Dave Karger
August 18, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Rhys Ifans’ name appears in a film’s opening credits, it’s a safe bet that he’s going to end up in his underwear. One year after posing for the paparazzi in his skivvies as Hugh Grant’s raunchy Notting Hill roommate, Spike, Ifans is dropping trou in front of a TV reporter in the football flick The Replacements. ”If it’s totally unnecessary in the script,” he deadpans, ”I’ll take my clothes off.”

After years of toiling in obscurity on the British stage and in little-seen indie films (Twin Town), Ifans is simply glad to be here. ”I just wanted to be in an American film,” says the 31-year-old Welshman, who scores The Replacements‘ biggest laughs as Guinness-guzzling place kicker Nigel Gruff. But the rail-thin actor’s Stateside debut certainly knocked the wind out of him during one scene where burly linebacker Jon Favreau hoists and spikes Nigel like a pigskin. ”I almost had to take him to the hospital,” says director Howard Deutsch. ”I’d say, ‘You okay?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, let’s go again!’ I looked at him after one take and he was literally close to fainting. I stopped and we got him water and oxygen.”

For the actor (whose name is pronounced Reese EE-vans), performing was a ticket out of his hometown of Clwyd, which he left at 18 to study theater in London. ”You can buy four postcards and pretty much see Wales,” he says, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. But it was his comic performance as Spike that truly kick-started his career, landing him the plum role of Adam Sandler’s glam-rock brother in November’s Little Nicky, for which one British paper said Ifans received a cool million. ”When ‘actor’ and ‘America’ comes up, they just put a million dollars,” dismisses Ifans, who lives in London with his girlfriend, publicist Jess Morris. ”I wouldn’t know a million dollars if it crawled up my a– .”

Still, the paychecks keep coming. He’s just wrapped Human Nature, written by Being John Malkovich‘s Charlie Kaufman, in which he plays a man raised in the woods — or, as Ifans describes him, ”Tarzan without the muscles.” Apparently, Ifans isn’t worried about being typecast as comic relief. ”I’m not in the habit of avoiding being the silly guy,” he says. ”It’s liberating and fun.” But after shooting three films in a row, he’s ready for a season on the bench. ”The last two years I’ve been other people more than I’ve been me,” he says. ”I’ve just got to learn my own lines now.” He lights up again and smiles. ”And blow that million.”

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