Stuart Townsend's career is going from strength to strength with his latest film `Resurrection Man' hot on the heels of `Shooting Fish' but, as Carol Allen discovers, there is a darkness lurking beneath his happy, optimistic exterior

Stuart Townsend was seen last autumn as the gentle, nerdy techno- freak in the youth scam comedy Shooting Fish. For Resurrection Man he appears to have suffered a total personality transplant as the psychotic Victor Kelly, leader of a Belfast terrorist gang in the mid Seventies. He is frankly terrifying in the role; a cold-blooded, unpredictable sadist, who chills the blood from his first appearance. He is also totally charismatic and unnervingly sexy, dominating the screen with the evil beauty of a dark angel.

"I was so lucky to be able to do these two films pretty much back to back in such different roles", says Townsend. "Completely chalk and cheese. Shooting Fish was shot in the summer, it was very light, a comedy and everyone on it was young. But Resurrection Man was really right up my street, it's the kind of film I want to make. It was dark, it was winter, it was low budget, uncomfortable, intense but it was fantastic and very different." Townsend in real life is neither nerdy nor menacing, but a friendly and likeable young man, with a ready smile revealing perfect teeth, who talks in a gentle Dublin brogue. He is good looking, slimmer than he appears on film, with strong eyebrows, deep set eyes and an endearingly youthful enthusiasm for life. His conversation is peppered with words like "fantastic" and "amazing". Although he was determined to get the role of Victor from the moment he first read the script, he admits he had difficulty at first in finding a way into it.

"The character's never explained and the relationships are all very ambiguous. There's nothing normal about this guy, he has no fear, he lives in the moment. I tried so many angles because I felt there were so many layers to him. It was just like trying to fit a huge jigsaw puzzle together. I had all the pieces but none of them were fitting. Then on the first day of shooting, one of the other actors said to me: "There's a line at the beginning where your mum says; `Victor was in pain because of life.' Think about it" - and that clicked everything together. This character for me was about the pain in life.

"When you see him at the beginning, he's trying to fashion himself on Cagney and just be the gangster but from the moment when he grabs the scalpel and cuts this guy in a moment of anger and hears this pain, this scream, that's the beginning of psychosis for Victor. It's a completely new avenue, an avenue of evil and what I think he's trying to do is chart the pain of others in order to try and understand his own pain."

Resurrection Man is a compelling piece of work but deeply disturbing and depressing. Townsend discovered the character was beginning to have a strange effect on him while he was making the film.

"When I think back now, I just think of darkness. Days in the hotel room which I'd spend entirely on my own thinking about nothing else but darkness. I learned a lot on Resurrection Man about pain and beauty, light and darkness and evil. I started having completely different dreams. There was one about these ghosts. They were at the end of a dark avenue, screaming and running towards me. The usual Stuart would have just legged it, got as far away as possible, but suddenly I began to run towards these ghosts and I sliced them all up. I woke up thinking, `Oh my God, this guy, the Resurrection Man has taken over here'." I went to Italy straight afterwards just to be in a sunny environment rather than be in the darkness."

There appears to be nothing in Townsend's background to account for his fascination with the dark side of life. He was born 24 years ago in Dublin. His father is English, a professional golfer, his mother Irish and a former model. Although he now lives in London, he is still close to his parents and his younger brother and sister, whom he refers to affectionately as "my babies". As a small child, Townsend travelled with his parents to golfing tournaments around the world, which gave him a taste for globe trotting.

"I love travel, it's my main passion," he explains. "I did a trek in Nepal and I did five months in Central and North America. I've been to Italy and France five times. I'm completely in love with Paris. I went to the Buddhist Centre for a while in Devon, just kind of hanging out, and recently I did this amazing trek through the jungle in Indonesia, where we spent six days eating rice and hanging around with snakes. It was the furthest I've ever been away from civilisation and it was beautiful." Townsend's other passion is films and it was that which drew him into acting.

"I love films and I always wanted to be in them. They've been a big influence on me. When I was a teenager, I felt I would do just anything to be in a film."

The ones he remembers seeing with his father, the "kid movies" as he calls them, are things like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal and the 1980 African comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. In his teens, he first started feeling that fascination with darkness.

"The big film for me as a teenager was Angel Heart. It just switched everything on inside me and really made me want to be an actor. Mickey Rourke was the hot young star at the time and he was so cool. I wanted to be him.

"I was also blown away by Jacob's Ladder, Midnight Express, Apocalypse Now. They're all dealing with psychology and darkness and that's right up my street.

"I love life, I'm really optimistic, I've loads of energy and I love what I'm doing now but I do love the dark side, it's just in there."

Resurrection Man is Townsend's fourth film. After Shooting Fish he fitted in a supporting role in Under the Skin, also seen last autumn. His first film was Trojan Eddie, in which he played the young man who steals Richard Harris's young bride and money. He has also done some theatre. After drama school in Dublin he was in Borstal Boy at the Gaiety in Dublin and John Crowley's True Lines, which was also seen at the Bush Theatre in London. And though he would like to do more theatre, his first love is still films.

Townsend is currently in America, meeting film people in Los Angeles and at the Sundance Film Festival. He is, though, optimistic that these days an actor no longer has to go to Hollywood to make a career in films.

"Why do you need to go over there?" he queries. "There are so many great films being made here at the moment and they seem to have more substance to them."

`Resurrection Man' opens Friday 30 January