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THE TRUTH ABOUT BEN : UNLEASHING CHARM ON AND OFF SCREEN, CHAPLIN PONDERS BIG-TIME FILM FAME.

Byline: Claudia Dreifus The New York Times

It was a blazing California morning and British actor Ben Chaplin, 26, was dissecting the character he plays in his first American film, ``The Truth About Cats and Dogs.''

``My guy can't read anything going on,'' Chaplin explained. ``He's not the brightest man on earth, but he is sensitive.''

In this comedy, which opened Friday, Chaplin plays a loopy Santa Monica photographer entranced with the voice of a radio veterinarian, played by Janeane Garofalo, who runs a call-in show about pets.

Through a series of wild plot turns, he finds himself involved with Uma Thurman masquerading as Garofalo - the latter being too insecure to meet him.

``The Truth About Cats and Dogs'' was written as a modern gender-inversion on Edmond Rostand's ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' with Garofalo substituting for the ego-deficient Cyrano, Thurman replacing the dim-but-gorgeous Christian and Chaplin as the Roxanne love object.

Think: Cyrano plays ``The Dating Game'' in contemporary California. ``At the end of the day,'' revealed Chaplin, who is not related to the silent screen star, ``my character chooses the right person.''

In Hollywood, there is a suspicion that Chaplin may be the next Englishman to begin popping up in American films, a new Hugh Grant. Chaplin vigorously disputes that notion.

``People are only saying that because I have an English accent and play in romantic comedies,'' he maintained with bland reserve. He seemed committed to saying nothing undiplomatic or unkind.

``I've worked with Hugh, and he's a lot more clever, more eloquent, more educated than I. Actually, I don't think anyone can be `the new Hugh Grant.' He's one of the funniest people on the face of the earth.''

The old Ben Chaplin grew up middle-class (``My mum's a teacher, my father is a businessman'') in Windsor, England (``where the royal family lives,'' he said). At age 17, he enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Acting, he claims, was something he was always driven to do.

``I was the youngest of four; perhaps that's it,'' he said. ``The youngest wants to show off. You get adored, and you get some limelight.''

After finishing his training, Chaplin moved full time to London, where he joined a repertory theater company. Between work as a statistician for the London Transport Authority and clerical jobs, he began landing roles in BBC dramas and British movies. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant cast him as a servant in ``The Remains of the Day.''

In ``Feast of July,'' a Merchant-Ivory period film from last year that was directed by Christopher Menaul, he played the romantic lead, a young man who incidentally spends a great deal of time with pigeons. Last year as well, on the British stage, he starred as Tom in a West End revival of Tennessee Williams' ``Glass Menagerie.''

``The Truth About Cats and Dogs'' came to Chaplin after a casting agent recommended him to the producer Cari-Esta Albert. ``We saw a lot of terrific people, but we immediately liked him,'' Albert said. ``He has wonderful eyes, and you see his whole soul come across on the screen. He's incredibly sincere and winning.''

Chaplin described making the movie as tremendous fun and said that Garofalo, the comic who has the ugly duckling role in the film, actually appears ``quite beautiful'' on screen. Garofalo responds that she ``actually looked forward to going to work, smoking cigarettes and shooting the breeze with Ben.''

``He was a most affable fellow,'' she added. ``Everyone in the makeup department had a crush on him.''

The oddest moment in filming came, Chaplin says, when he had to shoot a scene with Hank, a Great Dane outfitted in roller skates.

``It was quite strange to watch,'' he said. ``The dog had no control about where he was going, but he liked it. He didn't mind sailing straight across the room into couches.''

Chaplin's own life trajectory these days is as wobbly now as Hank's. Before he made this movie, he lived in London with a 16-year-old cat and a girlfriend whose name he won't divulge.

Since the film, he and the girlfriend have rented digs in Venice and are enjoying California beach life; they go to screenings and Lakers games.

As he bides his time and takes meetings with American producers, he nonetheless frets about what big-time movie fame might mean.

``I just wanted to be a good actor,'' he said. ``A certain amount of fame goes with that territory, but it's nothing you want as a concept. It seems like an unhealthy thing.''

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Photo: Of Ben Chaplin, who co-stars with Janeane Garofalo i n ``The Truth About Cats and Dogs,'' the actress says, ``He was a most affable fellow. Everyone in the makeup department had a crush on him.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 30, 1996
Words:795
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