When Kristin Scott Thomas got a script in the mail from director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, The Player), she agreed to do the role before even opening the envelope. Moments later, however, the Oscar-nominated star of The English Patient says she sighed with disappointment.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, why can't I be one of the scullery maids?'" admits the elegant British thesp — who instead plays a slain aristocrat's widow in Altman's 1930s whodunit, Gosford Park (opening Dec. 26). "I always get cast as this standoffish, distant rich person. Very glamorous, very aristocratic and the rest of it. I should take it well, I suppose, but sometimes it's a little frustrating."

Moviegoers can currently see Thomas playing another well-to-do woman alongside Kevin Kline in Life as a House, though she's quick to point out that her real life in Paris with her husband and three kids is far less posh. "My life is a lot simpler," she explains. "People imagine me swishing around and nipping from one limo to the other, lunching in gorgeous restaurants."

Even in the sophisticated City of Lights — where she's lived since age 19 — Thomas isn't immune to the embarrassing fan encounters her ultra-glam image often provokes. "One day," she blushes, "I was buying underwear in a department store. You can't get more private, can you? And one of the sales assistants followed me around asking for an autograph. I felt so vulnerable. I've got four pairs of panties in one hand and a bra in the other, and somebody's asking me for an autograph. In the end, I found myself cowering behind the night dresses!"