BALTIMORE -- No wonder she doesn't want her picture taken. Nobody would believe it, except maybe fans of "Hollywood Babylon II."

The hair is limp and uncurled, pinned back from a wide forehead. The figure, full and ripe and maternal, is hidden under a loose black sweater the size of Dumbo's baby blanket. The legs, those gorgeous gams that drove sweaty Bill Hurt to hurling furniture through her door in "Body Heat," are swathed in black stretch pants and teal sweat socks. The face is plain and unrouged, not beautiful exactly, but intriguing, with its cat's eyes and flared nostrils and Midwestern, Missouri-bred dimples.

Forget Matty Walker. Forget Peggy Sue. You too, China Blue. This is a woman who, with the right lighting and a lifetime supply of Estee Lauder, could maybe -- just maybe -- pass for smoldering screen goddess Kathleen Turner.

"I've never really felt that I was beautiful," she says in her husky Bacall baritone. "I've always thought of myself as very girl-next-door looking."

The accent is lilting, almost "Lost Horizon"-like, somewhere between Berlitz and Bangkok, and instantly recognizable. She enunciates each word and on the phone says things like "dear" and "dahhrrling" and sounds like Dame Judith Anderson calling from the Old Vic. Using these pipes and her own brand of theatrical moxie, Turner periodically blossoms into a gorgeous and mercurial cinema creature, a throwback to the great screen sirens of the '30s and '40s minus the self-destructive prima donna persona.

It's a gift, dahhrrling.

It's called acting.

"With a certain character behind you," she says, by way of explaining the metamorphosis, "or you walk into a thing when they're honoring you, you're gorgeous. And you are! It's your night. You're the queen."

She sits on the floor, curling her legs under the coffee table, and pours a cup of hot tea. Earthy and athletic, with a guttural giggle and a penchant for four-letter words and expressions like "far out" and "un-believable," she alternates between smoking foreign cigarettes and blowing her nose with Puffs. She is raucous, formidable and very sexy. Articulate and intelligent, with a reputation as a voracious reader, Turner -- the object of so many men's fantasies -- turns out to be just one of the girls. You scarcely mind when she gives her age as 32 and averts her blue eyes momentarily (she was 33 in June).

"Before we start, you have to meet Rachel," she says, beaming like a bank of searchlights.

Turner bounds into the adjoining room. She never walks, she bounds. Rachel is her 13-week-old daughter, curled in her pink jammies like one of those expensive talking dolls. The nanny hands Rachel to Turner, who cradles the infant in her arms, cooing and gurgling, intoxicated with love.

The baby was born four weeks premature and Turner delivered by cesarean section. "I wasn't crazy about being pregnant. I mean, if there were another way around it I'd be glad to try. I have talked to these women who said it was the most glorious time of their life and I thought, 'Haven't you ever played a good game of racquetball?' "

The nanny hovers, smiling broadly. "Mommy has to go to work now, Rache," Turner says after a few minutes, handing over her daughter.

Just another working mother, Turner tends to blend into the background the way few major stars seem to do. The other day she took Rachel to the Baltimore Aquarium and curious passers-by noticed the baby inside the Snugli, not her mom.

Perhaps the hottest female actress of her generation (15 months ago, she was dubbed "Hollywood's Most Wanted Woman" on the cover of People), Turner has followed the same path as her peers (Streep, Lange, Winger) by having children, living a normal life (in her case, with real estate broker and sports fanatic husband Jay Weiss in New York), choosing interesting projects with interesting people and working her butt off. She is bankable, a director's delight and reportedly pulls in more than $1 million per picture.

Her re'sume' reads like a prom queen's dance card: "Body Heat," "The Man With Two Brains," "Romancing the Stone," "Jewel of the Nile, "Crimes of Passion," "Prizzi's Honor," "Peggy Sue Got Married." She has played a heartless siren, a hilarious spoof of a siren, a lonely romance novelist, a businesswoman turned kinky hooker, a Mafia hit woman and a time-tripping majorette. She has starred opposite Hurt, Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas and been directed by Ken Russell, Francis Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan and the late John Huston.

Her latest film, "Julia and Julia" -- a surreal Italian production costarring Sting and directed by Peter Del Monte that is already a hit in Europe -- opens today. She has a romantic comedy, "Switching Channels" (opposite Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve) due to open March 5.

Is there such a thing as a Kathleen Turner role?

"I don't know," she says. "I don't do victims. I don't do stupid people." Once she was offered a script that killed off 16 people in the first scene. "Fellows," she said, "three dead is my limit."

She turned down major parts in two popular recent films, which she graciously declines to name, calling them "tokenistic."

"I have the gift of choosing good scripts," she says simply. "There has to be a script. If there's a script, we talk, if there's no script, we don't talk."

On this cold, slate winter day, Turner is holed up in her hotel room near the Inner Harbor, resting up from a racquetball game and waiting for another call to the set of her current film, "The Accidental Tourist," based on the Anne Tyler novel about a couple whose marriage breaks up after the death of their young son. Turner is playing Sarah, the wife. Costarring are Geena ("The Fly") Davis, as Muriel the dog trainer-girlfriend, and Hurt as Macon, the husband.

Once again the director is Lawrence Kasdan, who launched Turner toward stardom with "Body Heat," her first feature, in 1981. Kasdan also wrote the screenplay, and the shooting is like old home week for the cast.

"We're so much older," she says. "After a day's shooting seven years ago, we'd say, 'God, let's go get a drink.' Now, it's like, 'I gotta call my husband and/or wife and/or girlfriend. I gotta check on my kid. Maybe I can meet you about 8.'" She laughs. "There are all these responsibilities now. We can't just disappear for a couple of hours." Director and stars have become parents, a fact Anne Tyler thinks must give them an affinity for the material. "Bill otten his relationship down yet, but he's got his son," Turner says. "Kasdan's got two boys. It's also nice because we're all better, I really think."

Turner won kudos when she appeared on the set the first day of shooting and graciously introduced herself to the cast and crew, something her costar Hurt is not known for doing.

"I flirt my butt off," she says. "I love flirting. You make the guys wanna work for you. It makes them feel appreciated. I like being married, though. As long as I was single and flirting around, there was a chance I was seriously under consideration."

Talking about "Julia and Julia" -- which she doesn't expect to be a commercial hit, despite the steamy sex scenes -- she says she's heard Sting wasn't pleased with it. This seems to disturb her. "He certainly hasn't told me that."

The film, shot in high-definition video, is a dreamlike fantasy in which a woman's husband is killed on their wedding day. Six years later, she fantasizes that her husband is alive and they have a child. The dream may or may not be real. It ends in tragedy when her lover (Sting) makes her choose between her real and imagined life.

Turner agreed to do "Julia and Julia" after seeing Del Monte's "Invitation au Voyage."

"It was really intriguing. This brother and sister live together and it's really incestuous. He's really in love with his sister and she's accidentally electrocuted in the bath and he takes her body and puts it in a cello case and puts the cello case in the car and drives around France, visiting scenes of their past and you think this is about as far as I can go with this, you know, when he sets the cello case on this gravel pit and cremates her, and then he's in Marseilles and you see this figure walk onto the boat from the back and it's her, she's wearing this cape and her boots and the camera comes around and its him! He's become her. And it's like WOW."

She pauses to catch her breath. "It just walks this line of almost becoming gross, but it doesn't cross. And I thought, 'Hmmm. Very interesting.' "

She lights a cigarette, pausing to exhale.

"So they sent me the script. I think maybe it caught me at a good time because I read a lot of scripts and some of them are so predictable ... I felt like I was getting to be a little slick."

She seems to be drawn to schizophrenic women, women with past lives, future lives, time-tripping fantasies and such. "I suppose I am. I never really saw this trend until 'Peggy Sue' ... It's a little boring to play a one level character."

She also seems to take her clothes off a lot on film.

"I have, haven't I? I've also been soaked in almost every film. I was thinking the other day that I actually don't have a rain scene in this movie," she says, referring to "Tourist." "I actually don't think I get wet."

Sex and humor should go together, she says. "I think that's a great bridge ... I mean, my God, who wants to just watch people writhing around! It's boring. My favorite sex scene was in 'Prizzi's Honor' with Jack {Nicholson}. When we hit the headboard! I used to love that! I thought that was one of the funniest things, I mean, 'Who's on top here?' "

She grunts, imitating celluloid passion. "Great sex is when you laugh anyway, I mean laugh at, but laughing joyously. I always seem to find something to laugh at. I don't know. Maybe that's kind of protection too, because one laughs when one is getting a little too heavy."

Getting heavy is a specialty with Hurt. "I love working with Bill again," Turner says. "He's one of the best goddam actors. I just saw that movie, you know? 'Broadcast News.' My God, he was stunning ... I've never seen him so comfortable with his looks; he was great. But he's sooo heavy sometimes.

"What he needs to work into a role," she explains, throwing her arms back, "is a great deal of angst about, 'Is it truthful? Is it right?' You go, 'Okay, okay okay, can we just DO it now?' He's just so clear when he acts. You go, 'How can this be the same person?'

"I have no patience with that. The doing is what makes sense to me."

The camera, for her, is "the most intrusive thing. It's like having a mirror in front of you." On the other hand, she says with a smile, "it's a helluva lot of attention. How many people get that much attention in one day? To have everyone in the whole place just focused on what you do?"

She cackles mischievously. She obviously loves it. "Of course I love it! My Gahhhd."

At first, she had trouble with the attention, trying to separate the capital K Kathleen and capital T Turner from the real self. But with the help of a woman therapist, whom she still sees "and probably will forever," Turner has resolved any mixed feelings about her visibility.

"I had to decide many years ago that I did want that. So that the attention does not upset me, does not push me away from myself, and push me away from my intention. Because the problem with getting that much attention is you can start playing to these people instead of doing what you're here to do, which is carry out the intention of this character. So you have to say, 'Okay, Kathleen is really happy everybody's looking at her now. Forget them and be Sarah.' You have to find that division."

She keeps acting separate from life. "I don't really put myself into these characters. I'm acting them," she says. ... I think some of my best work was 'Crimes of Passion.' I've never in my life walked Hollywood Boulevard and I don't intend to! ... People ask me sometimes, 'Where do you go to build a character?' I build them in my mind.

"The real lure is the communication. The way you say something or perform an action, the way you think and feel about something makes somebody else think and feel along with you."

The "miracle" of acting, she says, is bringing alive the printed word. "It's like Anne Tyler came to some rehearsals and she came over afterwards and said that I made her cry. That's acting."

Tyler agrees. "She's absolutely right," the novelist says by telephone. "I teared up. I immediately felt a bit foolish, like laughing at one's own joke. But this," Tyler says, referring to the part of Sarah, "is her creation now. She is amazing. She really is Sarah."

Turner says she doesn't believe in actors suffering. When she's good, and she knows it, it's a high unlike any other.

"I wanna be able to leave the set and go, 'Man!' " -- here she raises a clenched fist like a crazed cheerleader -- "'That's great! WHOA! Are they gonna cry! WHOA!' "

The third of four children, Turner was born in Springfield, Mo., and traveled the world, living in Cuba, Canada, Venezuela and finally London. (She speaks fluent Spanish as well as French and some Italian.) Her father, a foreign service diplomat, died suddenly when Kathleen was a senior in high school.

Her gawky period lasted several years. "I just never thought I was very attractive. None of us did. But we were smart and we were bright and we were quick, you know?"

Her brother, a psychologist, once told a reporter that Turner was "an insanely jealous teen-ager" who found her outlet in acting.

Returning from London after her father's death, she says, it was hard to fit in. "I came home in 1972 with midi skirts and short short hair and they all immediately assumed I had to be {a homosexual}. Because I didn't show my legs and I had no hair. And those clunky boots with the big heels."

After two years at Southwest Missouri State University, she transferred to the University of Maryland as a drama major. She moved to New York, landed a role in the soaps (Nora Aldrich in "The Doctors") and soon after was tapped by Kasdan for "Body Heat."

During that time, Turner lived with her agent, David Guc. After they broke up, he continued to represent her.

Like many successful women, Turner now realizes she was often trying to please her mother, "a strong, charismatic woman" who "withheld for years" the approval she was desperately seeking. Her mother wanted her to be a diplomatic wife.

"I've always earned my living as an actress since my first seven months in New York, which is pretty amazing ... My mother would say things like, 'It's not Chekhov. Well, it's a soap opera.' She wrote me a letter a year after 'Body Heat' and she said, 'I think I've been withholding my approval. I think it's hard for a parent to understand that a child can surpass them in some way that they don't understand. My way of trying to pull you back into my world was not to accept the level of success. I'm sorry, I owe you an apology.'

"I went 'WOW!' That was the neatest thing she's ever done."

She reaches for a Puff, looking very Joan Wilder-like, and blows her nose. In fact Wilder, her "Romancing the Stone" character -- a timid, single woman with a cat and shelf full of miniature liquor bottles -- may be the closest Kathleen Turner has ever come to playing herself.

"When I was working really hard and before I met my husband, I'd come back to New York in between locations or something and sit in this sublet apartment and the phone wouldn't ring for days. And I thought, 'If I died, nobody would know!' I mean, my agent would finally call."

She laments the fact that her career has left little time to form or nurture friendships but also says, "The more successful you become, the less people are going to call you."

She met Jay Weiss through mutual friends. He showed her some apartments and she took him to the Russian Tea Room for lunch. "The day I got the apartment, he moved in with me."

Are apartments that hard to find in Manhattan?

"No, but men are."

So, love at first lease?

"OHHH YUCK! Actually, it was. The first day, we talked from like noon to 4 o'clock in the morning. We just talked, I hadn't talked to anyone like that for a long time. And I was real, real lonely at that time too."

They were married in 1984. He visits her in Baltimore, coming down on the Metroliner every other night. After the location work, there will be five more weeks of interiors in Los Angeles.

Has motherhood changed her acting?

"I worry a little about my concentration sometimes, and that's a gift I think I have. My ability to zero in. That's not really quite possible. I'm not the center of my universe any more, which is probably the biggest change. As adults, and actors, we very much build ourselves into the center of the world. And a mate, however wonderful the relationship, is still a choice. But a baby, a kid, pushes you right out." She raises her head, in a typical theatrical pose. "So here I am desperate and intent on the perfect pitch of this one word," and then -- she looks away, breaking the spell -- "Did she eat? She hasn't pooped in a day and a half."

She guffaws. "Somebody said, 'We want you out of here by 9, so the kid will have to be fed and bathed by 8.' I thought, 'Excuse me? This is a baby.' When she wakes up, when she's hungry, after she's eaten. What is this? You can't schedule a baby ...

"I'm gonna do it again, definitely. I worry about Rachel becoming the obsessive center of our interest and also because I think we're going to be good parents."

Still, she needs to work. "I don't want to be a baby sitter. I don't want the center of my life to be watching this child. Quite honestly, I think I'll contribute much more to this child coming home from work fulfilled and excited."

Her next job may involve executive producing: She has bought the rights to Robert Stone's "A Flag for Sunrise" as well as to Jimmy Breslin's "Table Money" -- "two roles obviously I want to do and the kinds of films I want to do."

Truth is, she can do anything she wants, be anyone she wants. And it's hard to think of another actress who has conjured up so many images of actresses past. "The New Queen of the Screen," Newsweek once gushed, "...is Bacall-haired and Hayworth-hipped, and her voice has the nicotine smoke of Susan Hayward."

Maybe she really is from another time.

"I'm so sick of that," she says finally. "They don't say that anymore. Now, I actually heard somebody talk about a young Kathleen Turner and I went, AAAAHHHHHHH! What happened to the old one?"