December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

BRUCE PAYNE DOESN’T WANT TO TALK about his parents. Nothing personal; he’s just not in the mood. “They’re both alive,” he says. “That’s all you need to know.”

Say no more. Currently sneering onscreen as Charles Rane, a terrorist who locks glares—not to mention fists, feet and wit—with good-guy Wesley Snipes in the airborne thriller Passenger 57, Payne, 32, is making a career of convincing folks he is not a man to mess with. Already an established name in England—where in 1982 his far-out Macbeth wielded a baseball bat onstage in place of a sword—the British actor is now sending shivers down America’s spine. “Bruce enjoys taking a gamble.” says Passenger director Kevin Hooks of Payne’s sexy-scary appeal. “He likes to explore the dark side.”

It is a side Payne at one time knew too well. The youngest of three children from a middle-class London family, he suffered recurring back pain; and a mild form of the often crippling birth defect spina bifida was diagnosed when he was 16. Surgery saved his spine but kept him on his back for more than a year. “I ended up behind in my studies,” he says, “and hungry for knowledge. I like to learn things.”

Things like jumping out of airplanes—which he tried in preparation for Passenger. (“The view was so great,” says Payne, “I didn’t want to pull the cord.”) Or hitting a tennis ball with his live-in girlfriend of two years, makeup artist Nina Kraft, 30. “I used to win in the beginning,” she says with a playful sigh. “See, he tries very hard and is very intense.”

As in, it seems, intensely in love. When Kraft walks into their Beverly Hills apartment, her beau nearly trips over his military boots rushing to her side. “Red-hot lovers,” offers Mr. Mean. “I’ll say no more.”

Sure, sure. That’s all we need to know.

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