WHAT GOES INTO A GREAT PERFORMANCE? Years of training, hours of rehearsal and, British actress Tara FitzGerald might add, the occasional disaster. Take the evening in 1992 during her London theatrical debut, with Peter O'Toole in the comedy-drama Our Song, when FitzGerald cut her finger on a pin during a quick costume change. "I came back out, the audience could see I was bleeding, and they seemed concerned," she recalls in her deep, smoky voice. "But Peter and I made putting on a bandage a part of the play. That made a special connection with the audience. They felt they were in on something real."

Such episodes, suggests FitzGerald, 27, have helped form her philosophy on acting. "You only learn from failure," she says, "never from success."

By that measure, of course, FitzGerald's education has come to a standstill. She's simply doing too well. Onscreen, she stars as Hugh Grant's saucy love interest in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain—her second romantic role opposite the British heartthrob, with whom she appeared in the 1994 comedy Sirens. What's more, the great-niece of actress Geraldine Fitzgerald has a choice part in the hit Broadway production of Hamlet, playing lovelorn Ophelia to Ralph Fiennes's studly Dane. But judging by the admiring comments of her peers, success won't spoil FitzGerald. "Tara can do it all. It's really quite alarming how much homework she does," Grant says. "When we made Sirens, she gave up drinking to live the life of an English gentlewoman of the early 20th century—which is quite difficult for Tara because she likes a party. But she's very committed."

If hardship is the grist for FitzGerald's acting technique, she has found plenty of material in her childhood. When she was 3, her mother, portrait photographer Sarah FitzGerald, separated from her father, Michael Callaby a talented artist who was, Tara says, tormented by insecurity. "During art school, he smashed his fist into a brick wall to break his wrist and avoid exams," she says.

When the marriage collapsed, Sarah took her two children, Tara and Arabella, now 26, and moved into her sister's London apartment, then into a succession of cheap flats. "We lived a bit of a gypsy existence," says Sarah, 46. "I had to take a job as a waitress when I was broke. But I had the support of my family, so my daughters never felt vulnerable."

Things improved in 1974, when Sarah married actor Norman Rodway, 66, then a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The two had a daughter, Bianca, now 20. But tragedy soon intervened when Tara's father moved back to England from South America in 1977. His daughters had just begun to know him when, in 1978, at 36, he committed suicide. "He was never happy," says Tara. "I've gone through a lot of feelings, but I think it was a courageous thing. He didn't do it for attention; he wanted to spare people from himself."

In the years that followed, FitzGerald had to fight smaller psychic battles of her own. After high school, she went through a period of rebellion, gave up acting and spent some time goofing off on the Continent. "I had to get things out of my system," she says with a shrug. "I was naive." But in 1986 she gathered herself up, took out a bank loan and began waitressing in the same bistro where her mother once had worked in order to pay tuition at London's Drama Centre—a tough, Method-acting school. "It's very rigorous," says FitzGerald. "The idea is to break down an actor's ego in order to build it up." Apparently it worked marvels. Says Englishman director Christopher Monger: "When I saw Tara in her film debut, Hear My Song, I thought they'd found a natural, spontaneous amateur. Later I realized Tara is such an extraordinary technician that she makes it look natural."

These days she's reaping the full fruits of that expertise—and one big plum is getting to play Hugh Grant's lover. "He's fun-tastic," she says. "He has such an easy way and a wonderful sense of humor." The love of her real life, though, is her fiancé, British television actor Dorian Healy, 33, with whom she shares a cottage in London. They were introduced two years ago at a nightclub by mutual friends and hit it off immediately—much to FitzGerald's surprise. "I never thought two actors could live together—the bathroom mirror's too small," she jokes. "But the most important thing is that we're good friends." No marriage date is set, and FitzGerald says she is planning by "collecting my favorite bits" from friends' weddings.

She has nothing on tap after Hamlet ends its run in July, and that's just fine with FitzGerald. "I've had a busy year," she explains. "One's self needs a bit of attention." And even if her hiatus goes on so long it threatens her bank balance, FitzGerald thinks that could only help her work. "After all," she says, "when you're stretched for money, you're at your most creative."

LYDIA DENWORTH and TERRY SMITH in London

  • Contributors:
  • Lydia Denworth,
  • Terry Smith.