going to be sufficiently challenging as against what one would be doing and learning without working?" Is she financially secure enough to have the luxury of such a view?
"My financial state has always been slightly precarious. I have done the odd job for piggy aid. You know, when the door to the piggy bank is flapping." She likes to be financially independent.
She will be earning a mere £165 a week at the Almeida but believes the part is far more important than the renumeration. "I hope that even if I was as poor as a church mouse I would play the part. What is paramount is the work."
She tries to balance the workload with time spent with her daughter Rachael. "I have made a deal with her which is when I have a job that limits the time we spend together I won't work for about three months. I have very seldom gone from one job to another."
Rachael was born when she was 38. Does she enjoy being a mother? "I wasn't wildly maternal over the little bundle but felt very differently once she was three or four. When you have a child you remember what happened what happened to you as a child, work out what you liked and didn't like and don't do the things you didn't like." Why had she then sent her to boarding school, which she herself hated?
"She is an only child, she didn't go at seven, but at 12 and adores it now."
What else hadn't she liked about her childhood? "My parents were terribly Yorkshire and used to talk about me in front of me which was like denying my existence. I decided never to do that to my child. I also didn't have a great deal of privacy. When I was taken out of boarding school my mother wanted to catch up with all that she had lost and invaded my privacy. I have tried not to do that to Rachael."
Diana uses her hands a lot as she talks. There are no rings on her fingers, her nails are very short and she has a long scar across one wrist. "People think I have tried to kill myself, but when I was a small child in India I put my hand through a pane of glass and it was badly sewn up. The scar changes colour according to the weather."
Many men comment on her sexuality Is she aware of it? "Who knows what it is? I cannot define it, I am not aware of it and I certainly don't peddle it. I cannot flirt. It makes me laugh. When I talk to a fellow, I think of him as a person. Sometimes a warmth comes through, but that happens with a woman too when you like her mind, humour and attitude."
How does she cope with living on her own? "I don't live on my own. I have a housekeeper and she has two children."
She sleeps wonderfully well, but regrets she needs eight hours. She exercises "intermittently" and doesn't have to watch her weight.
Diana smoked several cigarettes during our lunch together. Does she worry about health and smoking? "My daughter hates me smoking. I hate it, but sometimes I love it. I try to give up, also intermittently."
Has she been pleased with her progress through life? "I still have a long way to travel. The journey doesn't stop until you fall off the twig. I now have to deal with the next stage of my life which is middle age and increasing decrepitude. Everyone is either frightened of age because it sounds such a downer or they become wildly defiant. I think there has to be a middle path that has as much fun and relish as the first two thirds.
"One's individuality is one's greatest asset. We are all of us very precious. We are all completely different. It is the most amazing thing."