Interview: Actress Rosamund Pike

IF YOU type Rosamund Pike into Google, one of the first things that pops up is an intriguing picture re-imagining the actress as a puppet. Complete with plastic arms, metal joints and a frozen expression, it looks more like a robot, a female Terminator, than a friendly Pinocchio.

Further exploration reveals it is from a website (www.worth1000.com) that asked browsers with Photoshop skills to send in their celebrity puppets. Why, I couldn't tell you – but Penlope Cruz, Christina Aguilera and Uma Thurman all get the same treatment. Still, there's something quite eerie about Pike's shot. Perhaps because it tallies with the ice-cold image we have of her, one that is as fixed as the look on her puppet-double's face.

If anyone is to blame, it might just be James Bond. In 2002, when she was barely known to the public, Pike landed the plum role opposite Pierce Brosnan of the villainous Olympic fencing gold medallist Miranda Frost in Die Another Day. She freely admits, "I have Bond to thank for my whole career." Indeed, compared to some Bond girls, who – post-007 – disappear back to the modelling career or life of sunbathing in St Tropez from whence they came, Pike used it as a launch pad. Hollywood films such as Fracture and Doom followed, as did well-received period pieces such as Pride and Prejudice and The Libertine.

But doing Bond came with a price. She recalls carrying out research for the Canadian film Fugitive Pieces, where a producer took her during the Festival of Purim to the home of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family. "It was the chief rabbi's house, where these children are not even supposed to watch films," she says. "It was all going very well until suddenly somebody found out I was in a Bond film. Then the whole dynamic of these young boys… it all went wrong. It was awful.

"They don't watch television, but even James Bond as a word permeates the consciousness. They can't go to films. They can't watch anything. It was just at the very end and you saw these glimmers … this horrible clash of modern culture. And the boys, you could see this pull."

They were not the only ones. And it didn't matter what she did to try to shake it off. In Terry Johnson's play Hitchcock Blonde, in which she played Janet Leigh's body double during the time the director made Psycho, she stripped down to nothing more than a pair of stiletto heels and simulated an orgasm on stage. But the frosty image conjured by her Bond character stuck like a piece of gum on her shoe.

Now 30, it hardly helps that, with her perfectly sculpted features, gem-like green eyes and slim figure, she comes across as unapproachable. Or that her English reserve once led a friend to state, "She's not a gusher."

In her eyes, though, she's different. "I think, post-Bond, people forgot that I'm very girly," she says. "People compartmentalise you much more than I like to think they do. You wouldn't have thought…"

Well, actually, you would. When we meet, Pike is sitting in a suite in London's Soho Hotel. She's in town to promote An Education, the story of Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old schoolgirl who falls under the spell of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, it was adapted by Nick Hornby and has drawn rave reviews, even winning an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Pike's role as Helen, a rather daffy girl who comes into Jenny's orbit, is a supporting one, but it may just be the most important of her career. Not only does it prove what a consummate scene-stealer she is, but it shows us a side of her we have never seen before: the comedienne par excellence. "Certainly, doing comedy has been fantastic, suddenly realising that I could make people laugh. Oh, I love it. I love it," she trills. "I'm really excited about it. One goes on with the blithe belief that who you really are is transparent to everybody. Then you realise, with some horror, that in fact it's not. So all you can do is keep muddying the waters a bit."

It's evidently a problem that has been occupying Pike's thoughts rather too much. Does she believe people saw her as Miranda Frost? "They totally did," she replies. "Your characters rub off on you. It's like having a very good friend who might be a bit of a bad influence on you. You hang out with them, and you're the weaker vessel – it's the ultimate peer pressure. Hanging out with a character as strong as a Bond girl, it's like the mother would look on in horror as her daughter got led astray by this rather unpleasant older girl who took her under her wing. Everybody thought they came as a duo – and everywhere they go, they go together. Suddenly, my personality was usurped by Miranda Frost's hostility and cool, I think."

Rather than become bitter about it, Pike seems to have accepted it as simply something that happens in films. Some actors, after all, get saddled with recognition for one role for their entire careers. At least Pike has been able to move freely between film and theatre. Earlier this year, she starred in Madame de Sade, Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's scandalous play about Rene, the wife of the famously sadistic Marquis, pairing up with her Die Another Day co-star Dame Judi Dench. Early next year she begins rehearsals for the lead in a production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. "My agents look on in horror, because it doesn't bring any money in at all," she grins. "But I never thought I'd make any money at all doing this business. Film was never even on the cards."

Her love of theatre evidently comes from her upbringing. Her parents, Julian and Caroline, were both opera singers. "It certainly made storytelling very much a part of my childhood," she says, vividly recalling the first time she set foot on stage. Her father was performing in The Coronation of Poppaea and invited her to stand alongside him. "I apparently just lay down," she says, with a smile. Nevertheless, something clicked inside her. "I remember times of anxiety, ups and downs, and times of unexpected windfalls. But my parents loved what they did. And because their work was also their hobby, it taught me that work could be fulfilling."

Unsurprisingly, given Pike's cut-glass accent and demure demeanour, she spent some of her youth in private education. A boarder at Badminton School in Bristol, she might seem like a perfect advert for such a system, but the London-born Pike felt "totally out of place" there. Perhaps that was because she had already spent time on the continent, notably in Italy, when her father was working with modernist composer Hans Werner Henze. Her escape from school came through acting. At 16, she joined the National Youth Theatre. Two years later, she played in a production of Romeo and Juliet and acquired an agent, before heading to Oxford to study English.

Indeed, it is Pike's intelligence that has probably had as much to do with our image of her as her role in Die Another Day. "I think one of the things is that you have to find someone approachable to find them funny," she says. "I've been thinking about it quite a lot. If someone makes you feel wrong-footed, you're unlikely to find them witty. So you're not going to find Miranda Frost funny – ever. If Helen (in An Education] had been super-bright, you probably wouldn't have found her funny either. It's the fact that you're instantly reassured with her because she's not very clever."

As it stands, Pike must surely possess a sense of humour. How else could she go from working on Pride and Prejudice one day to Doom, a science-fiction thriller based on a video game, the next? "Doom was a truly dreadful film," she shrieks. "It was beset by certain problems. At one stage, we really thought it would be quite brilliant and edgy."

At least she's honest and, if nothing else, it made a perfect contrast to playing in a Jane Austen production. "Really, it made me laugh," she admits. "When I got the call about Doom, I was in a bonnet, in a field near Tunbridge Wells. I thought, 'My God, if they could see me – they would probably recast.'"

Pike is currently in Montreal for two months to make Barney's Version, a new film with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler. She seems head over heels for it. "It's one of those scripts. It's really how people talk, and really how people behave. It's very detailed. I suppose it's got a tone of one of the early Woody Allens, like Annie Hall." Cast as the third wife of Barney, a larger-than-life carouser who is under suspicion of murder, it may be an intriguing prospect. But it has come at a cost. "I'm missing one of my closest friends' weddings in a couple of weeks because I'm in Montreal. It's the arrogance of the film business – that somehow one bulldozes through one's personal life sometimes."

Her personal life is a tricky subject, not least because in the past it has become rather too entangled with the film business. On Pride & Prejudice, she was cast opposite her ex-boyfriend, actor Simon Woods, who played the romantic interest for her character, Jane Bennett. If that can't have been easy to deal with, neither was what happened in the film's wake. Pike began dating director Joe Wright, who proposed to her on Lake Como just days before Atonement, his follow-up to Pride and Prejudice, was due to open the Venice Film Festival. At the time, it was a match made in British film industry heaven: the glamorous actress and the wnderkind filmmaker.

Pike even moved to Los Angeles with Wright when he began shooting his first US production, the recently released drama The Soloist. But by the summer of 2008, their relationship had come to an end. The story goes that Wright broke off the engagement after wedding invitations picturing the couple in a hot tub were sent out without his knowledge. I've been strictly warned about speaking to Pike about her personal life – which is basically code for not mentioning this split. After all, she once burst into tears mid-interview when considering how hard it was to work with Woods on Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps she's a far more sensitive and fragile creature than Miranda Frost would have us believe.

Instead, I switch tack. Like Jenny in An Education, has she ever had experiences of an older man? "Erm… yeah, I've had older-man experiences periodically through my life," she says, a little surprised by the question's potentially leading nature. "I was wary. It's only now I realise I had lucky escapes. I remember being approached fairly frequently by people – usually on the 'You could be a model' premise – which you take on trust when you're nave. Not that I followed it up, because I have a sixth sense." She pauses for a second.

"Somebody else approached me in a theatre queue once, having seen something I'd done on telly," she continues, "and then found out where I was and started writing to me when I was at Oxford, and turning up and stuff." This is what might now be called a stalker, I tell her. "Yes, totally," she nods. "But I was never very good at being rude. At some point, you have to be rude and say, 'I'm sorry this is inappropriate.'"

She admits that it's the sort of thing that can happen when one is young and easily swayed. "You also have the belief that you really have a friendship with somebody. Then, when you get older, the idea of an older man's interest in a young girl is never purely platonic."

But at least this gave her a way into understanding the story of An Education. Known for her scrupulous research – she hung out in Mississippi blues bars while preparing for her role in the Tennessee Williams play Summer In Smoke – she invented her own back story for Helen. "Darling is one of my favourite films, and I thought about Julie Christie's character. Helen has that same optimism. She is relentlessly buoyant, even when there's quite a lot of sadness there, if one chose to explore it. She's just going to get on with her life. I know girls like her."

Certainly, the film plays with our expectations of who we believe Pike is. "You meet her and you think, 'Here we go, this is just going to be an aloof, blonde, ethereal creature who Jenny is just going to be in awe of,'" she says. "And immediately that image is punctured by the fact that she's completely, utterly dim … Helen's someone who is baffled by the world, and yet she's fine with that. She meets someone like Jenny, and she has the same attitude as she has to a puppy. A lovely thing to play with but, gosh, it speaks! And seems to be speaking French. And why on earth would anyone want to speak French? It's just a benign bafflement really."

How much An Education will help her shed the aloof blonde image remains to be seen. She has recently appeared in sci-fi thriller Surrogates, playing Bruce Willis's wife in a story where everyone is plugged into virtual-reality versions of themselves. "My character is the human, existential thread of that movie," she explains – though, rather like her other Hollywood outings, it's unlikely to do much for her status.

She even admits it's "the British films that I really treasure" when it comes to work. One such film is Nigel Cole's forthcoming We Want Sex, a dramatisation of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, when female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination. Pike plays Lisa, "the posh bit on the side", whose husband is one of the managers at the factory.

While this is hardly likely to change our impressions of her either, Pike is resolute about pursuing more comedy. She recently reunited with Nick Hornby for an episode of the Radio 4 comedy series The Richest Man in Britain, about a dopey drummer from the 1970s who made a mint in investments. "I think we want to work together again on something else comic," she says, brightly. "So we'll see."

There are other, darker projects on the horizon, such as the LA-set Burning Palms, in which she explores the sexual jealousy of a woman who is unable to cope with the teenage daughter of her fianc. This might just be the tipping point she needs for the frost to finally melt. r

An Education opens on 30 October. Surrogates is on general release