Glenda Jackson takes a Dunhill from a fresh pack and lights it, exhaling the smoke through a sardonic grin, propping her leather-booted feet on the glass-top coffee table.

"Men," she sneers, "are an awful lot of trouble for very little reward.

"I don't really mean that. What I mean is this," she says, coiled in her Manhattan hotel suite one morning. "It's not their fault. They need so much just to stay on an even keel."

The 48-year-old British actress, once divorced and twice Oscared, is currently starring as the mercurial Nina Leeds in the marathon, five-hour Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude."

She is severe to the point of being spartan, in gray corduroy slacks and a nubby sweater the color of a Pittsburgh sky, with a maroon muffler slung around her neck. Her face is scrubbed clean, as if it had been scoured with a Brillo pad, there's a cold sore on the left corner of her upper lip, and her brown eyes are as small and flat as a rodent's. Her dull copper hair is lopped off at the chin in a pudding-bowl cut.

On the night in 1970 when she won her first Academy Award, for her portrayal of Gudrun in the film version of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love," Bette Davis placed a congratulatory transatlantic call to Jackson, saying, "We're the same. We've both got funny faces."

She puffs on the cigarette. "I did in my youth, wish that I were prettier, yes," she says. "Professionally, I think that I am quite grateful that my face is the way it is. Because it's sufficiently wipeable."

Jackson's unadorned appearance may allow her the "wipeability" she has always sought, but her voice commands attention. So low and throaty and utterly unmistakable, a stormy marriage of lower and upper class, a lorry driver gone to Cambridge. Her delivery is rapid, her phrasing a wry offering of acerbic, prickly verbiage.

She describes herself as "deeply ironical," "bossy and impatient." Others have called her "arrogant," "smug," "aloof." One director said she was an actress who "radiated disgust."

"I know I am hard on people," she says. "And I'm as hard on myself, but that's the way I've been trained. I find it quite astonishing that actors today don't expect to work the way I was taught to work.

"I have to say, when I think I'm right, I'm immovable."

Acting, she insists, is not a popularity contest. Performers must leave their egos at the stage door, and anything done or said in rehearsals should not be taken personally. "I don't understand the tiptoeing around that goes on sometimes, of people being careful of other people's feelings."

Her "Strange Interlude" costars don't dispute this. While they praise her professionalism and penchant for hard work, they describe the actress as demanding and brutally frank, sometimes lacking in the social graces, especially with younger, inexperienced players. Stories abound of director Keith Hack making suggestions, only to hear Jackson label them "rubbish."

"I think sometimes she's too tough," says Brian Cox, who plays the part of Nina's lover, Ned Darrell. "But she's also tough on herself. She is a Protestant, working-class Englishwoman. She's a perfectionist to the tip of her toes." He laughs. "She doesn't take any prisoners."

"It has been a very tough rehearsal period," agrees Edward Petherbridge, appearing in the part of Nina's faithful friend, Charles Marsden. "There have been some clashes of opinion." The atmosphere, he says, has at times been "hostile."

"Glenda suspects the commodity of charm," explains Petherbridge, who now considers Jackson a friend. "She feels it is often used for the wrong reason. She once said to me, 'It's probably because I don't have any.' "

In spite of what she sees as her own lack of seductive powers, and despite her rather ordinary looks, she has fashioned a successful stage and screen career out of playing fiercely independent women from opposite ends of the feminist food chain -- from regal rulers (the BBC's "Elizabeth R," "Mary Queen of Scots") to independent divorce's ("A Touch of Class," "Sunday Bloody Sunday") to a gifted artist ("Stevie") to neurotic misfits ("Marat/Sade," "The Music Lovers").

Jackson, re-creating the grueling role in "Strange Interlude" she originated in London, for which she won the British Theater Assocation Award for best actress, says she was drawn to the play more than to the part of Nina Leeds. "I like it very much. I'm a great admirer of his. I would not argue that it is, by any means, his greatest play, but he was a great dramatist and I think there's a damn sight more in this play than you get in 18 other plays by somebody else."

Her portrayal of Nina, O'Neill's willful, sardonic "everywoman" who turns her grief at the loss of a fiance' into bitterness, eventually manipulating every man she encounters -- husband, lover, son and finally faithful friend and father figure -- has inspired a critical skirmish among the New York theaterati.

"A blazing, magnificent performance," cried Clive Barnes in the New York Post. "The woman was born to play O'Neill."

There was some concern that the Pulitzer Prize-winning nine-act play -- which first opened on Broadway in 1928 and was last seen in a 1963 Actors Studio revival -- was hopelessly outdated and at least three hours too long. British audiences joked that one didn't attend the play but enlisted for it. But New York Times critic Frank Rich found it "fresh and unexpected," comparing Jackson to Katharine Hepburn and declaring her performance "mesmerizing" and "awesome."

"O'Neill," says Newsweek's Jack Kroll, "would have groveled at her feet."

New York magazine's John Simon, however, called the play "bloody awful." "Glenda Jackson is intolerable," he sniped, "and moves as if she had just been unyoked from a plow. Her voice is a harsh instrument, most suited to the grating of cheese."

Brendan Gill, writing in The New Yorker, carved the play into bite-size pieces, and said Jackson -- whose character ages 25 years -- is too old for the part. "For all her grace and skill, she can no longer evoke convincingly a springlike naivete'."

David Richards, in The Washington Post, found her Nina cold. "The thought occurs that Jackson doesn't act; she sculpts performances in ice."

The actress is philosophical about the critics.

"There was a play here, Harold Pinter's 'The Homecoming,' " she says, curling her legs beneath her. "It had a cast of four. On the first night, they went to Sardi's to a party to celebrate." When the first review came out, the critic panned the play. The cast looked up to see the room empty. The second review came out, in which the critic gave the play a rave. When the cast lifted their eyes from the paper, they discovered the partygoers had all returned.

"You know where you are in this town," she says ruefully. "You're in or you're out."

Glenda Jackson has never cared much for being "in." She is as self-effacing a star as humanly possible, showing up for theater photo sessions without a trace of makeup, wearing clothes from Marks & Spencer, England's upscale equivalent of J.C. Penney. For the play's opening night, she chose a flattering dress to wear to the cast party. Over it she donned an old Marks & Spencer coat.

For all her protestations that she is just a suburban housewife, she has lived her life with a single-minded determination -- to be a great actress.

"If she'd gone into politics, she'd be prime minister," her ex-husband, Roy Hodges, once remarked. "If she'd gone into crime, she would have been Jack the Ripper."

She laughs, a low, gutteral, self-mocking emission.

Is she always angry? Always "browned off" at the world, as one writer once suggested?

"I'm not as me," she says, "but I suppose it's the characters I've been given to play. I'm not actually 'browned off.' I'm probably deeply interested in whatever's going on. I just don't show it. Once, I was working with a group, and it came to me by virtue of the director who was writing a piece about the work, and he said one of the actors had said, 'Oh, she's so negative. She's always saying no all the time.' I only say no because you have to keep saying no all the time. If you say no enough, you might eventually begin to touch on what is possibly yes. T'isn't negative at all. It's energized, really."

A firm believer in "stress as a positive force," Jackson is referring to a 1975 New York Times Magazine profile written by Charles Marowitz, then director of London's Open Space Theater, who observed: "Whenever she worked, one could hear her built-in bull detector . . . ticking in the background, and the actors who resented her most were those whose execrable effusions were being scrutinized and judged in the glare of those cold, sleepy, cruel eyes. I have vivid memories of her lounging around the rehearsal room looking like a scrubwoman, her face not only un-made up but seemingly scrubbed raw as if to obliterate her features, emitting great waves of languor tinged with ennui; a softly pulsating indictment of everything crude, crummy and unworthy in our work."

Not much has changed.

She will, for 90 minutes, cast her cold, unforgiving eye on men, the theater, curtain calls ("an anachronism"), Margaret Thatcher, "Dallas," Hollywood, love ("I would despise somebody who actually maneuvered the way women have to maneuver for men. I would despise any man who did that for me. I'd sooner have the truth than the fantasy"), all the while flashing a razor-sharp intelligence and self-deprecating wit.

"I would hate to think that I was formidable as myself," she says evenly, "but I certainly take the work seriously and I expect it to be taken seriously.

"I don't believe that acting is a sort of day-care center for the emotionally disabled. I think it is a serious profession with seriously minded people. I don't believe we're necessarily hiding our personal failings behind every character."

She says her puritan background prepared her for the craft. "If it hurts, you know it's doing you good."

Just when you're convinced the bony, 5-6 actress is fearless, she'll tell you she used to be afraid of flying but now travels via the Concorde, and "they always let me sit up with the pilot, and I always feel very safe there."

It's no surprise that her deepest fear involves the one activity she has no control over -- acting.

"I wonder if that's why I do it? Certainly fear of performance grows. It gets worse. I don't think it has anything to do with success. It's because you realize how incredibly difficult it is to be good, and how inordinately easy it is to be lousy.

"You never learn how to act. You may learn the craft, but what turns a craft into a performance is a mystery. You have no control over that mysterious element.

"Every time you start something, it's as if you've never acted in your life before. You have to find it in you every time. What's been done is no guarantee that you'll be able to do. The minute I say, 'Yes, I'll do it,' I think, 'Christ, I can't! I don't know how to do it.'"

She is asked about a particular mannerism she had exhibited the night before on stage. A nervous jutting of the chin . . .

"Don't tell me," she interrupts, waving her hand. "Because I'll never be able to do it again, and I might need it."

The oldest of four girls, Glenda May Jackson was born to working-class parents in Hoylake, Cheshire. Her father was a bricklayer, her mother a maid.

She left school at the age of 16 and took a job at Boot's Cash Chemists. They wouldn't let her behind the cosmetic counter. "I was with cough medicines and all that stuff."

A friend who had joined an amateur acting group asked Jackson to join. "I think it was essentially boredom," she recalls. "I went along and somebody said, as somebody always does, I suppose, 'You should do this professionally.' I knew there had to be more to life than I was experiencing, and so I wrote to the only drama school I'd ever heard of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art , trotted off to the audition and suddenly found myself in London.

"If someone had said to me, 'Join the political party or be an A-one safecracker,' if I had found that interesting I would probably have done that."

When she left drama school, she was told by the principal "not to expect to work much before I was 40, because I was essentially a character actress. And that was a true statement at the time. That's what British theater was like then. I mean, films were not anything I considered seriously. And the theater in Britain demanded a certain kind of young woman. She was either blond and pretty and she was the ingenue lead or she was very strange and she was a character.

"I wasn't strange enough and I certainly wasn't blond and pretty. But then John Osborne wrote 'Look Back in Anger' and the whole of British theater changed, a whole new kind of play and a kind of performer came in. That's when there was a place for people like me to act in."

After RADA she joined several repertory companies, traveling the country. She was discovered by Peter Brook, joined his Theatre of Cruelty, and later the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her first major break came in Brook's production of "Marat/Sade," which took Broadway by storm in the 1965-66 season. While Glenda Jackson had become a star, she was by no means an overnight sensation. And when she chides younger actors nowadays for being soft, or perhaps having it too easy, it is because she didn't.

"It's not a life that I like. I find it deeply unnatural to go to work when most people are coming home. The physical conditions of the work are usually painful and unpleasant and cold and drafty, and why do it? The only reason for doing it is the work itself, and if that doesn't have some quality, then forget it. That is me now. I wouldn't have said that 30 years ago."

She earned a reputation for playing neurotic women who shed their clothes and was dubbed Britain's "First Lady of the Flesh." American critics called her "the intellectual's Raquel Welch."

She finds that endlessly amusing.

"Indeed! I mean, I'm flat chested. When I did 'Women in Love' I had the most wonderful bust because I was pregnant. But normally, from the side, I'm invisible."

"Women in Love" was only her second film (the first was a low-budget throwaway called "Negatives"), but it placed her firmly in the serious-actress column. It was a time of social change, a pulling away from traditional female role models, and Jackson (along with Vanessa Redgrave) was tapped as the embodiment of the new feminist heroine -- strong, secure, with serious aspirations. Saturday Review film critic Stanley Kauffmann worried that Jackson might never become a star because "she is not an actress in order to be loved, but in order to act."

In 1973 she won her second Academy Award, for "A Touch of Class," and quipped that now her mother had bookends.

Married to theatrical director turned gallery owner Roy Hodges, Jackson gave birth -- after 11 years of "trying" -- to her only child, a son, Daniel, in 1970. The family took up residence in Blackheath, a suburb of London. But motherhood collided with Jackson's stage and screen career, and the subject is still a sensitive one.

She says she will carry the guilt of being a working mother "all my life."

"I did as much as it was physically possible for me to do to balance the two equivalent demands. Obviously I didn't do as well as I thought.

"I think it's hard when you have to be away a lot."

In 1979, after 18 years of marriage, the couple announced their separation. Jackson was quoted as saying she had left behind one "frustrated, schizophrenic housewife." She was touring America at the time in "Hedda Gabler," and newspaper reports linked her romantically to lighting designer Andy Phillips. Jackson says she is not in a serious relationship with anyone at the moment.

She says 99 percent of the work offered her is "rubbish," and she refuses to consider television as a serious medium, although she did appear in "The Patricia Neal Story" and the recent HBO movie "Sakharov."

"I actually admire people who can do things like 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' How they suspend disbelief for so long is to me quite extraordinary. That isn't a snide remark. I know it sounds snide, but I actually mean that. I would die of boredom."

She says no one could die of boredom doing O'Neill, and that one of the interesting thing about "Strange Interlude" is the writer's concept of people fighting for their happiness, the struggle that lasts a lifetime.

"Yes indeed, it is that much of a struggle. People do have that kind of fight. You see, we don't have a written constitution, so the 'pursuit of happiness' is not something that the British are raised with in their bones. It's almost your duty in this country! You see people who are really guilty because they feel that they're not happy."

She raises the Dunhill to her lips. "I don't have that problem myself."