NEW YORK -- A bemused Ellen Barkin contemplates the 200-pound marlin on her wall, one of a school of aquatic tchotchkes that leap and creep about the actress' Greenwich Village loft. "A couple of years ago I said to a friend, 'You know, Doc -- he's a psychiatrist -- my house is covered with fish. Why?' " She contemplates the angelfish ashtray and a second, tiny marlin diving toward the kitchen sink.

"It's not my fetish," Barkin protests, laughing her big, easy laugh. "All of them were given to me by friends." A klaxon sounds from the kitchen, like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler passing through, punctuating her sentence. It would suit the sound track of her romantic movie "The Big Easy," a New Orleans-set thriller opening here today. But the racket is only the kettle letting off steam, much as Barkin does on screen in a star-making performance as a sexually repressed DA who gets over her problem in a big way when she is seduced by a crooked cop played by costar Dennis Quaid. It's a role that should finally do for her career what "Tender Mercies" and "Diner" didn't -- though for each she was critically hailed.

"Sorry about that," she says, pouring hot water for decaffeinated coffee and cozying into her overstuffed sofa. She hates the heat, so the air conditioner is set on hurricane.

With golden hair spilling over her shoulders and into her eyeglasses, she looks like a lovely cross between Wonderland's Alice and Woody Allen. Her toenails are painted carmine, as are her full lips. But it's too dark to see the color of her eyes.

"Hazel, squinty hazel eyes," she says, joking about the unflattering adjectives writers use to describe her. There are phrases like "a nose that looks like it was broken in a schoolyard boxing match" to the more recent, more complimentary, "eye-of-the-beholder beauty."

"My boyfriend goes wild ... I thought it was a wonderful compliment ... It's funny to say this, but I'm pretty comfortable with the way I look. My eyes are squinty. My nose is crooked. There is a bump on it. I do smile out of one side of my mouth. To me that's a perfect description ... And I guess I find it a lot more interesting than being told I was the most gorgeous woman in the world for a year."

She takes off her glasses -- pairs are strategically placed about her loft -- "I can't see," she explains and squints by way of example. She figures myopia has helped her career. "You always look like you're having a really big thought."

Even withthe squint, she was leading-lady material, but, as she once said defiantly, nobody was going to cast her as a James Bond girl. Then all of sudden, Barkin bit her lower lip, and decided she just might become a Sex Symbol.

And voila. Her sassy performance in "The Big Easy" has already made her a goddess in France, where the romantic thriller has been big box office since July. "For the French, I might as well be Kim Basinger," says Barkin. "Jim McBride {the director} called me up to read the reviews. I said, 'They said what? They said what?' French Playboy was like ... 'wildly sexy.' They go through the whole face thing, but completely different -- 'bedroom eyes, pouty mouth.' I said, 'Read it again. Read it again. I'm in the wrong country.' "

Surely even her countrymen -- whom she suspects are mostly Heather Locklear fanciers -- will succumb as she gives in to Quaid's Cajun charms. They take a ride on the Streetcar Named Desire and don't forget to get off.

Quaid, who was cast first, knew they'd be great together and fought to get Barkin, an old friend. The director remembers, "When they read together, they had a genuine chemistry that was obvious to everyone, except the producer, {Stephen Friedman}, who said, 'She'll be in the movie over my dead body.' "

" 'Over my dead body' was probably the nicest thing he said," says Barkin, a forgiving sort, it seems. "A very interesting thing happened: A few days after they gave me the job, I became his best friend. 'Boy, it's a lucky thing we gave Ellen Barkin this job, or what a sorry state we'd be in.' And Jim and I would say, 'Good idea on your part.' To this day, he calls up and says, 'I hope they're treating you okay.' "

At one point, Barkin and Quaid shared an agent who frequently sent them to audition together. They have always wanted to work together, and all that anticipation spills out here. Their love scene, so hot Paul Prudhomme must have cooked up the recipe, was legendary long before the movie premiered. Barkin does the scene fully clothed, which doesn't hinder Quaid's cop the least little bit. "I'm not good at this," she says. "Relax," he drawls, "we have a different way of doin' thing down here, darlin'."

Talk about Bourbon Street Bliss.

It was the love scene that first drew her to the screenplay. "The producer wanted the scene out," she says incredulously. "We thought maybe he thought it was too graphic, but then he knew I wasn't going to take my clothes off. So we didn't understand why. And finally Jim McBride said, 'What is it specifically that you object to? Do you think there shouldn't be any sex scene, that they shouldn't have any sex?'

"And the producer said that he found it offensive to women because Dennis' character seemed to be taking advantage of my character." She chortles. "At which point, the three of us were rendered speechless. And I stepped forward to explain to him why it was exactly the opposite. And we never looked at him the same after that."

Barkin, Quaid and McBride considered the scene absolutely crucial. "Whatever Dennis does after that scene -- even if he's selling heroin -- he's still a nice guy for what he does for that woman. No matter how rigid and tense I become throughout the course of the movie, I'm still vulnerable and open because of that scene. None of us had ever seen that done in a movie before, where the sex scene was there for a reason, to let you know something about the characters, because there is no other."

Flirting With Fame Barkin, a Bronx-born graduate of New York's High School for the Performing Arts, studied acting for nine years before she ever got a part, and then she hadn't auditioned for it. She was discovered -- as a foxy blond ought to be -- while she sat in an off-off-Broadway audience. A director seated alongside her asked if she was an actress. She said yes and was cast as a teen-age murderer in a stage production of "Irish Coffee." Then came an assortment of evil teen roles, including a stint as a wanton waitress on the soap "Search for Tomorrow."

Her acting teacher finally persuaded her to audition for a movie role as the wife who misfiles her husband's James Brown record in "Diner." Typically she hated the script -- she says she only likes three in 150 -- but the teacher forced her to reconsider. She got noticed. Then came a series of absorbing portrayals in such sleepers as "Desert Bloom" and performances so brief they were like sand castles, too quickly gone. One such was as Tom Waits' girlfriend in "Down by Law."

"I try to figure out what movie will make no money and I do those," she jokes. Then suddenly, she is serious. "I have a lot of moral problems with movies that are being made and I feel very strongly about that. I couldn't make 'Top Gun.' I couldn't make 'Trading Places.'

"There's this intensely frightening conservatism that is permeating film scripts. It's real right wing. And it's no joke. When it's in something as obvious as 'Top Gun,' okay. But it's pretty much in everything. It's really scary. If I gave you 10 screenplays ... a sweet little love story or a daffy comedy ... the subliminal advertising there is really frightening."

"Tender Mercies," her second movie, met her stringent requirements and should have been a big breakthrough. Barkin, then 28, told her agent she would never play another teen-ager unless it was opposite one of the Roberts -- Duvall, De Niro or Redford. As fate would have it, Bruce Beresford cast her as Duvall's wayward daughter in this Texas drama.

"Betty Buckley and I were walking around knowing we were the stars of this movie. Her performance was staggering," recalls Barkin, whose single scene made you want more. But both roles were cut to cameos.

"They called me and said, 'Do you want to have a screening for your friends?' And I said, 'How sweet and thank you so much.' I had seen the movie about three months before that and I didn't know that they had recut it ... And then I sat through this ... I was already dead. I turned to my brother and I said, 'I'm going to come back in the flashbacks, I know it.'

"It was terrible, terrible. The thing was that maybe in a way I was paid back. I remember saying to my agent, 'I don't care if they cut every scene I have out of the movie, as long as that scene with Duvall is there.' And that's what happened. If they had cut a second out of it, I would have been wild."

Barkin gets wild. "I guess I'm not a dainty little girl. So I'm sure that can be misinterpreted ... What is my business, I fight very hard for. I want this prop. I tell it to you two weeks in advance. I expect the prop to be there when I go to work. And I will fight for those things. I don't feel comfortable with people who can't stand up for what they want in life and certainly not on a movie set.

"I'm never late for work. I don't storm off the set. I don't burst into tears if I get yelled at ... I don't care if my clothes cost $5 or $500 as long as they're the clothes I feel I should wear ...

"The tensions are so high on a movie set. Everybody's got to take it out on somebody. Now my way of doing it is to scream all the time at everybody. Myself included. That's not to say that I spend all the time on a movie set screaming. But your emotions are really right at the edge. That's what you're doing. You're acting. So the point is to be exposed ... I don't mind being yelled at, being argued with. That's the way I am -- emotions like that don't frighten me at all. That's just somebody who wants something."

The Bombshell Emerges Ellen Barkin is 33 years old and proud of it. In the past, she was coy about revealing her age. Last year, it was "close to 30." Now she wants to play women of her own age. She speaks enthusiastically, her husky voice like velvet rubbed the wrong way.

Her first real grown-up role was the bombshell Starr in "Desert Bloom," an Atomic Age memoir with Jon Voight. Starr, a sexy would-be single, visits her Nevada relatives while she waits out a quickie divorce.

"When we started, I was in a big panic. It was a job I really wanted, which is really rare for me. It happens to me every two years or so ... I get totally engaged. I really worked hard to get that part. I went out to California, which is something I never do. Then I just went into this total tailspin. 'How can I ever do this?' I'd say to the director. 'Look at me, look at me, what are we going to do?' " Annabeth Gish, who played the adolescent inge'nue, looked more mature, she recalls.

"I don't know if I could have played that part if it wasn't for Jon. He just told me it was the closest I'd ever get to being myself ... And he was really right. If you dress that girl up in my clothes, she'd just be me."

The character, a favorite, was one of five real sisters, says Barkin. "They were all these really great-looking women for the most part and right across the board really flat-chested." Like the sisters, the cast wore padding. "I never knew how those falsies were going to go into my nightgowns ... they floated them ... and they were really huge -- 34D cups ... I never wanted to take them off. We would go out at night ... It made me feel fabulous. JoBeth {Williams} was mortified."

Barkin is no Jane Russell. She's lithe and athletic with a hosiery model's legs, which won rave reviews in a New York Times pan of the play "Eden Court" in 1985. The barefoot Barkin stretches them happily as she talks about playing the imperiled heroine of the sci-fi adventure "Buckaroo Banzai."

"There was this scene that had to do with bugs. They came in and said, 'The bug wrangler is here to see you ... and they showed me all these bugs. I can only compare it to what I remember the Avon Lady doing to my mother ... They came into my motor home, sat down and laid out all their bugs -- cockroaches, centipedes, crickets, tarantulas, scorpions. They asked me which bug I felt a kindred spirit for. That would be the bug they would use to crawl over my body. And I said, 'None of the above, thank you ...'

"I said, 'No, forget it. You're doing it with a stand-in.' And then I looked at the stand-in ... I said, 'No I can't have that skinny little leg there.' So I lie down and the production designer tied me in this contraption. It took about 45 minutes and there I stayed for a day and a half.

"I picked the tarantula, because it looked most like a dog. I thought of it as a pet. You know, it was furry. I thought if i really practice my sensory exercises, I could kind of envision a small Pekingese."

She seems to check the room for critters. "I despise pets. If you'll notice, there's not even a plant. Usually there are cut flowers. They have no maintenance. You buy them. They die. You throw them out."

Growing Up When Ellen Barkin was 6 years old, her mother called her Sarah Bernhardt and she wanted to be a typewriter. " 'What do you want to be when you grow up? A typewriter.' " She laughs. She graduated from Hunter College with a double degree in history and drama, and decided she wanted to be an Egyptologist. But here she is an actress-in-waiting -- potentially another Meryl Streep, except that her acting doesn't show. Pauline Kael has compared her to Brando, no less, and New York Times critic Frank Rich raved, "If it were possible to give the kiss of life to a corpse, the actress Ellen Barkin would be the one to do it."

She is equally pleased: "If after I do a movie like 'Enormous Changes' {an adaptation of Grace Paley's short stories} or 'Diner,' somebody comes up to me on the street and says, 'I'm like that, thank you -- now I don't feel like such a loser.' It's awful corny sounding I know, but I am one of those women. That's my background. I grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish background.

"I won't do some caricature of some victimized female ... It's a serious issue, for me. I am one of those women. I mean victimized by life."

Barkin is graceful and balanced, despite her conflicting beliefs and emotions. She seems always to be walking an emotional high wire, so it's not surprising that "learning to walk a tightrope was the greatest accomplishment of my life," she says. Barkin took to the wire for her role as a female Evel Knievel in "Siesta," an erotic thriller that costars her boyfriend, British actor Gabriel Byrne.

"Siesta," a surreal story of obsessive love, is directed by Mary Lambert (who makes Madonna's videos) and written by the "9 1/2 Weeks" team of Zalmon King and Patricia Knopf. The movie has had rating problems -- an X that has since become an R, says the actress, incensed. "Look at 'Angel Heart' -- they didn't get an X. {In 'Siesta'} there's one love scene that's pretty graphic, granted. But that isn't what they objected to. What they objected to most was the nonsexual nudity ... It's a terrifying thought when you think about these censors who, if you're showing a woman getting banged with chicken blood falling all over her head, and she has her clothes off, and somebody's straddling her, that's fine.

"But a woman taking her dress off by the side of the lake in a very uncoy, unprovocative way, just doing the business of taking her dress off, washing it and lying down, that's inappropriate."

Like Stallone pumping up for "Rocky," Barkin prepared for her part in the gym. "The first five seconds of that movie, I am buck naked head to toe. I'd never even taken my shirt down in a movie until 'Siesta.' But I really loved that script. There was no way this movie could be made without me.

"I was kind of more intrigued with the idea of taking my clothes off the older I got. Hmmm. I'm 33, how many more years have I got? Better get them off while I can. And also it was a woman director ... I trusted Mary and the cinematographer was really a good guy ... Both he and Mary would explain the lighting to me in the minutest detail and I would then adjust my performance.

"There are times when the light is such and an actor's expression is such, you get a very powerful moment. And that doesn't have to be luck, if the actor knows what's going on. That to me is what Method acting is about, the ability to maintain such a strong emotional reality in the face of the most intricate technical detail."

Barkin pours herself another cup of decaf. "I try not to venture over here. It's like foreign territory to me," she says of this side of her loft where the bedroom is curtained off. She skips across the floor and lounges, by way of example, in her favorite Memphis chair. She reads and -- mostly -- rejects scripts from here. She's just cleaned the losers off her shelves, she says.

"I haven't worked in 10 months now. Luckily for me I don't care. I don't need that kind of professional reinforcement," she says firmly. And yet: "Any film actor who tells you they don't want to be a movie star has got to be an idiot. If you're a movie star, you can get movies made. I seem not to be interested in that world. Maybe that means that I would never be able to raise $10 million to do a movie I wanted to do. But I'm sure that's something I can live with. If somebody told me, 'This position you're in now, this is it. You'll be in this position for the next 30 years. This is pretty much going to be it.' I would think 'Fantastic.'