"I don't believe in acting," says the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. "Acting is the wrong word. You do something as if it is true."

As a result, Brandauer on screen is riveting -- whether he's Col. Redl, the disclipined head of the secret police in the Austro-Hungarian empire before World War I; or Largo, the villainous missilemeister of the James Bond film "Never Say Never Again."

In the Oscar-winning "Mephisto," in which Brandauer played a German actor obsessed with his art and determined to ignore the Nazi politics that had transformed the world around him, he explains at one point, "In everyday life, I, myself, seem rather plain. But on the stage I hope I'm not."

Which describes Brandauer. With his plain, roundish face, narrow eyes and unmuscled physique, all is understatement. Little is overdone. You see his emotions rumbling under the surface of his skin like the beginning tremors of an earthquake. Eventually the rumblings erupt in an explosion -- of words, of movement, of humanity. He is complicated to watch, ominous, engrossing.

His latest film, the German-language "Colonel Redl," which opened here Friday, brought him to town recently, a visit that included a tour of the National Air and Space Museum.

"It's incredible what people are able to do," he marvels, "to be with the shuttle in the space." Austrian-born, his native language is German. His English is good but not perfect and his mistakes range from charming to cryptic.

Most of his work has been in Europe, but his greatest exposure to American audiences was in "Never Say Never Again." After "Colonel Redl," U.S. audiences will get to see him in the Meryl Streep-Robert Redford vehicle, "Out of Africa," due for Christmas release.

"You can't compare acting in movies and work in theater," he says. "Theater is an event . . . A movie is much more a clinic . . . You can see the movie 'Redl' tonight but I have nothing to do with it. But in the theater, I have a direct influence. In movies, I have it only during the shooting time, and even there I try to provoke all the people around in the studio to be my audience.

"The point is that I need a partner. The partner is even the camera and the cameraman behind it." He verbally pounces on his point. "You need a partner. To make art or life only for yourself, that's nonsense." He chuckles. "You need minimum one partner."

"Colonel Redl" is his second collaboration (after "Mephisto") with Istva'n Szabo', the Hungarian director. "Szabo is a fantastic director," Brandauer raves, "but the most etiquette I can say is: He's really a friend . . . It's a very good combination. I don't waste my time when I'm with him . . . I have my ideas about a part and he has his ideas about the whole thing. And there are even secrets from him and from me and it works out -- not necessarily immediately. If you have the confidence in each other that everybody knows the red lines through the whole thing, then you can make surprises sometimes."

Brandauer was in on the beginning of "Colonel Redl," inspired by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the life and death of the real Col. Alfred Redl. It was rumored that Redl was an enemy spy. In the film -- which doesn't attempt to be a historical document -- Brandauer plays an ambitious, intense man who devotes himself to the military and re-creates his image for a society to which his success has given him access. Brandauer says the part was written for him.

In Sydney Pollack's "Out of Africa," based on Danish writer Isak Dinesen's memoirs of Kenya, Streep plays Dinesen and Brandauer plays her husband, Baron Bror Blixen.

About Pollack, Brandauer says, "I adore him. He's a great man and a great director. He has a wonderful style of work where you have all the time the feeling that you are doing what you want, but in reality he provokes or manipulates you."

At 41, he says there is no role he is burning to do. He has played Tartuffe and Romeo, had the title role in "Everyman" in the Salzburg Festival for the past four summers and will soon play Hamlet at the National Theater of Austria in Vienna. And of course, there was his Bond villain.

"I think it's not necessary to think in cliche's," he says. "I like to make a 'Mephisto' and a 'Colonel Redl' and why not make an excursion into absolute entertainment? And at least Sean Connery came back to make the part in it . . . It was fun. Two months of it were a little bit strange, because, you know, a man is used to saying lines from, let's say, Moliere or Shakespeare, and then it's a little bit funny to say, 'Bond is around the corner.' "

He can't remember when he first decided he wanted to act. "I have to ask my grandmother," he says. "She will tell you a different story from my mother or my father or my grandfather. It's very strange, because I was born in a little village in the Alps in Austria without theater at that time, without television."

Trained at the College of Music and Film Arts in Stuttgart, he worked in the repertory theaters of West Germany and Austria, sometimes directing plays as well. Among his mentors, he counts the Austrian-born actress Elisabeth Bergner, who taught him, he says, about "the intelligence of acting."

"Some people say acting is from the stomach or the heart -- which I don't disagree with," says Brandauer. "But I also think it involves thinking and knowing. You see in movies and theaters a lot of images and pictures and guys who are clever and women who are beautiful, but it doesn't mean anything. You don't understand it."

When he's working on a film, he says he exists as his character 24 hours a day. "Every part is hard," he says. "And if it's not hard, then it's nothing worth your work . . . If it seems not hard, then you have to make it hard. You have to make it complicated."

He married Karin Mueller, now a television director, when he was 19. "Because of my son," Brandauer says. "That was the reason. She was pregnant. But we are still together."

Their son Christian is 22 and studying music in Chicago. "We grew up together," says Brandauer. "I'm his father but I try to be his friend."

What he looks for now is a mix of theater and movies with people he likes.

"I think what I really like is to have intelligent people to learn something from," Brandauer says. "At this moment, I am like a vampire."