AT THE age of 12, Jodhi May had a best actress award from the Cannes Film Festival on her mantelpiece and photographers would follow her to school. Now, trying to keep warm in the grand hall of Marble Hill House in Twickenham, she still looks more like a schoolgirl than a seasoned 30-year-old actress.
Strangely, though, this early overachieving seems to have arrested than accelerated her development. "When you come to acting while you're still a child, there's an extent to which so much becomes other people's property," she says.
"So it's important to feel you can keep certain things that are private, otherwise you have nothing."
She sees preserving a certain mystery as a vital career tool: "It's to do with wanting to disappear into a role. Some careers are based on a personality, but actors want to be as versatile as possible. I'd be extremely embarrassed if people rushed up to me and asked for autographs."
But since she burst onto the scene as an apartheid-era South African child in the 1988 film A World Apart, May's talent has kept her in the limelight whether she likes it or not.
After film roles including The Last Of The Mohicans and The Other Boleyn Girl, and Tipping The Velvet on television, she has started 2006 with a bang: last week she was in a Stephen Poliakoff play for the BBC, Friends And Crocodiles, and next month she makes her West End debut with Roger Allam in the critically acclaimed Blackbird, as one half of a twisted love affair.
All of which will mean more pressure to play the publicity game she obviously loathes. No wonder casting director Susie Figgis, who spotted May at her local Anna Scher Theatre and gave her the big break in A World Apart, later worried that she might have ruined May's life.
"Not at all," she says. "It was …