Troy Patterson
May 29, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s hard to decide which is more incredible: that Ian Holm wasn’t the first choice to play Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter, or that the subtle performance marks the 66-year-old Brit’s first leading film role.

In creating the character, Holm and director Atom Egoyan — who tapped him when Donald Sutherland backed out — departed from the slimier lawyer of Russell Banks’ novel. ”I saw Stephens,” says Egoyan, ”as being very compassionate and very insidious.” The star himself thinks of the role in Shakespearean terms: ”He’s an Iago, a manipulator. That’s one of the reasons I leapt at it.”

It’s only natural that Holm should invoke the Bard. He’s played everything from Romeo to Richard III. After a 14-year hiatus from the stage, he returned in 1993 and last year played Lear in London, a highly praised performance that was part of a remarkable recent string — including film turns as a back-slapping restaurateur in Big Night, an intergalactic monk in The Fifth Element, and a cop in Night Falls on Manhattan. ”It’s been an extraordinary two years,” Holm says. A survey of the thoroughly extraordinary Holm on video:

THE HOMECOMING Won a Tony for his role in Harold Pinter’s play and caught Egoyan’s eye years later in this screen reprise.

ALIEN As science officer Ash, he’s icy, taciturn, and all too human. Or is he?

CHARIOTS OF FIRE An Oscar-nominated performance as a fireplug of an Olympic track coach.

HAMLET As Polonius to Mel Gibson’s Danish prince, his classical thespianism lends the film weight.

THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE Dr. Willis, I presume? A heady turn as the mad king’s headshrinker.

NAKED LUNCH Buggin’ out in the Interzone in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel. Holm is now working with Cronenberg (and Hereafter’s Sarah Polley) on eXistenZ — in a supporting role.

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