UPSTAGING Nell Campbell is no small trick. Amateurs need not apply. Famous for so many things -- dancing on the tables at Nell's, her club that set the gold standard for New York night life in the 1980's; tap-dancing her way into cult film history in ''The Rocky Horror Picture Show'' -- but mostly famous for just being famous, this redhead with the Cleopatra bob and the killer legs makes her Broadway debut tomorrow in ''Nine,'' with Antonio Banderas. A supporting role, to be sure, but as she announced with dramatic flourish, ''I want you to know I make every moment on that stage count.''
Undoubtedly. But on a recent Monday, her one night off from treading the boards, or at least rehearsing to tread, she came to dinner at Sherwood Café, near her home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. It is a funkily ornate place done up like an antiques shop; you can eat, drink and buy most of the scenery. Its huge chandelier recalls the one at Nell's, whose décor, Ms. Campbell once said, ''looked like the drawing room of a dissolute English aristocrat, elegant and romantic in a faded way, not unlike myself.''
But with her club days over (she sold Nell's years ago) she runs with a slightly different crowd now. Her most frequent dinner companion prefers to eat at 6 p.m. and is often asleep by 7:30 p.m. An up-and-coming ingénue herself, with soft brown hair and big blue eyes, she has no regard for the unwritten rule that when Ms. Campbell enters a room, all eyes must be on her. Matilda Roche, age 4, has seen her mother's act, mastered it, and developed one of her own. So when her mother agreed to talk about her transformation from club diva to borough mom (who just happens to be acting in her first Broadway musical), a bit of negotiation lay in store.
''Spot the showgirl, which do you think?'' Ms. Campbell chirped, when the two arrived. Matilda wore what her mother called her fairy outfit, a shocking pink dress with a full net skirt dotted with balls of pink marabou. Ms. Campbell brushed her daughter's hair, wrapping the half-ponytail with an elastic dotted with its own ball of marabou.
''Darling, it's all about coordination,'' she said as Matilda struggled against the brush. ''A fairy who's badly coordinated, I don't believe can fly.'' Matilda looked up. ''I can't fly,'' she said flatly. Ms. Campbell laughed. ''We're working on that,'' she said.
Ah, Matilda. What was going through her mind? Too much attention? Too much distraction? After all, a girl's got a right to sit with her own mother and have a private dinner as she usually does here, without some lady taking notes and some man hovering with a camera. Not to mention that she had just received this amazing care package from her aunt in Australia, with a beautiful blond Barbie doll and a Barbie and Ken cellphone that came in its own bright pink backpack, but no one was paying any attention to that.
''Dial Ken and see if he'd like to join us for a drink,'' Ms. Campbell suggested in her distinctive voice, a clipped combination of Australian and English accents, as she sat down to be photographed. The camera snapped. Matilda hid her face. ''Darling, don't be like that, just be normal,'' Ms. Campbell said. Matilda threw down her backpack. ''Matilda, be sweet, '' her mother implored. ''She's n-e-r-v-o-u-s,'' she added. Another snap. Matilda did not like that, and she most definitely did not like being spelled about. Her hands went back up.
''Maybe we'll just keep you out of this, darling,'' Ms. Campbell said lightly, standing. ''Some of us are born to be photographed, and some are not.'' She headed to the front of the restaurant. Matilda considered her backpack. Upon further investigation, two important factors emerged: for some reason, Matilda was convinced that the photographer did not like her dress, and more important, she was hungry.
Once Ms. Campbell was notified of these bulletins, she immediately ordered Matilda's dinner: thinly sliced salami with olives and cornichons to start, then roast chicken with mashed potatoes and string beans. The photographer, crushed to discover that he might have insulted the pretty young lady, spoke ardently of her dress, and she oh-so-reluctantly came to the front of the restaurant and agreed to try again.
The salami appeared in a flash and Matilda folded each piece around a pickle or an olive like a pro. She drank her Shirley Temple through a straw, intermittently blowing bubbles into it. When the chicken arrived, Ms. Campbell cut it, and Matilda finally laid Barbie on the table to rest.
''Since she was old enough to eat, I have fed Matilda exactly what Eamon and I ate,'' Ms. Campbell said, referring to Matilda's father, Eamon Roche, from whom she is amicably separated. The two live half a block from each other, which makes Matilda's life easier. ''She's always been a really good eater,'' Ms. Campbell went on, brushing Barbie's hair away from the plate. ''Japanese, Indian and Thai curries, Vietnamese, Italian. Recently, she stopped eating fish and mushrooms, but I think it's the smell.''
As she spoke, she ate string beans off Matilda's plate with her fingers. ''I adore cooking, food is of vital importance to me,'' she said. But like anyone about to make her Broadway debut, she was finding her costumes even more vitally important. So talking about eating was the next best thing. ''For breakfast Matilda either has muesli with yogurt, bananas and fresh-squeezed orange juice in it, or we make smoothies with fresh fruit and yogurt,'' she said.
Matilda looked interested. ''Sometimes we have toast and hot chocolate,'' she added. Ms. Campbell smiled. ''Yes, but it's chocolate from Jacques Torres, that very bitter chocolate which I shave with a vegetable peeler, then add a little sugar. I'm a chocoholic but a shocking snob. It has to be the darkest Belgian.''
And what about lunch? ''I make her lunch every day for school,'' Ms. Campbell said.
What does she make?
''Salads!'' Matilda shouted. ''And they're good, really lovely.'' Like most people, Matilda was much better company having eaten something.
What's in the salads?
Matilda tried to remember. ''Olives,'' her mother prompted. ''And roasted peppers. I love roasting peppers.''
Matilda covered Ms. Campbell's mouth with her hand. ''I'll tell the rest,'' she said, listing lettuce; tomatoes, which she pronounced to-MAH-toes; capers; and feta.
''She's such a good eater, she also loves anchovies,'' Ms. Campbell said. ''I didn't eat them until I was 25.''
Matilda smiled beatifically at her mother. ''Am I being good?'' she asked. ''You're being very good, darling,'' Ms. Campbell assured her. She knows all about fielding the press at a young age; her father, Ross Campbell, a writer for The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, turned out a weekly column on family life that featured the adventures of his son and three daughters, who became instant local celebrities.
Did Ms. Campbell ever feel it was an invasion of privacy? ''Not at all,'' she said, laughing. ''I was thrilled to get a mention.''
When her father was transferred to London, the family went with him; Ms. Campbell was 18. She earned her living singing and dancing on street corners from Hyde Park to Paris to the South of France. During a stint as a singing and dancing waitress at a Knightsbridge restaurant, the director of the stage version of ''Rocky Horror'' spotted her tap-dancing and cast her. It was on that show that she befriended the spotlight operator, Keith McNally, who later moved to New York and opened Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg. Ms. Campbell worked briefly at both places as a maître d'hôtel before opening Nell's in 1986. A few years back, she was a co-owner of E&O, an Asian restaurant in the East Village, and Kiosk, an American restaurant on the Upper East Side, both of which she and her partners sold.
''I can't see doing that again,'' she said, eating chicken off Matilda's plate. ''The service industry is a 24-hour job.''
Matilda was unamused. ''Why are you snacking on my food?'' she asked.
Ms. Campbell waved her hand for a waitress. ''Because I'm a starving woman,'' she said. ''I'm going to have the chicken and couscous, what the hell?''
Most nights, Ms. Campbell said she cooks dinner for herself and Matilda. What does Matilda really like?
''Hamburger!'' she exclaimed. Ms. Campbell smiled. ''Yes,'' she said, ''I make a mean hamburger in a very hot pan with salt, oregano and dried mustard, medium rare. I'm a bit of a meat snob, too. I just think organic tastes better.''
At her butcher she also buys meat for Mr. Roche's dog, Ozzie, and cooks him a batch each week. ''I get a few big bones, chicken legs and thighs, hamburger meat, roast it all at high heat, avoid the temptation to add herbs, and when Eamon feeds him, he puts some into the dog's healthy food every day so it's more delicious,'' she said.
Her own hope of eating seemed to be dwindling. Even though it was only 7:15, the place was packed and the waitress was AWOL. If she ditched the dinner and went home, what would she make? ''Well, the other night after the show I was starving, and I sautéed baby potatoes with rosemary,'' she said. ''I adore potatoes.'' So, no low-carb diet for her? She looked distressed. ''Nooo,'' she said. ''I'm not very good at that sort of thing, organized foods.''
Matilda, who had eaten like a champion and never even asked for dessert, had crossed over from post-dinner grace to pre-bedtime crankiness. Whatever Ken had said on the phone hadn't pleased her; she hurled it to the floor. ''Darling, be gentle,'' Ms. Campbell said, getting up to find the check and take her dinner to go.
When she came back -- the food wasn't quite ready -- she sat on the banquette and gathered Matilda and her phone beside her. The light from the street shone on her face, which looked the tiniest bit drawn. At moments like these, does she miss the free-wheeling glamour of her former life?
''Darling, my life is glamorous whether at home or the theater,'' she said gamely. ''I never liked the club hours. It wasn't my natural choice to miss daytime. Now, my favorite thing is having people to dinner or having dinner at other people's houses. I go to the opera or ballet, and I love going to the theater. One's priorities change. Tilda entertains me. We read a lot together.''She smiled down at Matilda, who had apparently forgiven Ken, and, nestled in the crook of her mother's arm, was telling him about dinner. Ms. Campbell gave her a squeeze. ''You make your own glamour,'' she said.