Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — Linus Roache is being proclaimed as The Next Hugh Grant. Don’t ask him why.
“We’re nothing alike,” Roache, says, shaking his head and looking bewildered. “I’ve done nothing like him. I thought ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ was brilliant, but I don’t get the comparison. I could understand it if people were saying I’m like Gary Oldman or Tim Roth. But Hugh Grant?”
Roache better get used to it, because the marketing machine is revved up and rolling. He stars in the controversial new Miramax film “Priest,” which opens at the end of March, and even though it’s a small British arthouse film, it’s likely to make waves in America.
The actor’s career to date may have been mainly in classic and modern stage roles in Britain, but his clean-cut good looks and easy charm have him pegged as a natural cinema heartthrob. So what if he believes it’s the quality of work that counts, not stardom? So what if he’d rather be Edgar in “King Lear” than a hero in one of Hollywood’s written-by-the-numbers comedies? Perhaps the man dost protest too much?
Don’t bet on it. Roache, 31, has been told repeatedly that he should go to Hollywood to further his career.
“My answer has always been no. I don’t want to go there and hang out. There are enough people doing that.”
He points to “Priest” as proof he doesn’t have to head west to find good projects. The movie, made by BBC North, was the hit of the Toronto Film Festival last fall, and propelled Roache up several notches in the search for the next Grant.
It is the story of Father Greg, an initially idealistic priest sent to a poor parish in Liverpool. Father Greg meets Father Matthew Thomas (played by Tom Wilkinson), who admits to having a sexual relationship with his housekeeper (Cathy Tyson).Greg criticizes the older priest for breaking his vow of celibacy, until he begins his own sexual relationship with a man named Graham (Robert Carlyle).
The young priest’s certainty of belief is further dented when a teenage parishioner confesses her father is forcing her into incest. Greg feels helpless about his inability to break the sanctity of the confessional and tell people about the incest. The priest winds up being castigated by the parish and the community. Father Matthew convinces Greg to return to the Liverpool church and help him deliver Communion, where he finally receives the forgiveness he’s been seeking.
Roache prepared for the role by writing a “biography” of Greg before the screen character became a priest and moved to Liverpool.
“I also walked backward in my own life to where I made decisions like Greg’s to enter the priesthood,” he said over a cup of tea at a London hotel. “Becoming an actor is like becoming a priest, because there’s a feeling of wanting to serve, to give. I went back to the point where I decided to serve humanity.”
He spoke with several priests, although some refused to meet with him when they heard the details of the story.
The most controversial element in the movie is Greg’s homosexuality, which is explicitly shown in several romantic love scenes with Graham. Both actors are heterosexual.
“Those scenes were difficult, but Robert and I had a good laugh about them and got on with it,” Roache said. “We both knew they needed to be done. It’s not gratuitous sex, and isn’t a ‘gay film’ in any way. The fact that Father Greg is gay is almost irrelevant.”
Roache’s problem now is finding a script that captivates him as much as “Priest” did. The son of two actors, Roache is known as an ensemble player in the British theatrical tradition because of his work with the Almeida Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he acted opposite Ralph Fiennes in “King Lear.”
To Roache, the secret to great acting is “to get myself out of the way — otherwise acting becomes self-indulgent and egotistical.” He is thoughtful about his craft in a way that can swing from preciousness to satire within minutes. Roache talks about being the vessel that simply delivers the words and emotions to the audience. The key is learning to be open and spontaneous to the moment. While he spent most of his 20s aiming for that spontaneity in his acting, he’s now focused on getting it into his life.” ‘Priest’ has happened at a good time because I’m not as career-minded as I was,” said Roache, who prepared for the publicity whirl around the film by spending three weeks trekking in India.
“It’s taken me 10 years to get to the point where I realize that work is not the most important thing. We come in with nothing and go out with nothing, so it can’t be all work. I don’t want it to say on my headstone, ‘He was good in ‘Priest.”‘
That’s why Roache simply shrugs his shoulders over all the talk of destined stardom. Sure, he wants the acclaim, but as much for the good parts it might bring him as for the notoriety.
“I just want to do good work, whatever it is,” Roache said. “Good can be anything from ‘Groundhog Day,’ which was brilliant, to ‘Schindler’s List.’ “
His conversation makes it seem as if he’s the most secure person around, but Roache is quick to dispel that notion.
“God, no. I went through a period of trying to be impervious and secure, but this whole business thrives on your vulnerability. Deep down, my self-worth is still completely tied up with what my next part is going to be. Besides, I need to work. I have to pay for my trip to India.”