By Alec Foege
April 07, 1997 12:00 PM

CHATTING BY A FIRE IN THE COZY study of her 200-year-old Georgian cottage on a chilly afternoon in Hampton, England, surrounded by walls lined with family photos, Hayley Mills, 50, looks as poised as any British baroness.

But don’t be fooled. Though lines etch her face, when she speaks her blue eyes sparkle, and she giggles with a child’s energy. The Hayley Mills who charmed America as the bubbly teenage star of such 1960s Disney classics as The Parent Trap and Pollyanna is still recognizable in the mature actress who is returning to the U.S. as the distinguished Mrs. Anna opposite Vee Talmadge in a one-year national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. But accepting the innocent girl within herself—the one who was shocked to win a special Oscar for 1960’s Pollyanna at age 14—was no easy task and required a long struggle through periods of self-doubt. As late as 1991, when she was offered an Australian tour of The King and I, “I hesitated for about six months,” she admits. “I didn’t know if I could do it.” But director Christopher Renshaw did. “She is very honest and incredibly moving as Anna,” he says, “because she doesn’t act it. She becomes it.”

Positive feedback and the conviction that “you can’t live your life safely” have encouraged Mills to again forsake her English rose garden, her pear trees and her beloved Burmese cats for another swing through the limelight. Not without anxiety. “These things get harder when you get older,” she confides. “When you are younger, you are more impulsive and positive. Your whole life is one big discovery.”

There was much to discover on the 400-acre dairy farm in Sussex, England, where Hayley Catherine Rose Vivien Mills was raised, “reading comic books on the back of a milking cow.” As common as pigs and chickens in the yard were screen idols in the living room, routinely dropping by to visit her parents, Academy Award-winning actor Sir John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter), 89, and actress-writer Mary Hayley-Bell, 86, author of Whistle Down the Wind. Noel Coward was godfather to young Hayley’s sister Juliet, now a 55-year-old actress (their brother Jonathan, 47, is a screenwriter and producer). Other family friends included Rex Harrison, Katharine Hepburn and David Niven. But Hayley didn’t see herself as a future actress. “I wasn’t the type,” she says. Although she studied ballet at 10, she considered herself clumsy. She yearned instead to be a horse show jumper and to raise “a lot of children.”

Mills was 12 when director J. Lee Thompson, visiting her father one day, spotted her spoofing TV commercials in the garden. Thompson had already cast the elder Mills in Tiger Bay as a detective who tracks down a boy who has witnessed a murder. “He just suddenly got the idea that maybe it didn’t have to be a boy,” she recalls. “Maybe it could be me.” Thrilled to be working with her father, Mills “just sort of sneaked in there and started acting before I became self-conscious.”

Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian, saw Tiger Bay in London and was so taken with Hayley’s performance that she got Walt to fly over to interview the girl for his new movie, Pollyanna. They met in the Dorchester hotel, where Hayley gobbled candy and scampered after the family’s new Pekingese (a gift from Vivien Leigh) while Disney chatted with her parents.

Whisked off to Hollywood, mother and brother in tow, Mills had little time to adjust. Her performance in Pollyanna won her a miniature Academy Award (specially designed for her American introduction) and instantly rocketed her to fame. Then The Parent Trap (1961) showcased the actress as identical twins who had been separated at birth. The film was a hit, but Mills didn’t think of herself as a star—just a typical teenager whose first priority was worshipping Elvis Presley. Riding in a car she spotted Presley one day at a stoplight on Sunset Boulevard, lighting a cigarette in the next car. “He blew smoke in my direction,” she says, giggling. “I nearly broke my nose on the window.”

But shuttling between England and the U.S. was taking its toll. At 15, during a year at a finishing school in Switzerland, Mills indulged her sweet tooth and “got quite overweight.” Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the press had presented Mills as the perfect adorable adolescent. “I found the expectations difficult to deal with,” she says. “I was fearful of letting people down.” Mills recalls a party full of adults at London’s Savoy Hotel during which she locked herself in the bathroom. “I started making paper airplanes out of loo paper and sending them out the window,” she says. “Next stop, lunatic asylum!”

In The Moon-Spinners (1964), Mills wore pink pedal pushers and a pink shirt she imagined made her look like a “piglet.” At 5’4″ and about 105-110 lbs., Mills was hardly obese. But desperate to be thin, she developed an eating disorder at 18. “What you want in front of the cameras is cheekbones and eyes that look like golf balls,” she says. “It was a ridiculous thing. Constantly throwing up doesn’t do much for your self-esteem.”

When her Disney contract expired a year later, America’s sweetheart mistakenly assumed that making a grownup movie would help her forge a grownup identity. The Family Way, a 1966 adult-themed drama in which Mills had a brief nude scene, was not the answer. The actress’s self-image was so frayed that she believed the crew was humoring her and had not put film in the camera for the close-ups. “Now that is paranoia,” she says. More reassuring was the relationship Mills later developed with her director, Roy Boulting, 32 years her senior.

The age difference never bothered her, she says: “You are either old souls who connect and share the same interest…or you are not.” Her interests switched from film to the theater (“a revelation”), and in 1971 she married Boulting, with whom she had a son, Crispian (now 24 and leader of the hot British band Kula Shaker). Pregnancy, she says, finally helped her surmount her eating problems. “You suddenly have other people to consider that are more important than yourself,” she says. “It does change your life.”

Mills won’t talk about the eventual breakup of her marriage in 1977 or her relationship with actor Leigh Lawson, whom she met during a 1975 West End production. She calls the split in the early ’80s from Lawson, father of her younger son Jason, now 20 and a student at Bretton Hall College, “devastating.” To cope, she consulted a number of Eastern religions. Despite reports to the contrary, Mills says she is “not a part of Hare Krishna,” though she delved into Hinduism and her own Christianity for guidance. A self-described “seeker,” she has concluded that, for her, organized religion is irrelevant: “The important thing is to believe in God and to live your life according to spiritual truths.”

By the mid-1980s, Mills was finding truths back on the London stage. “The theater has given me the opportunity to plummet the emotional depths, to play character parts, to grow,” she says. She likes the “ongoing process” of theater, the night-after-night refinement of a part, and the opportunity to “access things within yourself, within your heart.”

Mills recently ended a longtime relationship with Marcus Maclaine, a 34-year-old rock musician who is also her brother-in-law (his brother, Maxwell Caulfield, is her sister’s husband). She is reluctant to talk about Maclaine but says the lack of a current love interest makes it easy to commit to a tour.

These days, Mills is happy to have as little baggage as possible. At one point, at the mention of her Oscar, she looks for it on a bookshelf. It isn’t there. “I have lost it!” she blurts. But that doesn’t seem to trouble her at all.