Toying with the ends of her dyed, white-blond hair, Sammi Davis curls her lips over large white teeth and shows off her killer dimples. "As you can see, luv, I'm not him," says the 23-year-old British actress. "Oh, I get jokes all the time," she explains. But no, the name is not a publicity ploy. "I'm not that thick," she says. "It's my real name." Did her parents, Michael and Debbie Davis, go haywire with admiration for the black American entertainer? Not a bit, says Sammi. Mum took the moniker from the character Grace Kelly played in the 1956 film High Society.

Davis laughs when people make cracks about a glass eye or request songs and impressions. Why not? With critical hosannas for roles in the four films (Mona Lisa, Lionheart, A Prayer for the Dying, Hope and Glory) she's made in just two years, Sammi is the friskiest bundle Britain has dropped onscreen in ages. Her hot-blooded and hilarious performance in Hope and Glory, writer-director John Boorman's recollection of his own family's life in suburban London during the Blitz, has won bravos. Boorman cites the "reckless abandon" Davis brings to the part of the hellcat teenaged sister. At one moment she dances defiantly in her front yard while bursting bombs redden the sky. At another moment she makes love to her soldier boyfriend with scorching avidity. "There's a wonderful reality about Sammi as an actress," says Boorman. "Her hormones are jumping."

Nearly everything else jumps too as Davis opens the door to the £64,000 ($112,000) London flat with brick patio she has just bought with her movie money. "Hello, darling!" she cries as she turns the key in the lock and swings open the door. The male object of her affection leaps into Sammi's arms. His name's Horatio, one of seven cats with whom she shared her digs (four of the cats, including Horatio, have since been dispatched to friends). Later, curling up on the floor in black jeans, socks and sweater, Sammi plays kitten herself. Of her success, she giggles, "I just wrote to casting directors, went to meet an agent one day, went up for Mona Lisa the next, got the part. It might have been luck."

A few cattier chums suggest that Davis' close relationships with some of her directors and co-stars might also have provided a boost. Sammi doesn't deny her reliance on men. "Since I was 16," she says, "I've told men they have to be good to me." Irish director Neil Jordan, 37, certainly was. He gave Sammi her first film role in last year's Mona Lisa with Bob Hoskins. She was grateful. "Neil was separated from his wife—still is," Sammi says. "We're still good friends; he's brilliant."

Sammi's parents weren't perturbed by this eight-month relationship. It wouldn't have done them any good if they had been. "Sammi has a mind of her own," says her mother. The Davises find it less stressful to deal with their daughter's real-life exploits than with those onscreen. In Mona Lisa, Jordan cast Davis as a 15-year-old hooker. "I was quite shocked," says Debbie, when she saw Sammi doing, well, what a hooker does. "I thought, 'God, is that my little girl?' " Mrs. Davis has since come round and seen the movie twice. But Dad, rather than risk embarrassment at the flicks, waited a year to catch Mona Lisa at home on video, which Sammi says he pronounced 'Hmmm, yes, very good.' "

Most of Sammi's friends say her flamboyance masks a childhood of considerable loneliness and sorrow. "I felt like this incredibly insecure little dot," says Sammi. The third daughter in a family of five, Sammi grew up in Kidderminster in the West Midlands. "The town was gray, and nothing happened." She corrects herself: "Awful things happened." Worst among them was the death of her 4-year-old brother, Shaun, when she was 6. "My family was on a boat trip," she recalls, "and we were playing on the outside of the boat. Shaun fell in. We watched it happen. It was a gruesome thing. Until I was in my teens I didn't know how to cope with it." The family never spoke about the death, which, Davis feels, made the situation even more unbearable, and her restrictive environment at the Holy Trinity Convent School didn't lighten the burden.

At 15, Sammi quit school. She tried working, unsuccessfully, for her father's advertising company as a receptionist. A year before leaving the convent, she had enjoyed playing Fagin in a local production of Oliver. That was her out. At 17, she moved to Birmingham, 17 miles away, to pursue acting.

Director Boorman says actors "often play out an unhappy childhood in different roles." Without a role, though, Sammi felt vulnerable, unprotected. When she joined Birmingham's Big Brum Theatre Company, she fell in love with its director, Peter Wilson, 27, who gave her roles in three shows. "We were together for two years," she says. "But my move to London for a try at movies separated us."

Another pal is Mickey Rourke, her co-star in A Prayer for the Dying. "I just adored him," she says. In the entrance hall of her flat hangs a signed picture of Rourke: To Sammi—the most tallented actress I ever meet. Love, Micky. (Send contributions to the Mickey Rourke Literacy Fund.)

Last month Davis made her London stage debut in a D.H. Lawrence play, A Collier's Friday Night. Although she prefers movies to theater ("I love the camera; I'm terrible, aren't I?"), this production has its advantages. The star, for example. "Just now I'm seeing Neil Dudgeon. He's a brilliant young English actor—26 and just gorgeous," she enthuses. "I'm totally smitten." Again.

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy.