"My dear. Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we want it. Adventures do occur, but not punctually."

-- Mrs. Moore to Adela in "A Passage to India" The door opens, and in bursts a strikingly handsome woman wrapped in plaid and a flurry of apologies. "So terribly sorry. Got the hour wrong. Do hope you'll forgive!"

After 60 years of playing Juliet to Laurence Olivier's Romeo, Cleopatra to Michael Redgrave's Antony, and nearly every other great female role in the English language, Dame Peggy Ashcroft knows how to enter a room. Alec Guinness once said of her on-stage arrival, "It was as if all the lights had suddenly gone up." It is true even in her own living room.

At 77, Britain's most famous stage actress has just received her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, for her heroic portrayal of Mrs. Moore in "A Passage to India." And because it followed so swiftly her seduction of American television audiences as the lovable, slightly batty missionary teacher, Barbie Batchelor in "The Jewel in the Crown," Ashcroft has suddenly become a media star in the United States, where she was previously little known.

Seated in her comfortable home in arty, fashionable Hampstead, where an electric heater in the hearth valiantly pumps warm air into the cozy, vintage 1950s surroundings, she is chic, elegant. And in no way related in style or shape to the stout old ladies in lace-up oxfords whom she played as Barbie and Mrs. Moore. She also looks 20 years younger than either of them.

"I'm afraid that's the way it is for women on the screen," she says in her husky, magnificently modulated voice. "I had no makeup and look very aged.

"But I wasn't trying to be," says the late-blooming screen star, dubbed "unphotogenic" in her youth. "I'd like to have played Mrs. Moore as 60, which is what I think she was. But [E.M.] Forster always talks about her in the book as 'the old lady,' and an old lady in 1920 was a good deal older than now. I tend to think of 60 now as very young."

Still, she shares Mrs. Moore's liberal views. "Oh, yes. But I also love characters that I love to hate, if you know what I mean. I think playing bitches is one of the most rewarding things to do, though I've never been allowed to do that in a film."

Her eyes are sparkling-clear pale sapphire under a crown of silvering curls. There's a bit of trouble with the left shoulder, but no evidence except the occasional toss of a shawl to keep it extra warm. "I'm hesitant about the stage because, among other things, I've had a knee operation, which means I can't stand for any length of time, and one has to take all that into consideration."

These days she talks to the press for the sake of "Passage," which is up for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, at next Monday night's ceremonies. "I do hope Judy gets it," she says, referring to "Passage's" Judy Davis, who has been nominated in the Best Actress category, "because I think as a young actress it probably affects your career. I'm too old for it to affect mine."

Fame is no stranger to Ashcroft. Ask a London cabby: "Dame Peggy? Well, she's the greatest actress in England. Like Sir Laurence Olivier. Like that. You name it, she's done it. Know what I mean?"

Most recently, Dame Peggy has received the Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a motion picture drama and the Best Actress award for "Jewel" from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London.

Indeed, things appear to be working out very nicely for Ashcroft. "Life hasn't changed that much. It just goes on," she says. "I've taken to films and television in my old age because it isn't so hard-going as acting in the theater. You don't have to be absolutely, every night, 100 percent energetic."

She lives alone now -- and has since her third divorce 20 years ago -- in the secluded, 1820s red brick house she bought with her last husband, Lord Jeremy Hutchinson (now a well-known barrister) after World War II. It is here that their two children -- Eliza, in her early forties, now living in France, and Nicholas, 38, a theatrical director living in Canada -- grew up. Only the housekeeper who helped raise them remains.

Still, solitude is not Dame Peggy's problem. Her circle is broad and deep, and includes not only fellow actors like John Gielgud (who also took up films rather late and won an Oscar), but also artists and literary folk, such as playwright Harold Pinter and poet Stephen Spender. It was with Spender and others that she helped start the Apollo Society during World War II, arranging poetry readings in factories, schools and military posts and later making recordings and broadcasts that have greatly broadened public interest in verse. Here, surrounded by her well-thumbed novels and volumes of poetry, Ashcroft seems much more the literary figure than the actress.

She has been a prodigious Shakespearean actress since age 18, when she graduated from the London Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art. And by age 49, Edith Margaret Emily Ashcroft had received the honorary English title of dame, the female equivalent of knight. Which was followed by honorary degrees from five universities, including Oxford -- not bad, considering she left "academic" studies behind to take up acting at age 16.

She is also the only living British actor (she never says "actress") to have a theater named after her, in Croyden, Surrey, where she was born to a part-Danish, part-German Jewish mother -- an avid amateur actress -- and a father who was a middle-class real estate agent who died in World War I, when Ashcroft was a child. Her mother died when she was 19.

What's different about this spate of fame -- after all the hard-earned success -- is the fallout of being a mass-media celebrity and suddenly playing to the biggest audiences of her life, bigger than all her past audiences put together.

"It's only created a sort of uproar temporarily, I hope," she says, from her perch on what appears to be a very even keel. "Because I realize that film success is a quite different thing from theater. I mean theater" -- there is a resounding elongation of the word -- "is part of one's life. It has its criticisms and all that -- and a few awards given to it. But a film, there's a sort of brouhaha goes on, doesn't it? A big fuss is made. So that gets into your life stream and shakes you up a bit. But I guess it will all be over at the end of March."

She has earned a rest. "I really had two years of working a little bit overtime, because 'Jewel' was a long time in the making, and I was doing 'All's Well That Ends Well' at the Barbican [home of her company, the Royal Shakespeare] in between. And then I went straight into 'Passage' very soon after that, which was wise. But I did hesitate to say yes because I did think I was, perhaps, taking on a little bit much.

"But passages to India don't happen often in this life," she says with the radiant smile of a woman who had bet on the right horse. "Or David Lean films. And of course it was lovely to be working with Alec Guinness, who is a very old friend and colleague of mine."

Guinness has taken some criticism for his role as Professor Godbole, a Hindu mystic, whom he played with purpled lips, and -- some say -- as something of a cartoon. "It's very unfair, I think," says the loyal Ashcroft, "because a lot of Godbole was cut in the editing, which has altered the balance in a way.

"But he's also had some good criticisms. My daughter thinks he's the best thing in the film."

Many others think Ashcroft is the best thing in the film, and the American reaction to both "Jewel" and "Passage" has taken her a bit by surprise. "It's very extraordinary, isn't it," she says. "I was less surprised by the reaction to 'Jewel in the Crown' because it had played in England with great success. I wasn't here; I was in India making 'Passage.' But the repercussions went on when we got back. But I didn't think it could be as successful in the States because India doesn't have the same significance there that it has over here, which must cast a different complexion on the production.

"As for 'Passage,' I never saw rushes. You work in the dark on a film. You're shooting this bit here, that bit there, back-to-front and so on. I did see a showing of it here, and I was very thrilled with it. But again, I don't think I expected such a sensation . . .

"But it can't have the same sort of bite" -- she says the word in a way that makes you clench your back teeth -- "it had when Forster wrote it, because after all, his novel was, I suppose, the first novel where an Englishman expressed dislike of the idea of the British Raj and was shocked by it. Now we've had the independence, and the partitioning, and India is a different place. And Paul Scott's written "The Raj Quartet" critically of the British Raj, so it doesn't have the same shock effect. But it is a damned good story!"

What many Americans wonder is how such a damned good actress has remained out of their line of sight for so long. The reason is both surprising and simple: Though she has had minor roles in a few successful films, including Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps," she is chiefly a stage actress. And she has appeared only twice on the New York stage, first in Maxwell Anderson's "High Tor" with Burgess Meredith in 1937, and, immediately after World War II, in the highly successful "Edward My Son," with Robert Morley. "But then I had had my second child -- and he was only 18 months old -- so I agreed to go for a limited run of six weeks," says Ashcroft. "And those are the only times I have appeared in New York.

"I did do a week in Central City, Colorado, in 1973, and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington in a program with Michael Redgrave, which is quite well known, called 'The Hollow Crown.' That, I can tell you, was the year of Watergate, just when it was blowing up. It was very fascinating, because there was an extraordinary reaction in the audience to one excerpt that we did. I only announced it, but when I announced the impeachment of Charles the First, you felt this shiver in the audience. It was really extraordinary how the audience took this completely as a sort of picture of what was about to happen, and took Charles to be Nixon.

"But perhaps we shouldn't refer to this. Should we?" Ashcroft is nothing if not discreet.

"It was reading Paul Scott's 'Raj Quartet' that set me off on wanting to go to India," says Ashcroft. "And just after I read the book, I was asked to do this Merchant-Ivory film ["Hullabaloo Over George and Bonnie's Pictures"] with Victor Banerjee, and I said yes at once because I was so passionate to go there.

"And then came 'The Raj Quartet' itself being made for television. I was in the stage door at the National Theatre [in London], and I heard Chris Morahan [producer and director of 'Jewel'] talking on the telephone, I suppose to Granada Studios. I'd heard it rumored that it was going to happen, so I said, jokingly, that I'd never speak to him again if I wasn't in it. He said which would I like to play, and I said Barbie.

"She is to me," explains Ashcroft, "the most interesting of all the women that I could play, because she's the outsider, and she reflects the 'other' attitude to India. And also because she's such a sort of curiosity, and so eccentric and so pathetic."

Because of the many similarities between Barbie and Mrs. Moore: the setting in India, the fact that both are such sympathetic characters, and that both die -- deserted and mad in the case of Barbie, and alone but heroic as crowds outside the courtroom shout "Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Moore" -- is bound to cause some blurring in memory.

"They're quite different. But they are both non-Raj characters, and are, in a way, in the same predicament: Both are Christian women who have their faith brought in question, don't they, by their experience of India . . .

"I like to see the part I play objectively, and not as anything to do with myself. This is a point of view that perhaps a lot of actors have. If you can have in your mind a physical image that you can see quite outside yourself, that helps you to create the character. Now, Mrs. Moore has no physical characteristics which are described by Forster, except when Aziz suddenly sees her in the dark of the mosque as a red-faced old lady. Well, Lean didn't want me to be a red-faced old lady, so you've got to make up what you are, and maybe I was . . . do you think I was more like myself as Mrs. Moore?"

No question.

"But then, you see, in Forster's books, no one is black or white, are they? They're a mixture . . .

"But whereas all of Scott's characters, like Barbie, are written very objectively -- and they're crystal-clear, I think -- Forster's are not. Which in a way makes it very fascinating. I think Forster always wants to leave you in doubt. And I think that's what's been very brilliant of Lean: that he's adhered to the doubt, particularly where the cave incident is concerned." The cave is where the alleged rape that propels the story of "Passage" took place.

She is grand, but unassuming; kind, interested. Her hands are graceful, but make no grand gestures. She has been called the least actressy of actresses, and that she seems to be. There is no photograph of her in sight, only paintings: a romantic one by the English Impressionist Walter Sickert (1860-1942), showing a young woman on a balcony pensively looking out at the Grand Canal in Venice. It was titled "Variation Peggy."

"He made it from a snapshot," says Ashcroft. "And that's me at the Old Vic, also by Sickert. Do you know him? He died during the war, you know. But that's history. Ancient history."

There's a lot of romantic history here -- including the two husbands of her youth: actor Rupert Hart-Davis, later a well-known publisher, whom she married at age 22; and, five years later, the brilliant director Theodore Komisarjevsky, 25 years her senior, who had been director of the Imperial and State theaters in Russia before the Revolution. That marriage was also short-lived.

But unless Ashcroft writes it herself, we're never likely to know much about all that. "I hope you don't want to talk about me. I'm not good at that," she had warned in advance. The warning became more specific in the flesh. "Now, I don't talk about my family. I've made a rule. That's why I haven't all my life given many interviews."

She will say that being a wife and mother had something to do with her staying chiefly in England until the children grew up. "I did travel a certain amount. I did European tours, and I played at Stratford. But of course my family influenced how I led my professional life. Having a family does that.

"It's just that I learnt early on that I don't think it's fair to bring your family into publicity -- why should they?"

And so, the ground rules. Mention Hutchinson, her husband of 26 years, and a big wheel in London museum circles, and she will say, "Ah, you know him? But now we're not talking about . . ."

"As you get older, I don't think people are as nosy, and there's no one to be put off by it. I mean, if your children go to school and read about it -- they get sort of teased by their friends, don't they?" (Her speech is peppered with rhetorical questions, and you learn quickly not to answer them.) "I know they do. Some mind it and some don't. So anyway, I kept my personal life separate from my professional life."

Period.

But like any grandmother, she has a soft spot, and it wasn't hard to find. On a table stood what was obviously a child's drawing of an elephant in full regalia, which Ashcroft proudly identified as "a birthday present from my younger granddaughter, Emily, who is 9.

"She hasn't seen the film," noted Ashcroft. "I'd written to her about elephants and sent her photographs. It is quite good, isn't it?"

There were other elephants here and there -- a fine old drawing and two small sculptures, gifts from fellow workers in India. "That's the elephant we rode in 'Passage' -- her name was 'Leila' -- and she was lent us by the maharajah of Mysore and painted by the film crew. She had come with a friend because elephants are miserable when they're on their own. So that's why there are two elephants.

"I've become rather obsessed by elephants," she says. "I think they're wonderful animals.

"And my elder granddaughter painted that picture for my birthday," she says, pointing to a seascape on the mantelpiece. "My daughter's children. They live in France, and my French family come here always for Christmas, so they can give me their pictures."

Ashcroft's two other grandchildren -- a boy and a girl -- live in Canada with her son Nicholas Hutchinson. She may go to the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, but if she does it would be as an excuse to see her son, she says, who is directing a play in Montreal.

That play, "Successful Strategies," opened last Thursday at the Centaur Theater, and son Nicholas, though he will not talk about his mother, did allow that he plans to meet her in Los Angeles. He also said in a recent interview in a Montreal newspaper that he had left England at age 16 to make a life for himself, out of the long shadow cast by family fame. A resident of Canada for 16 years, he is currently on leave from the Caravan Stage Company -- which actually moves around on a cart with Clydesdale horses -- where he has been artistic director for nine years.

Snow had begun to fall in the walled garden outside the windows. "Snow. Yes," says the actress, adding a sprinkling of verbal magic to the scene.

But then the mother in her took over, as she worried how her guests would get to their next stop. "I'll drive you. I'll rearrange things a bit, and I'll be right back," she says.

She left the room and soon reappeared in the costume of a suburban matron -- boots, mackintosh and floppy hat. "You stay in here and keep warm," she says. Then she dug her little gray car out of the garage, dealt handily with a patch of ice, loaded passengers, and zoomed up the snowy hill to the heights of Hampstead.

What an exit.