On the Big Screen, England's Joanne Whalley comes across as a fearsome sword fighter and an unapproachable beauty.

In real life, she is a diminutive 5-foot-2, 96-pound brunette with a timid look about her.Such is the magic of movies.

But she's turned the head of at least one macho American actor named Val Kilmer, who co-stars with Whalley in "Willow" as the other half of the love story.

After completing George Lucas' latest big-budget fantasy, Whalley and Kilmer saw each other regularly. They married two months ago.

"We didn't become attracted to each other until after the film was completed," she said, somewhat tight-lipped, "but I don't want to talk about my personal life. I want to discuss `Willow.' "

She grudgingly admitted that she and Kilmer now make their home in New Mexico. That ended the subject.

Whalley ascribes the dramatic difference in appearance between herself and Princess Sorsha to her acting ability, noting that she was asked to wield a sword and ride a charger, simultaneously giving the impression of being an Amazon.

"I had been an equestrienne since I was a child," she said, "so riding a horse posed no problem. But sword fighting was new to me. We had a wonderful sword master, Bill Hobbs, who has done a lot of movies.

"He was a wonderful teacher, and I was very pleased with the results. Every move in the fights was choreographed carefully to the last detail so you didn't injure anyone. I stabbed a few stunt men, but they forgave me."

Whalley, a native of Stockport, Manchester, has been acting since age 12, mostly on stage and in English television. She has appeared in only a handful of films: "Dance With a Stranger," "A Christmas Carol" and "The Good Father."

Her selection for the role of Princess Sorsha by Lucas and director Ron Howard came as a surprise to her and a good many other people.

"I understand they looked all over America, England and Europe to fill the role," Whalley said in a distinct, crisp English accent. "I was very much a long shot for the part.

"When I was called in to audition I memorized the scene on the spur of the moment for a video screen test. I had to use a plastic chair instead of a horse for the scene.

"Of course I was delighted to play Sorsha, but it was difficult to work with imaginary creatures in a special effects movie when so much is added to the film after the actors have finished their work.

"It was especially hard playing the battle scene with a 30-foot-high, two-headed monster when all I had to look at was a piece of wood being held above my head by a stagehand. All the while, Ron (Howard) was imitating a dragon, roaring and pretending to breathe fire.

"When you work in a picture of that size and scope the trick is not to lose your femininity or your belief in the reality of the character you're playing. And sometimes that's not easy when you're wearing armor, a helmet, a sling of arrows on your back and holding a heavy sword.

"You get caught up very soon into the fairy tale spirit. And even if you are only 5-foot-2 you act as if you're 9 feet tall. And if you believe it, so will others. That's called acting."