The Beauty Is a Beast

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS IN THE LIFE OF NATASHA Henstridge. Take her cozy-looking rented bungalow in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon. Surrounded by cacti and potted ferns, the place seems a picture of California perfection. But the 20-year-old actress's first words to a visitor spoil the image entirely. "Look out for the rats!" she warns. "I've caught two already. A friend from Paris was so scared, she slept on the table."

Just now, jarring contrasts are a recurring theme for Henstridge. In Species, the new sci-fi thriller starring Ben Kingsley and Michael Madsen, she does a fine job of terrifying people despite her willowy good looks. Henstridge plays Sil, an alien-human hybrid who's eager to breed but tends to give unsuitable mates a claw-and-fang brush-off. About the only folks she doesn't frighten are Hollywood filmmakers. "I looked at hundreds of women before I found her," says Species director Roger Donaldson. "She has real talent, natural ability and a willingness to learn."

That's high praise for a woman whose sole previous acting credit (discounting TV commercials for Oil of Olay and Old Spice) came at age 12 in a grade-school production of Snow White in Fort McMurray, Alta., where she grew up, the daughter of a building contractor and his homemaker wife. A professional since winning a prize in a 1989 modeling contest and jetting off to Paris, Henstridge still hasn't got the hang of L.A.'s idea of glamor. "The hype is tough," says Henstridge, whose escort to the Species premiere was her brother Shane, 14. "It's flattering but very weird."

She'd better get used to it, say peers. "She has incredible presence and poise for her age," says Species costar Anthony Guidera. "She'll go as far as she wants." Her second film, already in the can, is a thriller set for a late 1995 release: Adrenaline: Fear the Rush, with Christopher Lambert. And she is quickly learning the finer points of acting—like finding empathy for characters, even aliens. As rapacious as Sil is, "she's also so naive," says Henstridge. "I think I myself have that dual-personality thing going on."

Maybe so. Henstridge says she loves cooking, watching Ricki Lake and having pals over to "barbecue and b.s." But she admits she has no steady beau because, like Sil, she's "not very good with relationships—nobody can kind of handle my dramatic way." Still, prospective boyfriends needn't worry about being impaled, like the poor soul in Species who falls victim to a too-enthusiastic French kiss when Sil drives her spike-encrusted tongue through his throat. "I loved that!" Henstridge says with a laugh. "At the screening, all the women went 'Yeah!!!' Of course, the guy I was kissing wasn't bad—so that was fun too."

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