Carrie-Anne Moss hasn't taken too well to being propelled into the maelstrom of popular culture. In fact, she doesn't really believe it has happened. OK, so she played Trinity, the latex-clad warrior princess in the runaway cult hit The Matrix. That much she is sure of. But the attendant brouhaha? The magazine pictures? The interviews? The websites idolising her ice-cool fembot chic? The multi-media salivating over the forthcoming shoots for Matrix II and Matrix III? She's not at all certain that they exist, much less that they have anything to do with her. It's not that fame is an embarrassment or a burden, requiring a healthy dose of denial to become bearable.
Her concern is altogether more metaphysical, something to do with the weirdness of being recognised by strangers when she has a certain difficulty recognising herself. To illustrate her point, she tells a story. A little while ago, she ran into a 10-year-old with her father on the street. The father immediately pointed in her direction and said "Hey, that's the actress who played Trinity!" But the 10-year-old gave her a long, hard look and begged to differ. "Her?" she said dismissively. "No way!" Curiously, Carrie-Anne was inclined to agree with the kid. Call it her Matrix complex, her apparent belief in the premise underlying the sci-fi fantasy that brought her to prominence. She really wonders sometimes if what we take to be sensory perception of the "real" world isn't just a computer-generated artifice intended to lull us into a falsely comforting sense of ourselves. "Look at anything on television," she says, growing animated over a cup of coffee in a West Hollywood bar. "Look at politics. I mean, we see images of Bill Clinton being the president. We are told he is the president. But has anyone actually seen him, the flesh and blood person? Have you ever seen him? Maybe he's just a computer construct.
Okay, I admit, the chances are he isn't, but does that make a difference? He might as well be a computer image, as far as our perception of him goes." From the mouth of another actress, this line of thinking might come across as incurably trite, a cunning but hollow piece of scripting from the very publicity machine Moss professes not to believe in. What better tag, after all, could the producers of The Matrix and its sequels dream up than an actress who actually believes in the storyline of a corrupt world replaced by intentionally deceptive computer imagery? And yet there is something disarmingly sincere about Moss's existential angst. To listen to her talking – distractedly, animatedly, flitting almost unthinkingly from one subject to another – it is clear that she has had a problem with perception and the nature of the world around her for a long time. The Matrix (the making of which she describes as "a spiritual experience, an epiphany of the soul") merely offered a fictional framework crystallising her preoccupations.
She is not, ultimately, all that different from generations of actors who have had difficulty wrestling with the question of identity. In other words, if someone sees Carrie-Anne Moss on the streets of Los Angeles and doubts that it can possibly be her, she sympathises. She frequently feels that way herself. There is actually something rather refreshing, rather than alarming, about this lack of rootedness. Moss comes across several degrees warmer than her screen persona, her pale olive skin, dark hair and striking green eyes giving her something of a Mediterranean air. She talks enthusiastically about her animals (10 of them at the last count, including five new puppies), her husband (fellow Canadian Steven Roy) and expresses almost girlish excitement at meeting personal idols like Juliette Binoche, her co-star in the forthcoming Miramax drama Chocolat. When it comes to acting and the star-making machinery of Hollywood, however, she is nonchalant almost to the point of indifference. "I'm so damn lucky to make a living acting", she acknowledges, "but it's not that I love it, not all the time. If I couldn't act I wouldn't die.
I'm much more interested in the human aspect of life than the pretend." Her strongest memories of shooting Chocolat in rural France were her conversations with Judi Dench, who plays her mother ("just talking about life with someone who is amazing"), and an unlikely friendship she struck up with a cow. As for Memento, this week's gimmicky murder mystery from Christopher Nolan whose conceits include a backwards-in-time narrative structure and a protagonist with no short-term memory, she found herself more interested in the lead character, played by Guy Pearce, than in her own, a cocktail waitress whose presence in the film alternates between reassurance and threat. None the less, the project confronted her – inevitably, forcefully – with her old preoccupation about perception. Not only is Memento a film where nothing is what it seems; it's a film in which the very narrative itself is unreliable, in which the final twist may just be another illusion.
To prepare for the part, Moss chopped up the screenplay and reassembled it in chronological order. She says she made up her mind who she thought her character was, but readily admits there is no reason why the audience should accept "her" version of Natalie or anyone else's. "It's all a question of perception," she says, only realising as the words come out how this relates to what she was saying earlier. "Wow, I think about this a lot, don't I?" And on this note, we part ways. Moss has a flurry of films coming out in the next few months – Memento, Chocolat and another sci-fi adventure, Red Planet. But then there will be a long silence. Between now and March, when Matrix II begins shooting, she will concentrate on getting her body in shape for the ordeals of wire work and spinning cartwheels off walls. Long hiatuses like that don't bother her: in fact, she just took four months off to escape the film world madness and "be in my life". So, aside from watching her diet and pushing weights, she doesn't have a care in the world. She may not believe it is happening to her, but it's nice work, and she's got it.