FOR a director making his feature film debut, it might be thought that having Charlotte Rampling as a mother would be an advantage.

But not if the grande dame of European cinema says no to your first pitch.

"I wasn't too happy with the adaptation, I thought it wasn't for me," says Rampling of I, Anna, a London-set, neo-noir thriller that began life as a novel by Elsa Lewin.

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Barnaby Southcombe, Rampling's son, wasn't deterred. He turned a 10-page treatment into a screenplay and sent it to Rampling again. This time it was a yes.

"It was very different, very beautiful, a really beautifully crafted screenplay with something very poignant," she says.

Rampling plays Anna, a woman of a certain age trying to reassemble her life after a marriage break-up. Part of her social rehabilitation involves speed dating. While doing this, she meets a detective, played by Gabriel Byrne. Like Anna, Byrne's character has troubles of his own.

If it's hard to see Rampling speed-dating – this is a woman who has modelled for Helmut Newton – it is similarly difficult to picture her as a woman taking tiptoe steps through life. Timid is not a word associated with the actor who starred in the controversial drama The Night Porter, with its scenes of sadomasochism and Dirk Bogarde as a former SS officer, and had a chimpanzee as a co-star in the satirical Max Mon Amour.

She had no reservations about being directed by her son, saying she switched into professional mode the same as with any other job. Wasn't she tempted to give him advice?

"I don't usually give advice but I suggest things and a director will also ask what you think. That's the collaboration you can have with a good director, with someone who is open and generous in their ideas."

I, Anna had its Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre last month as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The film is notable for the way it tackles the debilitating effects of depression. It is a condition from which Rampling, 66, has suffered.

Of these episodes, she says: "You are scarred by them as you are scarred by things that happen in your life." When you come through difficult times it is usually for the good, she adds: "You are a deeper person, a more caring person, a more aware person, because you have been through major things."

But at the same time it makes you more fragile. "You know that you are not very strong. I can be very strong when I'm filming, for instance – stronger than anyone, I feel, physically, mentally – but it takes its toll."

She has learned how to live with depression, looks out for the signs and takes care of herself. "You have different ways of protecting yourself from it," she says.

Rampling, born in Essex in 1946, has been married and divorced twice: to the actor Bryan Southcombe and the composer Jean-Michelle Jarre. She has been with her current partner, now fiance, for 14 years.

She has had a truly international career, spanning European cinema as well as Hollywood. She could work in Europe because she spoke French from a young age and picked up other languages easily. In doing so, she was able to get a richer variety of parts than if she had confined her horizons to Hollywood.

"The richness of European cinema is astounding. Obviously it is not going to be the big, well-financed films, but what it gives us is the mirror on to all sorts of ways of being and different lives and cultures, which are incredibly important to keep our lives rich and not just one-dimensional. America can't help but just be American."

The Night Porter, in which she starred opposite Dirk Bogarde, must, I suggest, have been a difficult film to make.

"I've been in an unconscious way attracted to difficulty. I think it's to do with things that I've lived through and the way I needed to challenge life. I needed life to challenge me, to give me other ways of being, roads less travelled, not to go the conventional way and not to go the easy way."

With that same outlook, she didn't see Max Mon Amour as a risk?

"If I don't live with some form of risk then I feel I'm not challenging who I am and what I need as an artist. Because I was good-looking, and because I had a certain little bit of a talent as an actor, I was quite quickly offered all sorts of different roles in England and America. I could have gone off to Hollywood, spent some time there. I'm not saying I would have been a success there but I had doors open. I needed to do things in a certain way and that's what I've done so there's no way I'll regret it or even think that it is risky to do."

She has made several highly praised films in America, chief among them 1975's Farewell My Lovely, another neo-noir, with Robert Mitchum. If she could have worked at any time it would have been the 1940s, she says. "Those strong, sassy, women. So smart. And they had all the good lines."

Then there was The Verdict, a 1982 courtroom drama with Paul Newman, and Stardust Memories, with Woody Allen. Newman she found "very sweet, very accessible to act with, but remote".

Other actors say the same of Allen. Was that her experience on the 1980 film? She laughs. "I think he did that perhaps later on but when I was with him it was not that at all."

The two had "a very strong, flirtatious, platonic relationship" she recalls. "He was in between two girlfriends then. He'd just broken up with Diane Keaton and he was not yet with Mia Farrow so he was very playful."

If any more evidence is required that Rampling goes her own way in films, you could cite her appearance in the first Streetdance movie. Yes, the musical drama starring George "Britain's Got Talent" Sampson that proved a surprising hit. Rampling, who trained as a modern dancer, played a dance teacher.

Streetdance was great fun, she says. "I love dancing, I loved the idea of being in a dance film and I loved the idea of doing a film that my grandsons could see. And they loved it, so it was worth it for that."

After I, Anna she will be seen on television at Christmas in William Boyd's adaptation of his novel Restless. There are at least four other films on the way. It seems a lot, she says, but they are not lead roles so she can spend weeks here and there.

"It sounds as though I've got it all worked out. I haven't. I want to keep being able to join the world, and the world for me when I get out there is working in cinema."

I, Anna opens on December 7. Restless is on BBC 1 over Christmas.