Kevin Costner is standing in the hallway of a Washington hotel, looking chewed up.

He has just been served as the entree for a three-day public relations feeding frenzy (his new film, "No Way Out," opens today) and there's one more straggler in the buffet line.

He has slumped handsomely at round-table discussions in hermetically sealed suites, giving the same answers to the same questions, and now, television lights and cables still underfoot, a reporter wonders aloud whether the star and his stubble wouldn't like to take a walk.

Not a novel idea, but one that causes consternation among the Costner keepers. It's up to Kevin, they whisper. A walk? We have a room here. There's coffee and danish here.

Costner ambles up, a tall, enigmatic Everydude in black denims, crackling with roguish sexual energy and boyish charm that seems both manipulative and naive. A raw version of his subtle, sleeked-down Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables." More like Jake in "Silverado" -- the rake who was always getting shot at for kissing the girl.

The idea of getting sprung appeals to him. He strides to the elevator, in nerdy sunglasses and black woven leather loafers with white socks, headed for parts unknown. The adventure will include two restaurants, a bartender with an earring through her nose that twitches when she hands him his beer, an encounter with a nuclear protester in Lafayette Park (Costner will politely brush him off) and three hours of nonstop verbal sparring on the subjects of sex, strangers, movies, sex, marriage, infidelity and sex.

"You were nice to say let's take a walk," he says, voicing his concern over being at the mercy of strangers. "I was glad you were a woman. I like a woman, you know. It's just easier." He waits, like a veteran fly fisherman, for the inevitable strike. "It gives you something to look at when you're talking."

He claims to be ignorant of his effect on women. Is it the actor's natural self-absorption? False modesty? You want to believe this, but you've heard The Stories. ("Did he touch you?" asks Ellen Stern, a senior writer for GQ and mother of three who recently penned a Costner cover story and hasn't quite recovered from the experience. "He touched my hair.")

Flirty, witty and engaging, with a glint in his gray-blue eyes that later turns out to be a speck of dirt under a cerulean contact lens, Costner seems to inspire the same weak-kneed reaction among the female population once reserved for Warren Beatty or Steve McQueen. He is, at 32, a bona fide leading man, a screen actor of unlimited potential and keen instincts. A man who thrives on danger (he does his own stunts) and unpredictability.

The camera adores him. "He's not a pretty boy," says Kevin Reynolds, who directed Costner in "Fandango," but "there is a kind of vulnerability to him ... It's natural, it's not something you can learn. You've either got it or you don't."

He is, in fact, the first serious young American actor since Harrison Ford to claim the mantle of matinee idol and his performance in "No Way Out" -- a romantic thriller on the order of "Three Days of the Condor" punctured by steamy sex scenes with costar Sean Young -- should finally give Costner the kind of superstar status that Hollywood handicappers have been predicting for years.

And what's he really like -- as all America will want to know?

Serious, but not book-smart, private but not reclusive, slow on the uptake but quick with a comeback. What would he rather be, rich or famous? "Famous, probably," he says. Then he backpedals. "That was an unfair question. I wanted to get a response out of you."

He's physical; watching him walk is more revealing than hearing him discourse on his craft. He is friendly, reaching for a french fry that drops unceremoniously into your lap, but appears to be easily distracted, terminally wary. Happy to dole out pieces of himself, but not secure or savvy enough yet to control the outcome. Baby-faced and blue-collar, he addresses grown women as "girl."

Somehow you knew he would own a four-wheel drive vehicle.

He's also married, with two daughters, and puts a high priority on family. Still, he wrestles with the paradox: reel life versus real life. Sex symbol or suburban father fretting over the dearth of baby sitters.

He has been asked repeatedly about the limo scene in "No Way Out." Costner and Young meet at a Washington function, leave shortly after and climb into the back of a chauffeured limousine. "Show us the monuments," one of them says. They kiss. They undress. They make love. It's the sexiest love scene since William Hurt broke that glass door to get to Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat."

Costner was jittery about the scene. He worried that people would see how he kissed. He says your soul is revealed on the screen, that you can't hide anything. "It took half a day. We did three takes, I said, 'No more.' I felt real protective of Sean. She's in a much more vulnerable position than me. This idea that the director had to yell 'cut' 32 times because you're so into it, I just can't comprehend that. If you're doing that, you're taking advantage of something or someone. That's why they call it acting, know what I mean?"

He crosses the street, loping in long strides. He is what writers like to call a natural athlete, although that implies a certain jock confidence and bulk. There is no bulk. His arms and hands are sinewy. He drops down to a bench facing the White House, then perches on the edge of the back railing.

He says it was his idea to look up at the crucial moment and ask the limo driver to put the partition up. The crew couldn't find the line in their script. Costner was ad-libbing, something he is fond of doing. "The minute I did that was the minute I locked into the scene."

No, he says, he would never get involved with any actress on the set.

"I've really tried and have been successful with not letting that happen. I feel like three weeks down the road if something's not going right, I want to feel like saying, 'This isn't going right' without them turning around and saying, 'You want me to blow up your life? Then leave me alone.' "

He says he could never be married to an actress. "I think my ego would get too much in the way."

His voice is deep and slow, with a faint western drawl. "The thing is," he says, adjusting his sunglasses, "I've never in 13 years ever fantasized for a second of being with another woman. I mean living with another woman. I know a ton of guys who, if they see a beautiful woman, would turn their lives upside down to be with them. I've never even contemplated it." He laughs. "That's when I didn't start feeling so bad about myself ... When I realized that."

But the possibility of close encounters, he says, "is the thing that makes us go, man. Are you kidding? To undress somebody? It's the coolest thing. To be undressed. To be touched. To be physically, somehow, just taken."

Hollywood sex symbol ("Mel Gibson is sexier") collides with a Baptist-born kid brother. "I have a big thirst. A big taste for things ... I hate the fact that I've lived by somebody else's rules and I've somehow missed out on something. That part nauseates me. 'Cause I could get killed on a plane going home tonight."

Ask him what his vices are and he says, with a smirk, "strangers."

He spent his childhood in the city; small towns outside of Los Angeles, actually, in the shadow of Watts. His father worked for the telephone company. He has one older brother.

Growing up, he was a loner. A kid who went to four different high schools. He was better at sports than academics and says, "I was short in high school. I didn't really grow until I was in college. I think that has a lot to do with why I didn't date." (Why do sex symbols always insist they never dated?) "I was a late bloomer in the sense that I wanted to be liked." He was the perennial New Kid; coming into a school, making the football team, stealing the former starting guard's position. Costner says he got into fights.

Who won?

"I would win. But that was 'cause I knew how to fight."

Does he still fight?

"No. It's kind of a primitive form of expression."

Above all, Costner learned to observe, a trait that has served him well. "Most of the things I get are from listening to other people. I'm a great borrower of things. I have my own philosophical ideas, but in a room I'll usually listen to everybody."

At college, he told GQ's Stern, he was more comfortable with "sluts" than nice girls. " 'Sluts' was a kind of term of endearment," he explains. "I felt more comfortable with women who knew their own mind. When you're a young man and you're around a woman who says exactly what she wants, it's stunning."

The confrontation, he says, "is not always sexual, either. It has to do with the power of good conversation and the comfort that sometimes comes with being with a stranger."

He met his wife Cindy, now an architecture student, at a frat party. Summers, she played Snow White at Disneyland. She has "an aura," he says. "Everybody responds to Cindy immediately. Because she has something. I think she has a kindness about her." (They have two daughters, Annie, 3, and Lily, 1. More baby Costners are planned.)

He graduated from California State University-Fullerton in 1978 with a BA in marketing, then chucked his career a month later to become an actor. "I guess I've always been performance oriented. I always understood movie moments. I like it when your face tingles, you know? I always wanted to absorb myself in work. But I was never able to find any kind of work where I could take it home with me and dream about it and think about it like acting." He stares across the park. "I really wanted direction in my life."

He was not an overnight sensation. A porno flick was followed by years of unemployment while Costner learned the ropes; there were classes, workshops and a three-year stint as a stage manager. He was cut out of "Frances," appeared for a nanosecond in Ron Howard's "Night Shift," made a strong impact in the small role of a young father whose baby daughter dies in the PBS movie "Testament" and finally got a break in Reynolds' "Fandango." The film also featured Judd Nelson and Sam Robards, but it was Costner who made your face tingle as Gardner, a sort of Peter Pan of the panhandle who takes his buddies on one last riotous weekend before the draft beckons.

"He walked into the reading and within 30 seconds, he had the part," says Reynolds. "He had it down ... Gardner's a rogue; I think that's what Costner's best at."

In 1984, Costner turned down the lead in John Badham's "WarGames" (Matthew Broderick ended up doing it) to appear in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill." Costner was tapped for the pivotal part of Alex, the volatile, lovable loner whose suicide reunites six college friends, including Kevin Kline, William Hurt and Glenn Close. If you don't remember him, there's a reason. In post production, Costner was cut from the film.

In the end, the actor probably got more mileage out of not being in the film and says his father took it harder than he did.

"His friends had a tendency to laugh at his kid who was gonna be an actor. Somehow it would have been easier for him if I had just gone on 'Happy Days' so they could have seen me. He waited a whole year for it. He told all these guys. I knew how much that hurt." Costner has checked his watch, and wants to check back in at the hotel. He turns. "Then, he was busting buttons with Silverado."

Costner biographers will no doubt list the 1985 western as his breakthrough film. Cast as Jake, Costner nearly stole the movie from Kline and Scott Glenn. He says he took great joy in the role, and managed to improvise a good deal. "I played that role for every boy or girl who ever wanted to get on a horse and play cowboys."

He also won the lead in Badham's "American Flyers," a biking film written by Steve ("Breaking Away") Tesich. Costner was wonderful, but the film went nowhere, bogged down by muddy script.

Then came "The Untouchables." Costner was not the first choice for Eliot Ness (Mel Gibson, for one, turned it down), but when he won the role he gave it a sophisticated, quiet dignity. Up against heavyweights like Robert De Niro and Sean Connery, Costner managed to impart a reserved familial warmth to the courageous G-man. (Those bedtime "Eskimo/butterfly" kisses to his screen daughter were Costner's idea.)

Some people called his Ness less appealing than the original. Costner bristles. "I liked Robert Stack's Eliot Ness. The Eliot Ness I played was what was written. It's not my interpretation." He says he knew the criticism was coming; he's "not a traditional American hero, and he's not the most charismatic guy in the film and yet he's your lead."

It all has to do with taking chances. "I'm afraid of not taking chances because you get so smart or so secure about what you do well." Costner does Lt. Tom Farrell in "No Way Out" very, very well. It's a part he seems born for: romantic, physical, unpredictable.

Costner reportedly does his homework. He reads, takes notes, questions. "I'm a nightmare when it comes to most people on details in a movie. I make everybody on the set accountable for what they do. I do worry about details."

His biggest fear, he says quietly, "is not doing good work. Of becoming a cartoon."

Which seems hardly likely. He is highly regarded in Hollywood and now has the financial and artistic freedom to say no more often than yes. (He passed on "Mrs. Soffel" and "Jagged Edge.") Still, he doesn't get everything he wants. He was turned down for the role in last year's "Raising Arizona" that went to Nicolas Cage.

His father still offers him gas money.

Returning to the hotel, he greets another press person and has his picture taken. Then he says, "Wanna go get lunch?" He pops the sunglasses back on and heads out, talking more about his early years.

There is something about Kevin Costner that seems so effortless. Almost as if he has gotten where he has with one hand tied behind his back. "I think there's something to that. My wife and I will talk and she'll say, 'You give so much to this business.' I always say, 'I don't do half of what actors do. Actors are at eight plays every night. I come home at night.' I'm amazed I ever got where I got."

People say he has great instincts. "The minute they say that," he says, he starts to doubt them.

"I know I'm ambitious but I feel in my heart I'm really lazy. It probably has to do with my family. I could work all the time, but somehow they would fall through the cracks."

A yuppie brunch place is nixed in favor of a more comfortable bar. He orders a hamburger and a Heineken. The bartender recognizes him. He seems uncomfortable. Being watched. He walks back to his hotel. He wants to lie down before his flight back to L.A.

The same flight on which he could get killed.

He hates to fly.

But he hates to miss things, too.

"Have you ever seen 'How the West Was Won?' " he says. "There's this great scene where Carroll Baker comes on to Jimmy Stewart. It's the best love story I've ever seen and it happens in about 10 minutes. He's a trapper. I guess I always thought of myself as a trapper. She just comes on to him so strong and he just can't believe it. She goes, 'Have you ever been kissed permanent?' He goes, 'I-I-I don't know what you mean by permanent.'

"Anyway, she says to him, 'You're headed upstream and I'm headed downstream. There's not a lot of time.'

"That's what happens to people sometimes," Costner says, his voice rising. "They don't know when they're headed upstream or downstream or they do and they just walk away cursing, going 'Goddam I should have done something about that ...' "

He stops. "Then you think, 'Hey, I'm just in the river, that's all.' "