LOS ANGELES — It takes major mettle to hold your own against Nick Nolte, but Nutsa Kukhianidze has got mettle and then some.

The 19-year-old newcomer’s solid performance is the best thing about Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief,” which opened in theaters Wednesday, with Kukhianidze as a Yugoslavian prostitute adrift in Cannes. The doe-eyed, sotto-voiced actress all but steals the show as a tough but tender girl who tends to Nolte’s junkie.

This story first appeared in the April 3, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But then, the edgy ingenue has already had plenty of practice playing wild. Jordan spotted Kukhianidze in the Russian film, “27 Missing Kisses,” in which, at age 15, she played a wild child who seduces an older man. In “The Good Thief,” she smokes heroin, dances up a storm, suffers at the hands of thugs and in one particularly gritty scene, cleans up after Nolte when he becomes sick from withdrawal.

“Neil just said, ‘Do whatever you feel like doing,’ so I did what I wanted,” she says, curled up in an armchair in her room at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills.

The pair make an endearing screen couple, though not in the traditional romantic sense. Think Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in “The Professional.” “There are many different ways of romance,” says Kukhianidze. “This one is much more warm. It’s two people in need of something else, of somebody to talk to or relate to. That’s what makes it special.”

Born in Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, Kukhianidze made her first film, a short about the civil war in her hometown, when she was nine. She then moved with her mother to Atlanta, where she went to school for six years. Now she lives with her grandparents and father back in Tbilisi, though she never stays in one place very long. “I get claustrophobic,” she says.

Her next film is “Mathilde,” opposite Jeremy Irons, but Kukhianidze hasn’t yet taken on the trappings of a full-blown starlet, preferring her own T-shirt and Indian-print skirt to borrowed designer clothes at a photo shoot. “My style is casual — whatever I find, I put on. I don’t like really getting dressed up or anything. I like jeans and sneakers.”

But she has yet to take the easy route where her roles are concerned. “Mathilde,” which explores another May-December romance, is tough stuff. “The background is the war in Yugoslavia and it’s about this dreamy girl who falls in love with a general in the U.N. Army and kind of makes his world go upside down,” says Kukhianidze. “All his values and morals that he had before he met her suddenly break down in a way that makes him realize there are more important things in life than violence or war.”

All this, and Kukhianidze says she’s still searching for a “difficult role.”

“You know, a really hysterical girl. Something that challenges you,” she says. “I just saw ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ for the first time and I think Roman Polanski is incredible, but he’s banned here, poor guy.”

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