Guy Pearce, the Aussie much touted for his work as a clench-jawed cop in the neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," is familiar to couch potatoes down under for his work in TV's "Man From Snowy River" and the "90210"-like series "Neighbors," but he's best known in the U.S. as one of the drag divas in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

While he demonstrates little of the machismo associated with outback icons like Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee or the dingo that ate Meryl Streep's baby, fans of "Priscilla" won't recognize him as one of L.A.'s finest.

Pearce plays the straightest of straight arrows in this streamlined adaptation of James Ellroy's sprawling crime novel, which set critics buzzing at May's Cannes Film Festival. The ensemble cast boasts brand names like Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito, but Pearce and New Zealander Russell Crowe have the pivotal roles because of their relative obscurity.

"I wanted audiences to accept the characters at face value, not to make assumptions on the basis of roles they've played before," says "L.A. Confidential's" director and co-writer Curtis Hanson. The director didn't watch "Priscilla," says Pearce, "because he didn't want to see me running about in a frock for two hours."

Pearce plays Ed Exley, a priggish young detective who must overcome his hatred for his brutish colleague, Crowe, to solve a multiple homicide in this '50s-era crime drama. Rigid, anal and emotionally repressed, Pearce makes "Dragnet's" Jack Webb look like a refugee from "Police Academy 6." He's despised by his colleagues for his ruthless ambition, his lack of understanding and his pomposity.

Pearce didn't especially like Exley either when he first encountered him in the screenplay: "Like audiences probably will, I was pretty quick to judge him and dislike him for being so self-righteous. I mean he has such a superiority complex. But I liked how honest he became about himself. I knew I could grow to respect and understand him."

Though Exley becomes more accessible over the course of the movie and receives his lesson in humility, he remains as dangerously ambitious as ever. In the end, he may become as corrupt as the municipal machine he has helped dismantle, but still Pearce finds him admirable: "My definition of a hero is someone who can modestly see where they fit in, what they have to offer and what their limits are and what their boundaries are."

He thinks all people ought to ask and answer these questions for themselves, especially if they feel they have the right to put on a badge, carry a gun and sit in judgment over other men. "In reality, most don't. If they did, we wouldn't have a police force." Nor for that matter do most fictional cops, which he sees as the beauty of "L.A. Confidential."

"Most American movies," he observes, "are about some guy that's kind of living on the edge and saves the world and has the chick and does the gun stuff. And it's full of all those stupid one-liners that mean nothing. I want something a lot more than that. Have you seen "Face/Off"? I hate slagging off other movies but I thought it was {expletive} ridiculous. Banal chase scenes, trained shooters missing their targets."

If the British-born actor is ill at ease with stupid one-liners, he is even more out of place on a recent visit to Washington. On this hot and humid day, Pearce is wearing a sweater and a heavy suede jacket over his T-shirt. "When I came down here I was so frozen. My temperature gauge is rather extreme and I'm either having a hot flash or I'm freezing to death. It's my sensitive skin. I sunburn easily," he explains.

Although he's had several cups of coffee now, the actor has yet to shed his jacket, which is soiled, torn in places and sprinkled with flakes of styling mousse or perhaps dandruff. With his scruffy beard and mussed hair, the slight almost-30-year-old might be taken for an indigent were he not sipping brew at the Four Seasons Hotel.

"I should be drinking chamomile tea instead of coffee. I'm an anxious enough person as it is. I find that I can think a lot more clearly and I can feel a lot more secure about myself when I'm calm," says Pearce, who prefers the solitude of his life in Melbourne to the flurry of activities surrounding the release of "L.A. Confidential."

"There's a really great intimacy about Australia and a great sensibility. At this stage, we don't have a lot of money . . . so it forces everyone to be creative and to really take a look at aspects of society that we find particularly fascinating. Because we are so isolated, we feel like we can do anything and no one's going to see us. We're like kids in a cubby house in the backyard where the parents can't see them.

"But it's also fascinating to do the Hollywood thing. This was much bigger than anything I've done, but I don't think this was considered to be a big-budget American film," says Pearce, adding that he felt honored to be working with this cast.

"We were such a close-knit group. Danny was wonderful. And Kim is just adorable. She's so adorable. She's just so . . ." Adorable? "When you talk to her she's such an adorable kind of, yeah. And I just expected her to be so Hollywood, I guess because she's done all these kind of Hollywoodesque kind of films. Russell calls her his sweet Georgia peach, and that's kind of what she is," babbles Pearce, who has a love scene with Basinger. But then so does everybody else, since she plays a Hollywood hooker.

"It's the typical male fantasy, isn't it, to know that this woman is on tap? Give her the money and she gets lost. It's the only female role in the movie and she's a hooker. But she does it well. She's really a sort of sex goddess and there really is this aura surrounding her . . . must be so difficult to deal with."

Pearce, a Windex-eyed, high-cheekboned hunk in his own right, feels her pain. "It's embarrassing. I mean you spend your life dealing with your insecurities and your paranoias and your fears and you go out in public and people scream and do crazy things and say crazy things, like sex symbol,' and you go, that's not me they're talking about. I've had girls want me to sign their breasts. I guess it made them feel a little closer to me. It made me feel a little closer to them, that's for sure."

Then he made "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and people were asking him to sign other things. What does this do to a man's sense of himself?

"Screws it right up! No, I think it only enhances it. I don't know what my sense of myself was anyway, or is. I certainly never sort of had any insecurities about stepping into that role and saying what it all felt like to be that expressive and to take on that element of femininity. It's ultimately liberating to play any character, to try and understand aspects of other people."

The irony, he believes, is that a man who impersonates women "doesn't like women at all, which is not an endearing quality. For all his fun, he doesn't know how to love." Though Ed Exley's about as warm as an order of sushi, that's something he discovers -- with a little help from Basinger's solicitous hooker.

After suffering through the breakup of a long-term relationship, Pearce, too, has found love with Kate, his wife of six months. "This is my wedding band," he points out. "Hers is the same, except about twice as wide. It suits her. I'm too sort of petite to wear anything that large." CAPTION: Guy Pearce, above, on his strait-laced "L.A. Confidential" alter ego, Ed Exley, top: "I was pretty quick to judge him and dislike him for being so self-righteous."