What is Christian singer-turned-sultry alterna-rock diva Sam Phillips doing in Die Hard With a Vengeance? ''Well, maiming and killing,'' says the willowy Phillips, 32, as she leisurely sips an espresso at a cafe in Santa Monica, Calif., where she lives. In a bit of casting as improbable as if Joni Mitchell were to star on American Gladiators, the plaintive-voiced songstress plays Katya, a knife-wielding German terrorist who is mute. Although the movie fails to explain why Katya never utters a word, Phillips was relieved that she didn't have to fake a German accent, ''which might have been a bit ambitious for my first part. But as time went on, I started wanting to speak.''
That's hardly a surprising response from a talent used to making herself heard. In 1980, Leslie Phillips, then 18, started out recording songs for a Christian label. But the woman who today names eclectic theologian Thomas Merton as one of her heroes became disillusioned with organized religion and the narrow world of the Christian-music business. With the help of musician/producer T Bone Burnett (who's now her husband), she recast herself as a mainstream artist in 1988 with The Indescribable Wow. Since then Phillips has found considerable success, particularly with her latest album, the Beatles-inflected Martinis & Bikinis. It was Bikinis' stylishly surreal black-and-white cover photo of Phillips, however, that grabbed Die Hard director John McTiernan's attention. ''He thought I'd be a good German terrorist,'' recalls Phillips, ''which is probably what my mother thought when she saw me on the album cover.''
But Phillips had to do more than look the part, and the violence proved unnerving, especially a scene in which Katya fillets a security guard. ''I really cut this guy to ribbons,'' Phillips says with an air of amused disbelief. ''That was sort of hard. But I have to say this will probably get me in so much trouble,'' she adds with a mischievous laugh, ''they made it a lot easier because the guard looked a lot like Rush Limbaugh.''
If Phillips ever feared not shaking her Christian-music past, such candor combined with her Die Hard role should do the trick. ''After this movie I'll be a complete heretic,'' she notes with a sly smile.