Byline: Merle Ginsberg

NEW YORK — Hank Azaria might be better known if he could just get his image straight.
Not that he isn’t successful. He’s had small but memorable parts in a number of big films, and now he’s getting more attention than ever as the cross-dressing, bewigged Latino houseboy in HotPants in “The Birdcage.” He practically steals this week’s number-one movie from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, who aren’t exactly mousy in it.
“I know I’d probably be more conspicuous if I could hone one image,” Azaria admits. “But I’m not sure it’s in my nature.”
The Forest Hills-born 31-year-old broke into TV playing a rabid womanizer on the Fox sitcom “Herman’s Head.” Next, Robert Redford cast him as a corrupt TV producer in “Quiz Show.” He’s had small but pivotal parts in “Now and Then” and “Heat,” and recently, he turned up on “Friends” as a supernerd who tries to romance Lisa Kudrow. On “The Simpsons,” he’s the voice of a number of characters.
“That’s the blessing and the curse of my career,” Azaria sighs. “You really can’t categorize me. And anyway, you don’t really get to choose what your path is going to be. I would have thought ‘Quiz Show’ would do more for my career. You have to fight for every scrap in this business. Still, I never thought my first big part in a movie would be this — an aspiring drag queen, not even a drag queen!
“The character sounds a little like my grandmother,” he smiles, “but he acts maternal, like my Jewish mother. It’s the only way I know how to be female. I tried to make him be not too much of a screamer. When Robin and Nathan let loose, I played it down. There’s a balance of energy.”
The “Friends” part came about because Azaria is a good friend of Matthew Perry. Jennifer Aniston is an old friend, too — she played Herman’s sister in “Herman’s Head.”
“I dated her on that show,” says Azaria. “I knew she’d be huge.”
His girlfriend is also a big TV star — Helen Hunt.
“I did a small part on ‘Mad About You,’ ” he says, “just so I could spend some time with her. She brings a depth to that medium few other people do. We’re in love — and yes, it is pretty sweet.”
Even though he’s been on a circuitous route toward stardom, Azaria still has no set course — comedies or dramas, TV or film.
“Why not shoot for all of it?” he says. “Then maybe you’ll get half. I originally auditioned for Rob Morrow’s part in ‘Quiz Show,’ and I was sure I’d wind up with nothing. Mike Nichols liked me in that movie and offered me one scene in ‘Birdcage.’ He kept changing his mind about what I should play. How much control do we ever have? The only thing I ask is that whatever I do next, it’s not in shorts.”

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