It may take place against the Clinton sex scandal of 1998, but no, ''The Human Stain'' -- based on the Philip Roth best-seller -- is not about Monica's infamous Gap dress. ''What I've always taken it to mean is a kind of poison within humanity,'' says Robert Benton (''Kramer vs. Kramer''), a three-time Oscar winner directing a cast with 11 nominations and two wins among them, of the title. ''It's the damage that human beings do to the world that we live in.''
In this case, the most sullied character is Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a light-skinned African-American college professor who's spent his life passing as white and Jewish. After he's accused of uttering a racial slur in the classroom, his personal and professional lives shatter, and he finds comfort from a local cleaning woman half his age (Nicole Kidman). But although Hopkins underwent something of a makeover for ''Nixon,'' he appears in ''The Human Stain'' as is. ''We sat with Anthony at an early stage, and he said, ‘Do you want me to wear some kind of makeup?''' says Benton. ''And I said no. Nor did we change his voice. I really didn't want to have an actor in that complicated situation having to worry about his voice. But he had to wear green contact lenses because he wouldn't have had blue eyes.''
To play Faunia Farley, a troubled woman stalked by her psychopathic ex-husband (Ed Harris), Kidman spent time at women's shelters talking to domestic-abuse victims. ''I said, 'What is the thing that you really want said to the world through this character?''' she recalls. ''And they said, 'Show that we're not dumb.''' In that pursuit, she had a strong ally in her director: ''Benton used to always say to me, and I suppose he didn't say this to Hopkins, but he used to say, 'You know, she's smarter than he is.' And I love that.''
Gary Sinise appears as a reclusive writer who befriends Silk in his darkest hour. In one poignant scene, he and Hopkins engage in a little impromptu ballroom dancing. ''It's just natural ability,'' Sinise jokes of his awkward hoofing. ''It's John Travolta -- just from watching him I was able to get up there and do that.''
Meanwhile, Sinise and Benton caught an early glimpse of the film's dark side one night while out to dinner with Harris. ''[Ed] was trying out his character, and he was just seething,'' Benton remembers. ''About halfway through the meal I got up to go to the men's room, and the maître d' came up to me and said, 'Mr. Benton, do you want me to call the police?'''
The Killer Moment A striptease from Kidman that's more revealing than her dimly lit nude scenes in Broadway's ''The Blue Room.''