05/02/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
DOROTHEA BROOKE, THE BRAINY, darkly beautiful young heroine of Middlemarch, the six-part BBC drama now airing on Masterpiece Theatre, would never introduce herself as "a 26-year-old Sagittarius." Otherwise, Juliet Aubrey—the brainy, darkly beautiful young actress who plays Dorothea—seems a perfect match. "Dorothea was a woman with strong ideas," Aubrey-says from her perch in a London tearoom, "in a society which expected its women to do embroidery and play the piano and chat about who was the most eligible bachelor."
Aubrey, too, defies expectations. She is not your standard-issue starlet. "Juliet is beautiful," says her Middlemarch director, Anthony Page, "and she has gravitas." No one could deny her seriousness: educated in a convent school, fluent in three other languages (Spanish, French and Italian) and armed with a degree in archaeology, she talks with a hushed fervor and, when it comes to her personal life, a polite reticence that would make Middle-march's author, George Eliot. nod her long face in approval.
But when the subject shifts to Middlemarch the series, Aubrey can hardly conceal her enthusiasm. She's not alone. Since its British TV debut set off Middlemarch mania last January, Eliot's 1871 classic has become a paperback best-seller and the inspiration for lectures, debates—even a comic book. "The BBC is still having parties to celebrate," says Aubrey, whose sharp-edged sexiness has earned her comparisons with Emma Thompson and Helen Mirren. Hearing that, Aubrey starts to smolder. "I don't want to be the next anyone," she says. "I'm just me."
For Aubrey, me-hood began in a small town called Fleet, an hour south of London, where she was the youngest of three children. Her father, Daniel, is a doctor. Her mother, Sylvia, a retired nurse, took part in local theatricals. Aubrey credits her brother Jonathan, now 31 and a lawyer, and sister Sian, 29, who practices a form of alternative medicine known as aroma therapy, for awakening her interest in acting. "They would go off and play without me," she says, leaving Juliet to entertain herself and "imagine things." By the time she was 9, Juliet was answering newspaper casting calls. She went on to appear in every production at Farnborough Hill Convent College, a girls' school not far from home.
Upon graduating in 1985, however, she decided to study archaeology at King's College in London. "I knew I never wanted to become an archaeologist," she says, "but at school I became intrigued by what people were doing on an everyday basis in the past." She spent a year in Italy exploring the ruins at Herculaneum. "A fascinating place," she says, "more interesting than Pompeii."
But that's ancient history. In 1988, Aubrey refocused her attention on acting, attending London's Central School of Speech and Drama. An agent spotted her, and she went on to do theater, film and TV. One reviewer deemed her a "tough, strong, butch and independent" Miranda in a 1991 touring production of The Tempest. She also played a Holocaust victim in the 1992 Italian film Jonah Who Lived in the Whale. She nabbed her Middlemarch role in November 1992, after several dozen actresses had failed to pull off what producer Louis Marks calls the tricky business of "being saintly and enjoyable to watch too."
Still, there was no joy in having to don Dorothea's Victorian wardrobe. "It's grueling getting into a corset at 7 a.m.," sighs Aubrey, "and wonderful to take it offal the end of the day." At one point the constriction of her costume, combined with some smoke effects on the set, caused her to swoon. "I was only unconscious for half a minute," she says, "but I did bang my head and suffered a concussion." Production had to be hailed for a week.
Soon, though, she'll be back in period garb as Leah, one of Jacob's wives (opposite Matthew Modine), in an upcoming TNT film about the biblical patriarch. "I'm not resting on my laurels," she says. "It's on to the next project." And, with luck, another challenge. Aubrey has spent years learning to play the piano—so, of course, portraying a pianist would hold some interest. "But I would love a role," she notes logically, "where I am forced to learn to play the violin.''
ELIZABETH TERRY in London