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NY POST...By LARRY WORTH ----------------------------------------------------------------------

NECKING with Tom Cruise is nothing new for Thandie Newton. But the amount of necking has changed appreciably.

In 1994, Newton's jugular quickly met Cruise's fangs for her small role in Inter4view With the Vampire. Four years later, she's moved into leading lady territory: Newton will play Cruise's love interest in next year's Mission: Impossible sequel.

Actually, Newton's history with Cruise goes back to 1990, the year she made her film debut in Flirting opposite Cruise's wife-to-be, Nicole Kidman. Though she and Kidman became - and remain - fast friends, Newton expects National Enquirer headlines after she and Cruise go to Australia for Mission location shoots in January.

I could care less about that stuff, truly Newton says, her soft-spoken British accent suddenly giving way to an infectious grin. Ultimately, the only person you need worry about is your partner. And they tend to know things that the Enquirer doesn't.

Case in point: Oliver Parker, Newton's soul mate and spouse of three months. The Spanish screenwriter met Newton two years ago when In Your Dreams - his script about date rape - drew her to his project. Ever since, she says, you couldn't fit a piece of paper between us.

Husband and family, Newton assures, are her top priorities. And that's why she's in an especially cheery mood at the Four Seasons hotel's 57-57 eatery; she's fast-forwarding to the night's rendezvous with Parker, her parents and brother.

And the occasion? The Manhattan premiere of the movie which promises to make Newton a household name: Beloved (opening to the public Friday.) Newton plays the film's title role, as adapted from Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and brought to the screen by Oprah Winfrey (who stars and co-produces).

The tale, set in Ohio shortly after the Civil War, marks Newton's third time dealing with slavery on screen - following Jefferson in Paris and The Journey of August King. But the 25-year-old London resident doesn't feel she's repeating herself.

This film blew apart everything I'd ever considered about slavery, she says, noting that her name, Thandie, coincidentally means beloved one. The intimacy of the story makes the subject more accessible than ever, at least to me.

Newton's commitment to her character - a mysterious 20-year-old with the mind of a 2-year-old - was such that she didn't resist one of director Jonathan Demme's script alterations: He wanted a shot of 400,000 ladybugs crawling over Beloved, from head to toe.

By that point, she says, I had already explored so many dark places that working with a few hundred thousand insects was a picnic.

Ever the trouper, Newton was equally amenable to the required nudity. But she notes that her sentiments on baring skin have altered since meeting Parker.

The fact that this was a non-sexual scene made a big difference, she says. I don't know how I'd carry off a full-blown lovemaking shot. The intimacy of my relationship with Ol has changed everything. It didn't matter before. But I was never in love before.

That's not to say Newton didn't have her share of beaus while growing up. In fact, a perfectly hideous ex-boyfriend first introduced her to Morrison's book.

It was the only good thing to come out of a very bad pairing, she says. He gave me the book to make me politicize myself as an African-American, which was pathetic in and of itself.

For the record, Newton isn't African-American. She's African-English, with a blond, green-eyed British dad and a dark-haired, dark-eyed mom from Zimbabwe. The family remained in Zimbabwe until Newton was 4, then moved to Cornwall, England.

At age 11, Newton was sent to a North London private school. Five years later, that's where director John Duigan went looking to find unknowns for Flirting. Newton not only got the part, but juggled more films and scholastics when later enrolled at Cambridge University.

I didn't have time to get involved with the social life at university or on-set, she says. But I got the best of both. And having majored in anthropology, I now explore my fascination for cultures in the roles I take.

With more parts coming her way than ever, Newton's only remaining problem is how the world-at-large mauls her first name. It's pronounced Tan-dee.

Please, she says with a roll of her eyes. I learned long ago that I have to proportion the right amount of annoyance for that. Otherwise, I'd spend all my energy on the trivial. And life's way too short for that.

TRUE BRIT (From PEOPLE Magazine)

Winsome English actress Thandie Newton, 24, played a slave in Jefferson in Paris and a puncture victim in Interview with the Vampire. Now, in Gridlock'd, she costars with Tim Roth and the late Tupac Shakur as a jazz singer with a drug habit. "I never had to think about glamor in the roles I've played, and I'd rather not," says Newton, who likes to keep her feet on the ground. "I can't even wear heels. I think they're absurd." The London-based actress now spends more time in L.A., where, she says, filmmakers have fewer preconceptions about her. "I'm thrilled that I can get right past prejudgments," says Newton. "I walk into a room in L.A. and [the way people see me] might seem to be a racial thing. But as soon as I open my mouth, it isn't about being black anymore. Suddenly it's about being English."

THANDIE NEWTON? IN YOUR DREAMS! 12/12/97 by Mandy Marodeen

THANDIE Newton's leading something of a double life. On the one hand she's a big movie star, appearing in The Leading Man opposite the gorgeous Jon Bon Jovi. On the other, she's an endearingly down-to-earth young lady who thinks nothing of being flown into London first class and then taking the Tube.

"I like to see life from all angles," she tells Teletext. "When I'm on the Tube and see posters of myself, I stick chewing gum on my face!" she laughs.

Beautiful, talented 25-year-old Thandie's career has blossomed since she starred in the movie Flirting with Nicole Kidman, when they were in their teens. "Nicole's so busy these days but we do see each other sometimes and success definitely hasn't gone to her head," says Thandie.

"And her husband is the sweetest man," she adds, referring to heart-throb Tom Cruise. "He's always so attentive."

Date rape When Thandie was offered the role of Clare in BBC2's harrowing date rape drama, In Your Dreams, she knew she would find the subject matter harrowing.

"It's a very strong piece dealing with a very difficult subject and I found it a distressing part to play," she says. "It was deeply upsetting and made me depressed because I was playing someone who was suffering and frustrated and I could really feel the anxiety."

Although she found playing a rape victim difficult, the actress was glad to be in a drama which deals with such issues. "If someone has suffered rape, one way of dealing with it is by seeing films like this and realising that it does happen to a huge number of people.

"The law is supposed to be there to protect people and prevent it from happening again. But it fails on both counts," she says.

"I've kissed men because I didn't dare not to..." Remembering life as an impressionable student, Thandie says the scenes in In Your Dreams echo her own experiences. "I've been in situations where I've thought 'how did I get here?' I've wanted to please people, wanted to be liked. I've kissed men because I didn't dare not to," she says.

"Now if I found myself in a situation I was uncomfortable with I'd make myself perfectly clear."

Not that such a situation's on the cards at the moment - in real life, Thandie marries her writer fiancÚ next May. But she won't name the lucky man. "I've no idea what kind of wedding it will be as we're both hopeless planners.

"But babies are definitely on the horizon.Children are so important to me. I don't know how I'll combine career and motherhood, but I'll make it work somehow."

Following a well-earned holiday with her fiancÚ, Thandie's about to start work on the Disney movie Beloved in which she stars opposite Oprah Winfrey. But meanwhile her role in the BBC's In Your Dreams is sure to whip up the debate about what constitutes rape. Thandie says she's glad about that.

"I've been involved in films in my life which haven't represented women in a good way," she admits. "But In Your Dreams is something I'm very proud of."

In Your Dreams is on BBC2, December 14.