11/23/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
CONSIDER JULIA ORMOND A WALKING crash course in Russian history. In 1991 the British actress played the 18th-century empress Catherine the Great in the TNT mini-series Young Catherine. Now here's Ormond again, this time as Josef Stalin's second wife in HBO's three-hour movie Stalin (first telecast: Nov. 21). "Leading ladies of Russia—my specialty!" jokes Ormond, 27, who supplies fire as Nadya, the ill-fated spouse of the icy Soviet dictator played by Robert Duvall. The gazelle-like actress wryly admits her near total ignorance of Slavic languages and lore. "I'm hopeless in history," she says. But she slid handily into Nadya's pared-down garb—"no jewelry, no makeup, tremendous simplicity"—and infiltrated her character's mind by perusing Twenty Letters to a Friend, the work of Nadya's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.
Raised in the county of Surrey, Ormond is the second of five children of John Ormond, a designer of computer software, and his wife, Josephine, a former laboratory technician. "As a child, I was quite undisciplined," says Ormond, who got hooked on acting at Cranleigh, a mostly male private school. She went on to play Catherine in Wuthering Heights onstage in Sheffield in 1988 and later married Rory Edwards, her Heathcliff (also of Young Catherine). They are separated now, and Ormond says, "I'm taking a rain check on relying on someone else." She lives alone in a one-bedroom flat in the not-so-fashionable Hackney section of London.
Ormond next seduces a bishop's son in Peter Greenaway's film The Baby of Macon. "I'd like to get a good body of work behind me before I'm 35," she says. After that, she can always play Raisa Gorbachev.