"The one part that I really relate to is Beatrice - who is tough and a feminist herself but is also a total woman," she says. Is it fun to play the person who everyone rolls their eyes at behind their back? That's the way I see it, but sometimes I'll see it one way and it'll come off as ballsy and tough because I'm playing it." As she edges towards 40 ("I can't believe I just turned 39. I still wear sneakers," she says), Johnston seems ready to soften up.

Yeah it is, but it's not as fun as playing someone whose malevolence is a little trickier. Being just a bitch is not that fun to me." Her next film, Music and Lyrics By, is a rom-com in which she stars as Drew Barrymore's sister and a crazed fan of a washed-up Eighties rock star played by Hugh Grant. While she flatly refuses to talk about a partner, she hints at a desire to settle down and have a family.

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She moved back to New York on 10 September 2001; the events of the following day cemented her determination to stay and she has thrown herself into the city's theatre scene ever since.

Her all-time favourite role came with 2004's Shakespeare in the Park, playing Beatrice to Jimmy Smits' Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Throughout the early 1990s, she was a "theatre company whore", also appearing in the Lincoln Center's The Lights, for which she gained a Drama Desk nomination, and with The Naked Angels, where she first met Sarah Jessica Parker.

Fourteen years on, the friendship led to Johnston's memorable cameo in the final series of SATC as Lexi Featherston, the faded, coked-up It-Girl, who is condemned to death-by-Manolo.

We meet as Johnston prepares to make her West End debut in John Kolvenbach's Love Song.

The playwright has reunited with the director John Crowley in attracting a constellation of big names - Cillian Murphy, Michael Mc Kean, Neve Campbell and Johnston.It was presumably her gift for the "physical stuff", along with her height and husky voice, which caught the eye of the 3rd Rock producers back in 1996.By the time it came to an end in 2001, six series and (for Johnston) two Emmys later, she was "dying to stop".But choosing this life instead of that life is something I'm proud of." Ever the canny operator, Johnston kept her options open throughout her stint on television, reasoning, "I'll never have that fame again and I'd never had it beforehand." In the annual four-month break from filming, she raced back to New York to appear on stage.She walked straight from 3rd Rock on to Broadway to star in a revival of the 1936 comedy of manners The Women alongside SATC's Cynthia Nixon, Golden Girl Rue Mc Clanahan and Jennifer Tilly."And then there's her brother who has chosen to isolate himself." Johnston's challenge is to take Joan from a domineering loudmouth to a gentler human being.