Arts: Doesn't do much, does he?

He's been compared to a bag of spanners. Yet he's done everything, from Titus Andronicus to The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And still we keep looking. And looking. The fact is, Pete Postlethwaite is a terrific actor who gives great face
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Pete Postlethwaite is candid about the way he looks. "It's all in the cheekbones, this career of mine," he says. "They are quite whopping, aren't they? Who was it that said: `He looks like he's got a clavicle stuck in his mouth.'?" Other critics have scarcely been more flattering. One wrote of "those cheekbones bursting out of his head like swollen knuckles". Another commented that he had "a face like a bag of spanners".

Certainly his face has been his fortune. In a film world awash with actors apparently cloned from Ken and Barbie, Postlethwaite's lived-in looks stand out. "Hollywood is looking for different types," says Sita Williams, the producer of Lost for Words, his latest vehicle, a moving portrayal of a son caring for his mother (Thora Hird) after she has a stroke. "Pete is no different from Jack Nicholson. He's no great beauty, but he has great charisma. It's not about classic good looks, but presence."

Joy Spink is line producer on Among Giants, the new film scripted by the writer of The Full Monty, Simon Beaufoy. She sums up the film, touted as "a Boys from the Blackstuff for the Nineties," with a tongue-twister: "Pete Postlethwaite paints pylons." Spink adds: "He's not the sort of person I'd normally find attractive, but on screen it doesn't matter who he's with, you just can't stop looking at him."

But is all this swooning really called for? Aren't we Brits, riddled with inferiority complexes, always in danger of going over the top about anyone who makes it in Hollywood? Well, I reckon Postlethwaite just about lives up to the hype. He does possess an uncanny, joli-laid screen magnetism. Remember his riveting performance as the ailing band-leader in Brassed Off?

He also has the knack of making the most apparently irredeemable baddies human. He even managed to find traces of humanity in the brutal father in Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, and in the sinister henchman Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects. The latter performance prompted The New York Times to observe: "Here's a guy with a false tan, a false accent, and a false name - and we still believe in him."

"As an actor, my greatest strength is weakness," Postlethwaite reckons. "I can play vulnerable. In Titus Andronicus, I played this complete and utter bastard who'd say: `Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves and stood them upright at their neighbours' doors, carving their names into their skins.' But then Shakespeare gives him a single scene with his baby, where he says to the child: `I'll feed you on roots and goats' milk and make you a soldier of men.' For that one flash, a window opens and everyone thinks: `Actually, he's not all that bad.' When you've got a face like mine - which the principal of the Bristol Old Vic Drama School once said was like a stone archway - and you show some kind of compassion and empathy in it, then you can't go wrong. That's startling to audiences because it's not what they expect."

Asked to elaborate, Postlethwaite goes all transcendental. "That's like asking a centipede which leg it sets off with. If you're listening, you listen. If you're speaking, you speak. It's all terribly Zen. I've always really believed in that saying: `When you understand... things are just as they are. When you don't understand... things are just as they are.'"

Lost for Words is an apt title for a Postlethwaite film as a large part of his appeal stems from his ability to say things without speaking. In the affecting final scene, he sits quietly holding his mother's spectacles and ruminating on her life, as a bittersweet smile plays across his lips.

"He appears to be doing very little on screen," says Williams. "His face is very expressive and he has wonderful eyes (green!). He is so successful on film as he can communicate through a look, or the smallest turn of the head." Think of the menace he conveys with one piercing gaze in The Usual Suspects.

In the flesh, that stillness might be interpreted as sternness. He does have a reputation for being demanding. "He's a craftsman, and like all craftsmen he wants to get things absolutely right," Williams says by way of explanation. "If he makes demands, it's because he wants to use his craft to its absolute limit."

In the early 1990s, Postlethwaite was respected in the business but hardly setting the box-office alight. Bit parts in The Bill and Casualty do not a Hollywood big shot make. All that changed in 1993. The director Jim Sheridan was struggling desperately to find the right actor to play Daniel Day-Lewis's father in In the Name of the Father, when Day-Lewis said: "I know who my dad is." He put forward the little known Postlethwaite, an old mate from the Bristol Old Vic. An Oscar nomination swiftly followed, and Steven Spielberg was writing to express his admiration and offer meaty parts.

Postlethwaite has since become one of the busiest actors - in a three- year period only Harvey Keitel had played in more movies. But he concedes: "I've made mistakes. I don't think I could quite... 100 per cent endorse every film I've ever done."

Playing opposite a fire-breathing creature in Dragonheart may not have been one of his smartest career moves, and even the actor expresses doubts about The Lost World: Jurassic Park: "It was rather a good script, but that's not what we filmed. You're in a twilight zone when you go into that sort of blockbuster."

He's adamant Hollywood hasn't turned his head. Despite appearing in such big-budget movies as Amistad and Alien 3, he shuns big-city life - "I don't like London" - and still leads a quiet existence in rural Shropshire with his partner and two young children. When his agent tried to persuade him to change his hard-to-pronounce surname to something more media-friendly, he dropped the agent, not the name.

Postlethwaite will again be under a fierce spotlight with the release next year of Among Giants, in which he performs his debut "full monty" on screen. "I get to play my first romantic lead, and it involves a love scene [with Rachel Griffiths]. The scene was absolutely right, so I did it. Not bad really at 52. There are bonuses in this job. All the same, I did have all the normal worries because I don't think I'm one of those glamorous guys like Rock Hudson."

A smooth, dull Rock or a fascinating, craggy stone archway? I know which one I'd rather look at.

"Lost for Words" is on ITV on Sunday, 3 January. "Among Giants" will be released next year.