ANYONE WHO DOUBTS THAT THE Atlantic is still a very broad ocean should consider the case of Jonathan Pryce. In Pryce's native Britain, Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, calls him "the best actor of his generation." He is revered there as narrator of the original, London production of Miss Saigon, as star of the darkly comic 1985 movie Brazil and as the 1995 Cannes Film Festival's best actor for Carrington. But when Pryce walks down the street in Manhattan, do people tell him they loved his Hamlet? Do they recall with awe his Tony Award-winning role in the 1976 production of Comedians? No. What they usually say is: "Hey, there's the guy in those Infiniti commercials!"

Since 1993, Pryce has appeared in 40 spots for the luxury cars, sometimes discussing aerodynamics and antilock brakes, sometimes walking around at a weird masked ball to unveil a new model. The ads have provided him with financial security. But he wouldn't mind, he says a tad ruefully, if more Americans realized that he's really an actor.

He may soon get his wish. Christmas Day, Pryce, 49, will open across America in Evita, playing the late Argentine dictator Juan Perón. Like the other stars of the $60 million pop opera—Antonio Banderas and Madonna—Pryce sings his lines, and does so in scenes shot in marble halls and on balconies overlooking throngs of extras in both Buenos Aires and Budapest. "It's very epic, big scale," he says. "I was excited when I saw it."

Making the movie was easier than he expected, Pryce says. Argentineans who revere Eva Peron as a saint at first protested the casting of the audacious Madonna in the title role, but opposition vanished when President Carlos Menem showed his support. And Madonna's pregnancy, which she revealed last April in Budapest, only served, Pryce notes, to ensure the shoot moved rapidly. "We rearranged a few things, let out a few dresses," he says. "If anything, Madonna relaxed. She had an inner peace."

Pryce himself seems basically at peace with the vagaries of acting. His first paying job set the tone for his career. Playing a London bobby for a BBC-TV series in 1972, he remembers "feeling very important standing there dressed as a policeman. Then the director said, 'Okay, we've got that shot. Thanks, Jon. Bye.' I got out of the uniform and went home, thinking, 'Now I'm an ordinary person again.' "

Pryce's roots are ordinary enough. His parents, Isaac and Margaret, ran a grocery store in the small town of Holywell, Wales, where Pryce and his two older sisters helped out. An avid painter in his youth, Pryce entered a college near Liverpool, planning to become an art teacher. To fulfill a requirement, he took a drama class. "I noticed," he recalls, "more people saying they liked my acting than had ever said they liked my paintings."

Quick to take the hint, Pryce won a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After graduation, while performing at an experimental theater in Liverpool in 1972, he met actress Kate Fahy. The two were both married, but, says Pryce, "within two weeks I'd left my wife and she'd left her husband and we'd moved in together. It was love at first sight."

Two years later, Pryce made it big on the London stage in Trevor Griffiths' social drama Comedians—but was touched by a family tragedy. During a robbery at Pryce's father's shop, a young thug struck Isaac Pryce, then 67, on the head with a hammer. The blow caused a series of strokes that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. When Comedians moved to Broadway in 1976, Pryce says, "I'd call home and he'd come on the phone and make a noise. A week before the play opened, he died."

Pryce found the strength to perform, thanks in large part, he says, to Fahy, who now lives with him—and their children, Patrick, 13, Gabriel, 10, and Phoebe, 6—in an unpretentious town-house in north London. The two have never married. Says Fahy: "It gets to the stage where if it's a good thing, why not leave it alone?"

Pryce's career at the moment is itself a pretty good thing. "Jonathan's skills are so endless," says Brazil director Terry Gilliam. "There just aren't enough roles that use what he does." Pryce is now in Scotland filming the World War I drama Regeneration and will be too busy to attend Evita's Dec. 12 premiere in L.A. That's fine with him. Given that not just Madonna but also Banderas and wife Melanie Griffith recently had babies, Pryce says, "There's going to be a lot of crying in that theater." Not to mention all the people in the audience nudging each other and whispering, "Hey, look, the guy from the Infiniti commercials!"

LYDIA DENWORTH in London