Don't call Mimi Leder "Action Woman."

"People can say what they want," she acknowledges, but despite being Hollywood's foremost female action film director, she doesn't want to be pigeonholed."I'm not going to let that happen," she says. "Therefore, it's very important for me, for my next movie, not to do an action movie, not to do a movie with effects. And I won't."

Since making last year's "The Peacemaker" and now "Deep Impact," much has been made of her foray into action films - too much, she thinks.

"I don't consider myself an action director. I can direct action. But I don't want to be labeled as an action director. I just want to be called a director."

She began her directing career in 1986 with an episode of "L.A. Law," then went on to direct several other series, including "China Beach," for which she got four Emmy nominations. In 1995, she won an Emmy for the "Love's Labor Lost" episode of "ER" and a second Emmy as co-executive producer. Then Steven Spielberg chose her to make "The Peacemaker," his DreamWorks company's first movie, which was Leder's feature debut as well.

"I've been directing drama for 10 years," she says, "so, it's like all of a sudden I'm `Action Woman.' "

Still, many women are pulling for her to succeed in that role.

Lynda Obst, a producer whose credits include "Contact," has said the notion of a woman at the helm of an action film "adds a certain swagger to women in general."

And while the 46-year-old Leder may be uncomfortable wearing the mantle of trailblazer or role model, she's glad if her success opens studio gates.

"If I can help other women, that's really cool. And that's really important and special," she says. "There's so many talented women out there, and the more women get the opportunity to do the job and they do it well, the more womenwill get jobs."

For now, though, she's concerned about whether "Deep Impact" - a $75 million picture about a comet hurtling toward Earth - is being marketed the right way, since she considers it more of a drama than an action film.

It's true that the most impressive special effects come near the movie's end, and most of the time before that is devoted to three interwoven stories: astronauts trying to destroy or redirect the comet, the travails of two teen-agers in love and the strained emotions among a newswoman and her divorced parents.

Before making this film, starring Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman and Tea Leoni, Leder says she watched Stanley Kramer's 1959 movie, "On the Beach," an adaptation of Nevil Shute's novel about the last people on Earth facing death from radioactivity after World War III.

She figured: "If I can just get some of what's in that movie in this movie, that's the flavor I'm interested in - I'm interested in these people, I'm interested in `Is tomorrow a good day to die?' . . . I'm interested in what choices we've made. Have I made the right choices in my life? If I had a year to live . . . how would I live my life differently?"

She further wanted to explore the theme of how to say good-bye to the ones you love.

"To me, there's nothing stronger than human emotion. I don't care how great your effect is, how great the action is, there's nothing greater than one ounce of human emotion. So the object was how to make the effects as good as the human emotion, and that was my approach. And people look at me (as if to say): `What?! You know that's not true. It's how do you make the effects good."'

People also suggest it's a woman's touch that makes "Deep Impact" focus more on character development and emotion than a typical action movie.

Her response to them: "Come on. Now that's not fair. Yes, I'm a woman, and I bring my femaleness, and I bring me to the party. But you can't tell me that the man who directed `Terms of Endearment' and the man who directed `Schindler's List' and the man who directed `Cinema Paradiso' - just name all the films that made you weep - and they were directed by men."

In the same way, action films shouldn't be derided as testosterone-drenched affairs, she says.

"I have no testosterone," she laughs in stating the obvious. "You don't have to have big muscles to direct a muscular film. And you don't need testosterone. You just need brains . . . and passion to get everything done."