Russian-born actress Lila Kedrova remembers the first time she saw herself as Madame Hortense, the pathetic French courtesan, in the movie "Zorba." That was 20 years ago, but her heart begins palpitating all over again. Her eyes, rimmed with runny mascara, open wide with childlike dread, and her voice vibrates like a scratchy 78 record, caught in a dusty groove.

"I go to rushes -- you know 'rushes,' yes? -- and after my first scene, I have tears in my eyes," she moans. "I look just terrible. I was young then, really. But this hair they put on me, this makeup, making me look 20 years older! It was ridiculous. Everybody was screaming, 'Lila, Lila, how wonderful! Brava, Brava!' But I don't understand. I say, 'What is the matter with you? You mock me. It is awful.'

"I couldn't sleep the whole night so much I am crying. The following morning, I say to director Michael Cacoyannis, 'Michael, I have no regret working with you. You say that I am good, but I find it is terrible. I think I will never work anymore after this. I am not an actress. This is my last part.' "

Instead, as history records, Kedrova's performance won her the Academy Award for best supporting actress. She was already a stage star in France. In her, the secrets of the Russian soul seemed to filter up magically through the music of the French language. "Zorba," however, brought her special presence to the attention of an international public and accelerated a multilingual career that has her acting as poignantly in English as she does in French, German or Russian.

Now, she is right back where her celebrity began, costarring in "Zorba," the musical, which begins previews tomorrow at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This go-round, she has been playing Madame Hortense for nearly two years -- 10 months on the road, a season on Broadway and, coming up, six more months back on the road. In June, her performance won her a Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical.

"Not only Tony. I also win Drama Desk Award, which is very, very precious," says Kedrova. "I enjoy the part very much now. It is same character, but more funny than pathetic. Not so vulgar. And she seems to me to be looking better than in the film. In this village, in the rocks where she lives, she appears in brilliant dress, with sequins sparkling, or umbrella and straw hat and gloves. She does that because she loves Zorba. But a lot of charm is in character this time."

"At first I was frightened, because I have only little voice, little gypsy's voice in my chest. But I have got used to preparing for my singing. A musician comes to warm up my voice and I go 'La, la, la, la.' Then I do my kicking and dancing to warm up my body. And it is fun! I am standing in the wings, waiting for my entrance, and the music plays already. Ahhh, how I love the musicals. I cannot now imagine play without music. What is that? Seems to me boring!"

She giggles so infectiously that the 65-year-old woman perched on the edge of the divan, a little like Humpty Dumpty on the wall, momentarily resembles a schoolgirl of 10. The astonishing truth of Lila Kedrova is that she is both young and old at the same time. You can see the toll of the passing years in her face. And then suddenly you can't.

Her figure is resolutely pudgy and the summer humidity seems to have stirred her reddish hair into a frenzy. She keeps checking her makeup in the circular mirror in her hand, dabbing at the perspiration on her face with a wad of yellow Kleenex. She could be one of those gallant Parisian widows who dress all in black and feed the pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens.

And yet there is something fragile, almost ethereal, about her too. Kedrova could just as easily be an excitable French gamine on the day of her confirmation, before the relatives arrive bearing gifts. All it takes for the transformation is for her to flutter her eyelashes or squeeze her shoulders together in the rapture generated by an old memory. In her presence, the clock keeps racing backward and forward.

"Zorba," of course, has paired her once again with Anthony Quinn, recreating the film role that also made him internationally famous.

"Ahhh," Kedrova says, "I like to work with him on the stage when he is in good mood -- 'mood' is not the right word -- when he is inspired, when he is in good spirit. Then it is a joy to act with him. Because he is very changeable. Sometimes, instead of being at my left, he is at my right. Or he will say his lines unexpectedly, lines I do not hear before. Ah, bon! Then, I change, too. You have to. I never get lost on the stage. I play my character and I stay in character when I answer Tony's surprises.

"But I don't like him when something happens to him beforehand and he is in a state of tiredness. 'Tiredness' is not the word, either -- when he is bad-spirited and he cuts my inspiration. Then I cannot act as I want and I get angry in my character and we fight on the stage. But that is very interesting, too. Afterwards, he will not speak to me for two days. He will sulk like a little boy. But sometimes, we laugh together in the wings and say to one another, 'Ah, what you did to me tonight, Tony!' 'What you did to me, Lila!' "

Kedrova kicks her legs, which barely reach the floor of the East Side apartment she has been occupying this summer. "I think Tony makes the part more funny than it was in the film," she says. "Zorba is not a funny man. He is a philosopher. I do not like his philosophy. It is a philosophy only for him. He likes to sleep with the women and if a woman looks back at him, it means she wants to sleep with him, too. It is stupid! No? Selfish! But he is also charming and has everyone smiling. That is the best of Zorba. So maybe it is better for audiences that he is funny in the musical."

With "Zorba," Kedrova is only now getting around to her American stage debut, although she has acted frequently in England ("Cabaret," "Gigi" and "The Seagull") and Canada ("The Threepenny Opera") and can play Paris whenever it pleases her. Her father, Nicolas Kedroff, was a musician, who organized and directed the Kedroff quartet -- four voices which were said to sound like 100. Her mother was an opera singer. Chaliapin and Shostakovich were among their friends. Kedrova no longer recalls when the family escaped from Russia to France. "It was in Stalin time," she says. "The 1930s. Yes, beginning of the 1930s. Or maybe late in the 1920s. But I have no images in my head of Russia. Only what people tell me afterwards."

The family settled on the outskirts of Paris and Lila (pronounced Lee-la) was expected to become a pianist. The hard facts of the family history no longer much interest her and she waves them away, like gnats. Instead, she has come to view her childhood as one of destiny's sagas, to be related with breathless abandon, dramatic pauses and little squeals of delighted irony. "Oh, I dislike the other children," she says, making a face. "When they come to play, I hide so no one can find me. I like more the society of grown-ups. So I was always running away, running away, running away. All the time.

"Every day I took a train to go to my school in Paris. One day, instead of going to school, I met the gypsy caravan. I was absolutely fascinated. This was like something from fairy tales. Then when I hear how they play guitars and sing and dance, ahhhaaa, I know here are the young girls and boys I like. They are serious and intelligent. I lie to them and say that I am all alone in the world. So they say, 'Come with us, Lila. You are a clever girl.' When I do, there is panic at home and they have to catch me with the police."

She laughs at so much naughtiness, as if it happened only yesterday. "It is same with le cirque ambulant, the traveling circus," she says, caught up now in her own Proustian epic. "I would get out from my train and watch the performers. And when they move on, I say, 'I go with you.' 'But you must work,' they say. 'Okay,' I say. And they give me wonderful skirt, all sparkling. Paradise! I had to pull the big bear by the chain after each number. It was very charming. I have enormous success. But then I have enough and I go home."

Finally, Kedrova discovered the theater, a troupe of expatriate Russian actors and disciples of Stanislavski, who had emigrated to Paris. "I am so impressed I do not sleep anymore," she squeals. "I tell them, 'I am Lila. I would like to act with you. And I would like to invite you to come to lunch to my parents' house tomorrow. All of you.' Electrician, makeup man, everybody. I give address. And then I tell my mother, 'The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.'

"My mother doesn't believe me. But they come, 18 of them, and it is very nice lunch. Lot of laughter and talking, inspiring and lovely. And then they say, 'Now Lila, it is your moment. You recite us something.' So I recite different things, with tears, with laughter. And I hold them maybe an hour. It is astonishing performance. They say to my parents, 'She is wonderful. She is ready to act.' But my parents say, 'No, no no.' So I run away with the troupe. Not even 14 I am. To Brussels. My mother followed me. She went and bought a ticket and sat in the front row. I had a lovely part and I played it beautifully. And she came backstage after and said, 'Yes, Lila, you can be an actress.' "

Kedrova takes a deep breath and folds her tiny hands majestically in her lap. So what if the dates have been misplaced or the chronology subjected to certain modifications over the years. Is fate, no? And fate is not recounted the same way biography is.

Kedrova's subsequent performances on the Parisian stage in such hits as "The Rose Tattoo," "A Taste of Honey," "The Brothers Karamazov," "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and "A View From the Bridge" made her a star. Kedrova became La Kedrova, who, in turn, became a "monstre sacre" (sacred monster), the ultimate Gallic accolade.

"When Tennessee Williams sees me in 'Rose Tattoo,' he tells me, 'You are my best Serafina,' " Kedrova remembers. "And I think, 'how can that be? I know he wrote the part for Anna Magnani. And I thought she was the greatest.' But he comes back second time, and brings many friends." Kedrova is boasting, but her wistful tone -- or maybe it's her eyes -- also suggests that human triumphs are as evanescent as autumn smoke.

It is Peter Brook's production of "View From the Bridge," however, that inspires her greatest paroxysms of joy. "Ahhhhhhh, genius production," she exults. "He made Raf Vallone, who was not genius, and me, who is not genius, and others who are not genius, all look like geniuses on that stage. Everything -- the conception, the set, the music -- was Peter, Peter, Peter, Brook, Brook, Brook. It is so wonderful all Paris packs the theater for a year."

Of her movies -- some so inconsequential that she now says of them, "I forget name of film, of director, of everybody!" -- the most celebrated remains "Zorba." But she has special fondness for Lee Grant's "Tell Me a Riddle" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain," in which she played an elderly Russian vainly trying to defect to the West. "I do not understand my success in 'Torn Curtain,' " she says. "Hitchcock tell me not one word during the filming. All he says is where to move. Never try this or try that. And then he watches like a bird. I am so nervous he is saying nothing, I think, 'Goodness, he will cut my whole part.'

"His assistants tell me he does not like actors to watch rushes. Not allowed. But to me, he says one day, like a grand seigneur, 'Miss Kedrova, come with me.' It was in amphitheater -- up, up, up -- and he has big armchair at top. 'Miss Kedrova, you please sit down.' And he gave me the armchair, while this big, big man, he sat on the top step. After rushes, he says only, 'Wonderful.' He is very kind. It is only a cameo role I play. But maybe it is touching. The people who come up to me for autograph always speak to me about that film."

Kedrova smiles and her smile weds gravity to merriment. She dabs at her eyes, making sad smudges of her morning-after mascara, then she delicately rearranges her rumpled skirt.

"I do not know what is my quality as actress," she says. "All I understand is to be honest. If you cheat on the stage, if you play games, finito! You will have success, but you will pay for that. Many people come to me and say, 'Your performance changed my life.' And I think, 'How did I do that? With what?' And I do not have answer. Why should Madame Hortense bring such joy to people so they laugh and they cry? This I do not understand. 'Zorba' is not 'The Cherry Orchard.' It is not 'View From the Bridge.' Maybe I stir some kind of very important feelings in the soul of people without willing it.

"But I always act with all my heart. Sometimes, when I am not in very good mood and I don't like to start my performance in such a state of mind, I pray, 'Spirit, be with me. Be with me, spirit. I am just a piece of nothing. Act with me. Be with me. Take me away.' And it works. Is wonderful, no?"