Madeleine Stowe knows something about abused characters.

In "Revenge," a critical and box-office bomb in which she starred last year with Kevin Costner, Stowe's character was beaten and removed to a filthy Mexican brothel.Before dying in Costner's arms, Stowe (and the audience) had to endure the grunting fumblings of several fat, sweaty locals.

In the new "Closet Land," Stowe stars as a woman (she remains nameless throughout) who has been abducted late at night in an unnamed country. We soon learn she's a political prisoner of sorts - her children's stories are deemed "potentially subversive" by the government. She's confronted by a man (again nameless; played by Alan Rickman) in a room, and, over the course of the movie, is subjected to both physical and psychological torture to break her down. Though the movie ends before her death, there's no doubt about the fate awaiting Stowe's character.

On the surface, both characters seem to have a lot in common - namely, attractive female victim - but Stowe makes a persuasive case for key distinctions.

"My character was this amorphous, undeveloped and inarticulate woman who, as it turned out, was there just to instigate trouble between Kevin and Anthony Quinn," says Stowe of her role in "Revenge." "While my character is also victimized in `Closet Land,' she's everything the other one isn't. She's strong, very verbal and, even given the situation, is more in control - in the core of her being - than her captor."

Stowe, who debuted in features in the 1987 suspense-comedy hit "Stakeout," is quick to express disappointment over "Revenge," though it led directly to "Closet Land." The latter is the kind of ambitious, difficult and well-intentioned movie - a small two-character drama on a serious subject - that's about as far removed from the big-budget "Revenge" as you can get.

"I came off a difficult experience with `Revenge,"' admits the 32-year-old Stowe, who combines a certain seriousness with frequent laughter. "The problems with the script were never worked out. The writer's strike at the time didn't help. It was very frustrating, and I felt I had to make a radical departure. After I read the `Closet Land' script, I really pursued the part. It was the best script I had read."

Making "Closet Land," says Stowe, has also brought home to her the plight of political prisoners. "I think I've always been a lot like the majority of Americans, even among people who consider themselves liberal: We watch TV and rail against what we see, read papers and get angry, talk with friends about it, but not do much. I donate money but never my time. It might be something I'll have to change in my life."

Stowe only had to suffer one bad little feature (she reluctantly disclosed the title - "Tropical Snow") before the successful "Stakeout." Then, after detouring in a mediocre comedy with Mark Harmon called "Worth Winning," she was cast as the love interest of Costner, one of Hollywood's hottest stars.

That's a fast rise, even for an attractive and talented young actress. "I've been lucky - I've never had to work a straight job to support myself," says Stowe.

Then came "The Two Jakes," Jack Nicholson's "Chinatown" sequel, in which Stowe let loose as a wildly demonstrative woman who in one scene gets slung over big Jack's shoulder. "It was a lot of fun - I played a real nutty character," she says.

Born and raised in Los Angeles (her mother is Costa Rican), Stowe sheepishly confesses that she was "discovered" at the age of 18 by a top veteran agent while walking up the aisle in a movie theater.

"He said I had a certain look - I had an `ethereal' quality," says Stowe. "I've never had a strong self-image, so I went around trying to act ethereal, something idiotic that only a formless child would try to do."

Stowe also admits to a "tremendous stage fright" that not only has kept her off the stage since a couple of early New York productions, but has also ruled out acting studies. "I've never studied acting beyond a high school class," she says.

Stowe, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 10 years, actor Brian Benben (star of the HBO series "Dream on"), recently completed "China Moon," a noir romantic thriller due this summer in which she stars with Ed Harris. After that, Stowe's not sure what she'll be doing. Down the road she'd like to bring a couple of stories to the screen herself.

Though there might be less intriguing characters in Stowe's future than the woman she plays in "Closet Land," the work will never hark back to what Stowe describes as her depressing early TV days.

"I did such terrible work back then," she says, shaking her head but smiling. "I made this Christmas movie, called `The Nativity,' in which I played the Virgin Mary. It comes back every year, so I can't hide, you know. Just last December my friend called me up and said, `Madeleine, you're riding the donkey again.' "

She lets out a big spontaneous laugh. At this point in Stowe's career, a look-back-and-laugh attitude comes easily.