For nearly 30 years, she played the acting game her way-- forsaking the Hollywood hills for the uncommon ground of Virginia. Now, the star of the poignant drama In the Bedroom looks back on her road less traveled.

What’s it like being fawned over by James Lipton, host of Bravo’s career-tribute show Inside the Actors Studio? Flattering, to be sure. But for Sissy Spacek, also dang uncomfortable.

”Oh, my gyaaash, I just felt so silly,” she says from behind dainty sunglasses on a bright October day in Manhattan, the morning after taping her turn in the Lipton limelight. (The program is scheduled to air early next year.) ”I’ve been a fan of the show,” she explains, her native Texas twang turning ”fan” into a two-syllable exclamation. ”You know, you imagine yourself being very profound. And then you’re telling stupid jokes about your childhood… I woke up in the night thinking, What did I say? Did I really tap-dance?”

She did, resurrecting the only step she could remember learning as a kid. Coming out of a sort of interview-anxiety trance, Spacek removes her shades and begins composing herself over tea at a posh Upper East Side restaurant. She nibbles on poppy-seed cake that looks almost as freckled as her complexion once did. Only a faint dusting of dots shows now, and Spacek seems startlingly fresh-faced for someone who will celebrate her 52nd birthday on Christmas Day.

Perking up with caffeine, Spacek worries more about how she came off on the show, confiding that she was much more comfortable once she got ”down on the floor” for a question-and-answer session with students from the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, where Spacek dabbled in the early ’70s. ”They already have more training than I do,” she marvels.

It’s startling to hear Spacek declare that neophytes might have one up on her. After all, she racked up five Best Actress Oscar nominations between 1977 and 1987, playing a fury-driven teen in Carrie (1976), singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), a widowed leftist in Missing (1982), a sturdy farm wife in The River (1984), and a nutty husband shooter in Crimes of the Heart. She didn’t snag comparably high-profile roles in the ’90s, in part because she bolted Hollywood’s cliquey canyons for 160 acres of Virginia farmland to raise two daughters, Schuyler, 18 (a budding actress), and Madison, 13, with her husband, production designer and sometime director Jack Fisk, 55. Still, she’s worked steadily in socially conscious dramas such as 1990’s The Long Walk Home (which tackled the racial tensions behind the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott) and the 1996 HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk (a plea for abortion rights).

Now, for the first time in 15 years, Oscar radar screens are again picking up Spacek on the strength of In the Bedroom, a tale of family tragedy that debuted at Sundance in January and opens in theaters Thanksgiving weekend. Clipping her natural sense of direct engagement to play frosty matriarch Ruth Fowler, Spacek keeps a cauldron of resentments — against her husband (The Full Monty’s Tom Wilkinson) and against her son (Nick Stahl), who’s involved with a single mother (Marisa Tomei) — on a mesmerizing low simmer. Until things shockingly boil over.