Most actors nowadays only give interviews if they have a new project to sell. But Monica Bellucci is not your average actor. Like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Silvana Mangano before her, she has Italian film-star glamour - voluptuous, dark haired with a sensuous beauty. Unlike the post-war icons, however, Bellucci has been in regular work beyond her 40s. At 51, she made headlines as the "oldest Bond girl ever" for her role as Lucia Sciarra, widow of a notorious assassin, in Spectre.
Bond meets Lucia at her husband's funeral, where she is dressed in towering heels and a black veil. Their romance is brief but, after all of 007's trademark conquests of young things in bachelor pads, Lucia's age made it a cause for celebration. (Except in India, where a kiss between Daniel Craig and Bellucci was deemed too long by the national censor and duly chopped by half).
We meet in Bellucci's extremely large and beautiful house in Paris's 14th arrondissement, where she lives with her two daughters, Deva, 13, and Léonie, seven. A housekeeper invites me into a magnificent sitting room with a high ceiling, large windows and a sumptuous sofa. I hear the sound of other staff in the kitchen.
"Of course I have people to help me," Bellucci says as she whirls in, chatting 19 to the dozen.
She reminds me that she is now a single mother, and has been since the breakup of her 14-year marriage to Vincent Cassel in 2013. She says she's had to become "more structured, more grounded" since their divorce. "I was just emotion before. This is a new part of me I am discovering now in my 50s."
At 52, Bellucci has a compelling speaking voice, is even more beautiful in the flesh than on film, and appears to be wearing an off-the-shoulder evening top at 10.30 in the morning (rather stylishly, of course). Her fake eyelashes, it transpires, are not for my benefit - she was shooting a video yesterday to promote a song she's made with a leading French singer.
She explains that she gets approached for work all the time, especially by photographers, and normally says no. But when Francesco Carrozzini called her for this shoot, it was different. "I knew his mother," Bellucci says, referring to the Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, who died last year. They first met in Bellucci's previous life as a model.
Success as a model came before success as an actress, and Bellucci still feels very much at home being photographed. The struggle, she admits, was being taken seriously at the start of her acting career. That kicked off in 1990 when she was cast in the Italianl anguage telemovie Vita coi Figli (it translates as "life with the kids") by the Italian director Dino Risi after he saw her picture in a magazine.
Perhaps this is why she has pursued "difficult" roles, such as that of a rape victim in the controversial thriller Irreversible, Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and the Mirror Queen in Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm.
"When you are beautiful and you do something that is very strong, people say you are courageous, but they don't say you are good," she says. "Now I am older, they say, 'You are good.' "
Bellucci is upbeat about ageing. But then, she hasn't really aged. She hasn't lost her looks (she credits acupuncture and facial massages) or her figure - "I do Pilates and swim, but I don't wake up at six and go to the gym. Forget it!" She also comes fully armed with a list of inspirational maxims: "It is not a matter of age, it is a matter of energy"; "The body gets older but the soul younger"; "You can be old at just 20" and so forth.
"Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano, could exist as icons after 40, but not as actresses. And I think today it is completely different." She cites Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Charlotte Rampling as examples of this change. "Women look at themselves in a different way today and because of that we are watched in a different way."
Bellucci has certainly been busy post-Spectre. She's appeared in On the Milky Road, a magic-realism film set in the 1990s during the Bosnian War, and the Amazon comedy series Mozart in the Jungle, alongside Gael Garc??a Bernal. She has also branched out into American television with the Twin Peaks revival. ("It was amazing to work with David Lynch." )
"These are not stories I could do before," she says, delighted with the way her life is turning out. "I had no idea when I was 25 that at 50 I would still be working. It is a great discovery for me."
Bellucci grew up in a comfortable family in Città di Castello, on the Umbrian border with Tuscany. Her father, Pasquale, ran a haulage company and her mother, Brunella, was a housewife and amateur painter. Bellucci is an only child - her parents didn't want any more. "They had me when they were very young and although my mother was maternal, maybe she was too young," she says. "But she did what she could and she did well."
She adds that while she had lots of cousins, she remembers feeling very alone at the age of eight or nine. "I think I missed having a brother or a sister. That's why I have two kids, because even though sometimes they can fight, it is better to fight than be lonely."
Her personality - "So curious, so open, I want to know things" - meant that in her early teens she longed to experience more of the outside world. "A small town is something that can protect you, but at the same time it made me want to escape and look for other things."
What happened, of course, was modelling. "I did my first pictures when I was 13. A friend of the family was a photographer and he said, 'Can I have a picture of Monica?' Then, when I was 16, another friend of my father, who was into fashion, came and said, 'I'd like to do fashion shoots with Monica.'
"So I did a fashion show in Florence and then in Milan, and while I was still at school I was doing fashion shows three times a year. I became professional when I finished high school at 18."
Photographs of Bellucci as a teenager ("I looked like a woman at 13") show her with red lips, curled hair and a waistcoat that flops sideways to give a glimpse of her breast.
"Modelling came to me naturally, and I loved pictures," Bellucci says.
"I loved the world of image. I didn't do something I was forced into. When I was young, I had books by Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber - pictures were talking to me from an early age."
What did her parents think about her modelling? "Maybe because they were young they accepted it and understood." She says her mother in particular wanted her daughter to have a career. "Inside her was, 'Oh my God, no, not the same life as me.' "
After being signed by Elite Model Management, by her early 20s Bellucci found herself living in Paris, Milan and New York, where she partied with newfound friends. "It was like my parents let me be free in a way that was almost incredible, almost maybe too much, but it was great."
At 25, she married Claudio Carlos Basso, a photographer. The marriage lasted just 18 months. "I haven't seen him since," she says.
In 1992, two years after Dino Risi was so enchanted by an image of Bellucci that he cast her in his Italian TV film, Roman Coppola spotted her fiery sexuality in Italian magazine Zoom and begged his father, director Francis Ford Coppola, to offer her a part in Bram Stoker's Dracula. She played one of Dracula's brides.
"It was just a moment, but I had to go to LA," she says. "I think my dream always was to be an actress, but I was coming from a place where cinema was so far away from me."
Roman Coppola would not actually meet Bellucci until some 25 years later, at the Golden Globe Awards, where Mozart in the Jungle, which he co-created, won an award. "He said, 'Hey! You have to give me something because I am the one who discovered you.' "
But at 28 she was just another wannabe looking to make the shift from catwalk to stage. She took acting classes to iron out her modelling "tics". "The way you walk, the way you talk, you lose that kind of natural way you need for cinema," she explains. "There is an attitude in modelling."
Her breakthrough came in 1996 with The Apartment, a moody French film about a romantic young executive who leaves corporate life behind to search for his first love, played by Bellucci. It gave her the recognition she longed for - she was nominated for a C??sar Award for Most Promising Actress and met her husband-to-be, Cassel, the charismatic French actor best known for his roles in Ocean's Twelve and Black Swan.
The couple went on to make eight more films together, and although they are now divorced and living on different continents - he is in Brazil - she says their relationship is amiable. "When you have kids it's important to have a relationship if it's possible." She says Cassel is a good father but the girls live with her because he travels a lot for work.Life nowadays is bound up with her children.
"The fact I had my kids late" - in her 40s - "gives me the freedom to make one film a year and then I can spend the rest of my time with them," Bellucci says. She prepares their breakfast, walks her younger daughter to school, and they usually eat dinner as a family. "If I need to go out, I go out, but kids like it when their mother is there."
Despite being in a relationship (she smiles, shakes her head and refuses to elaborate) she also has houses in Rome and Lisbon and regards herself as truly independent. "I am completely in charge of my life, 100 per cent."
The story Monica Bellucci's role in Hollywood's age revolution first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.