Dave Karger
September 06, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Alison Elliott knows what the press wants from her. ”What happened that was funny?” she says, aping a common inquiry she’s fielded while promoting her starring role as tormented ex-con Percy Talbot in The Spitfire Grill. She pauses, then says with mock viciousness, ”Absolutely nothing!”

It wasn’t just the film’s pensive plot that precluded any on-set levity. Spitfire‘s tense no-frills shoot often had Elliott, 26, calling for calm. ”There were a couple of scenes where [I said] ‘I know we should have gotten this shot 15 minutes ago. We didn’t. So let’s just all have one moment of quiet, and then maybe we’ll get it.”’ They got it. The film earned a standing ovation at Sundance, an experience she recalls vividly: ”At first the audience was really quiet. I thought, ‘They hate it. What am I doing up on screen? Nobody wants to be staring at your big fat mug!”’

She’ll get over it. The former model, who was raised in Tokyo (where her dad did consulting work) and San Francisco and now lives alone in a Hollywood bungalow, has wrapped Wings of the Dove, in which she plays an American heiress opposite Priest star Linus Roache and Helena Bonham Carter. Momentary insecurities aside, Elliott, who made a convincing femme fatale in 1995’s The Underneath and developed Percy’s pitch-perfect Appalachian accent without a dialect coach, seems quite aware of her abilities. After her Spitfire audition, says film backer Roger Courts, ”Alison caught me with a piece of Kleenex wiping the tears. She pointed her finger and said, ‘Gotcha.’ ”

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