SHOW PEOPLE / Giving as good as she gets: Gina Bellman

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WHEN Gina Bellman was 17, she played Richard Gere's daughter in the ill-fated King David ('Every article calls it the ill- fated King David').

Filming was to be in Italy, and Bellman, too young to work abroad on her own, had to take an adult chaperone. She picked a kindred spirit who was just 21. When they reached Italy, Bellman said: 'Right, see you in six weeks, then,' and they went their separate ways.

This shows not only that Bellman is an amusing story-teller, but also that she is no relation to the exploited innocents that are something of a speciality of hers, from Blackeyes to Janet in The Rocky Horror Show, and now Ophelia. She is one of life's planners. 'I feel very secure in knowing that even if a piece isn't well received I have received something from it,' she says. So when she wanted to learn about rhyme and metre, how better than to audition for a Hamlet directed by the expert, Peter Hall? If this sounds calculating, bear in mind that Bellman gives as much to Hamlet as she gets from it.

Bellman is one of the best things in a touring production full of best things. She portrays someone propelled violently 'from complete innocence to complete lunacy': 'One thing I came to the production with was the conviction that there was no way I was going to play Ophelia as a sentimental girl floating around in white with a bunch of flowers, singing pretty songs. That's how it's often done, and it's an insult to Shakespeare's insight into how the mind works. Ophelia's madness is ugly and grotesque and painful. It's a picture of someone in Hell. It's an injustice to people who are mentally ill to make it pretty and sentimental.'

Once you appreciate the thought that has gone into her interpretation, you see why Dennis Potter said of his protegee: 'As soon as she came on the set I knew I had been blessed.' Not that it was only Bellman's brains that earned her the title role in Blackeyes. She describes her looks best by quoting what every casting director she met after Blackeyes would say: 'Hey, you're actually quite small-boned and feminine and intelligent.'

She talks with an easy self-knowledge, disproving Hamlet's view of the discourse between honesty and beauty. Interviewing her means listening to her say, 'another point is . . .' and 'people have said to me . . .' and crossing out questions as she comes to them of her own accord. She will mention in passing those facts which other actors try to avoid. 'I'm not a young Ophelia, I'm 28.' Scratch that question. 'I'm going to visit my boyfriend. He doesn't live in Britain, he lives in New York.' Scratch that one, too. Damn.

Even her decision to become an actress had a specific motive: to escape from the rows of semi-detached houses in the north London suburb that was her home for the second half of her childhood. She came from Auckland, New Zealand, where her English parents had moved shortly after their marriage.

In the wide-open spaces she grew up with her two brothers as a tree-climbing tomboy. (Her new brothers, the 18 men in the cast of Hamlet, have nicknamed her Jim.) The family returned to Britain when she was 11. After being 'beaten up a couple of times' because of her antipodean accent, she took elocution lessons to acquire the polite home-counties tones she has today.

Her elocution teacher also taught drama, and awakened her interest in acting. She went straight from A-level college to the set of King David.

At 22 she was in Blackeyes. On the downside, she was hounded by the tabloids, which were outraged that someone had the nerve to take semi-nudity off their pages and into serious drama. She fled on holiday to the Mull of Kintyre; reporters followed. On the upside, Blackeyes raised her profile so much that she could afford to stick to quality projects: 'I thought, great, I don't ever have to do a soap opera. Dennis took that decision for me and I'll always be grateful to him.'

In a way, the prurience and prying helped too: 'I've had my taste of intense fame, and I've got it out of my system. Now I'm free to choose parts which fulfil me in different ways.' This has meant some off-beat choices: the surprise British hit Leon the Pig Farmer, The Rocky Horror Show in the West End, and a Slovak film, Everything I Like.

After Hamlet she plans a trip to New Zealand, then a move to France: 'French cinema allows women to look . . . a certain way, and be talented at the same time.'

'Hamlet': Gielgud Theatre (formerly the Globe), 071-494 5065, from 2 Nov.

(Photograph omitted)