Not so very long ago, she was sitting in Elaine's in New York, talking to friends. One of them, a journalist, was worshipping shamelessly at Liv Ullman's shrine. It was Liv-this and Liv-that and Liv-Ulmann-isn't-she-devine? The journalist had, after all, written a cover story on the star and was still under her spell.

The Scandinavian actress, a former protegee of Ingmar Bergman, accepted all this adulation in silence. For awhile. Finally she couldn't bear any more.

"I'm so sick of people talking about Liv all the time," sighed Bibi Andersson. "Liv is my best friend and I love her dearly. But I'm wonderful too!"

Bibi Andersson is in the United States, too -- she does not know for how long, and she will not tell you exactly why. She has just finished two Hollywood movies and is about to star in a new Arthur Miller play. But that is not really the "why" of it. "I am free," she says simply and with a decided note of triumph in her voice. After a 12-year marriage she is divorced; her 6-year-old daughter, Jennie, is not yet old enough for school. and Bibi Andersson wafts through the Jefferson Hotel, a minute vision of oppressed innocence in a long white Mexican wedding skirt topped with a windjacket.

Actresses who have worked for Bergman have a way of looking simultaneously free and enslaved; in Andersson, as in Ullmann, there is something that defies protection and yet demands protectors.

"I think I need a very adult man," she says, her smile weighed down with resignation. "Married people are careless. They project their agonies on each other. I was careless when I was married. So was he -- a bit -- and the fact is we cannot afford to be careless with one another."

But if you ask Bibi Andersson to name her favorite directors, she will name Kjell Grede, who directed her in a Swedish TV series only after their divorce. ("The knowledge he has of me was used not to destroy me, but to bring something out.") She will not, on the other hand, say Bergman.

"Of course Bergman is a genius," she says airily, "But except for a small part in 'Scenes from a Marriage," I haven't worked for him in so long. I started working, really, with Bergman (in 'The Seventh Seal') when I was 19, and my respect for him was so enormous that it was like working for him -- not coworking. For him I'm still a little girl."

But then how did she feel when her role as a Bergman star was supplanted by Liv Ullmann who came to live with him?

Instantly the smile fades. An indignant look storms her blue eyes. "Liv Ullmann was his wife. . . Well, all right. She lived with him, but that's the same as being his wife. And so I find it pretty normal that it was inspiring for them to live together.

"There are so many actors who have worked with him, and if everyone should feel rejected because he works with someone else, you'd be in trouble. I myself wanted to take off and do other things as well."

As she talks on, her mood darkens perceptibly. "What do you want me to say? she snaps. "What do you want to know? That I get terribly, terribly jealous? They always assume I am not an independent person. I don't like that question. Because they always assume I'm terribly jealous. I want to be interviewed for myself."

All right then. How old is she?

"It doesn't matter." She pauses, then relents. "I have worked 20 years. I started acting when I was 16, but I don't really count my working until I was 20. So if I have started at 20 and worked 20 years, you can figure it out. You can look it up yourself," she sums up. (You can. She is 41).

Just as suddenly she shrugs and chuckles, her humor restored by her own fit of pique, her vanity reined by a flash of candor. "I never have been an actress of that kind of beauty, never got jobs because of that kind of beauty," she says, for she is, in fact, blonde and pretty without being extravagantly either.

For all that, she does get plenty of parts. She opens here Saturday night in "The Archbishop's Ceiling," a new Arthur Miller play. She just finished filming "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" and "An Enemy of the People" with Steve McQueen, where they made her get rid of her accent, because "they really wanted me to be very American."

They wanted a Scandinavian playing an Ibsen role to be very American?

"Well you see," she explained solemly, "Steve McQueen is very American, and they didn't want me to stick out. Oh -- I shouldn't have said that, but you know I don't think anyone can overcome that. I tried to speak well. But I could never be an all-American person. More than the language, there are things I would have to overcome."

And Steve McQueen?

She smiles evasively. "I cannot give you an entire answer -- the film is not out yet I think if he'd been brought up in the same country as me, he would be better. Now he's a star.

"I think his reputation comes with sensitivity. He really believes people hurt one another very much. . . One day I was talking to him and he just walked away."

Her eyes widen in remembered astonishment. "So I said -- well I was just trying to make a joke, really, with him in the beginning, to be friendly --so I said, 'I think you should listen to what I'm saying.' And he said, 'This is not Sweden. This is not Bergman. This is not the way we work here.'

"And then I realized he thought this was a put-down. I realized he thought I was more secure than I was.So that's when it comes to language also -- this problem. This was something I could say in Sweden."

For an actress to work consistently in a language that is manifestly not hers is more than an act of courage. "I have to go via Swedish to translate thoughts," she says, but there are nuances and idioms that defy translation, and it's no easy matter to adopt them entirely. Speaking of her former tax problems with the Swedish government, she says, "It was a total upblow for various reasons."

Beyond the language patterns, she has brought with her all the reservations of old Europe. Only after you've told her something about your life will she permit you any real access into hers; it makes her feel more comfortable that way, she explains. So many people want to talk to her now; you have the feeling she considers all this not merely an invasion. It is for her a form of theft.

"I still don't feel my life has reached the definite meaningfulness to talk about," she explains wryly when asked why she doesn't write a book about herself. But there's more to it than that.

"In Sweden," she says with no little pride, "I don't make interviews with people unless I know them at least 10 years. Yes, I can afford to. It's nice that I have the luxury of that. Here -- "with uplifted hands she signals distress -- "Here I don't know anybody."

"They treat no one like a superstar in Sweden. I treat myself like a superstar. Publicity in a small country doesn't matter too much. It's a family thing -- 8 million people.

"And there's no reason in the world why I should tell them my life. Because they already know my life."

She smiles ruefully and says -- but without an enormous amount of conviction. "But in this profession we have to make sacrifices. I cannot lead the kind of life in the country with a little dog, a little cat and a little cow that I would like.

"Well yes -- she acknowledges that she is, after all, not forced to act --"Yes of course I do want to act. While I still feel -- well, like I have something that comes out of me."

And yet she is here. Not in the country with assorted domestic animals. Not in Sweden where "no matter how famous you are nobody bothers you." She is in the one country where, it is fondly assumed, no one minds either fame or bothering. And so you can't help wondering -- what does Bibi Andersson really want out of America?

"I don't know. I'm wondering myself." She hesitates then, seeing the raised eyebrows, corrects herself. "No, I know. I know. But I don't think I can tell you."

She is prodded; she relents.

"Three years ago I was here for personal reasons. I hated America. Well -- not hate -- but I didn't like it at all. I thought it too big. The countryside was too far away, and I felt homeless. I made a play with Otto Preminger ("Full Circle") and I went home after four months.

"And the minute I got there, I felt, 'Why did I do that?' I kind of regretted I didn't give it a try. I'm not talking about career. I'm talking mentality. Part of an actress is aliveness, alertness, and it comes from not letting yourself stiffen. I wanted to see life, wanted to smell it, and I felt starving, mentally."

And so -- now -- does she want to be famous here?

"Oh no," she laughs. "I think being famous here must be awful. This is such a big country, and you're known everywhere. . . "

But there is no horror in her voice as she examines the prospect. Far-from it.