January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

Samantha Morton couldn’t wait to get to Hollywood. Arriving in 1997 to publicize her BBC miniseries Emma, “I thought, I’m going to get all these meetings with agents and casting directors,’ ” says the British actress. “It was my dream come true.” The reality, however, was more of a thud: “I sat in a hotel room in Pasadena for a week.”

That was, of course, before an Oscar nomination (as Sean Penn’s heartbroken mute lover in Woody Allen’s 1999 comedy Sweet and Lowdown) and a major hit (2002’s Minority Report, as Tom Cruise‘s psychic savior). Now Morton, 26, is getting more Oscar buzz and critical applause for In America, playing a young Irish mother who, grieving from the death of a child, escapes to New York City with her unemployed husband and two daughters. “Has there been such a presence since Ingmar Bergman introduced us to Harriet Andersson in [1953’s] Summer with Monika?” asked New Yorker critic Anthony Lane. “She seems to possess one less layer of skin than other actresses.” Says America director Jim Sheridan: “She’s not inhibited on screen in any way. She’s in the same league as Meryl Streep, but with an edge to her.”

Offscreen, Morton is more rambunctious than you’d expect. “A night out with Sam and you probably come back a couple days later,” says friend Lynne Ramsay, who directed her in the 2002 drama Morvern Callar. “At one point she’ll be happy to be in the corner, and the next minute she takes over the dance floor and people just want to watch her.” While professionally, adds Ramsay, Morton has “got that wild streak in her that will always pull her,” her daughter Esme, 3, keeps her grounded. “Everything I do now,” says Morton, whose boyfriend, Brett Shaw, is a drummer for the British band South, “I have to think, ‘Would she be proud of me?’ ” (She split with Esme’s dad—The Last Yellow costar Charlie Creed-Miles—in 2000, but says, “He’s a great father.”)

Morton’s own childhood in Nottingham, England, supplied her with a lifetime’s worth of drama. One of eight siblings, she was raised in foster care after her dad, Peter, a Scottish coal miner and poet, and mom, Pamela, a Polish factory worker, split when she was 3. Due to “an awful loophole, I was stuck in a system I couldn’t get out of,” says Morton, who has since reconciled with her parents.

Throughout that ordeal, Morton poured her energies into becoming a gymnast, until she broke her kneecap in a car accident at 12. “I was heartbroken,” says Morton, who turned to acting, which her teachers recommended as a suitable outlet for her outspokenness and confidence. Acting “captured me. I couldn’t do anything else,” says Morton, who was accepted into the prestigious Central Junior Television Workshop acting program that same year. By 1994 she was turning heads with a guest spot on the British TV drama Cracker. Three years later her successful trio of BBC mini-series—Emma, Tom Jones and Jane Eyre—caught the eye of Woody Allen, who cast her in Sweet and Lowdown.

Now Hollywood is calling constantly. Next year she’ll costar with Tim Robbins in the love story Code 46 and in Enduring Love from director Roger Michell (Notting Hill). She starts filming The Libertine with Johnny Depp in February. Despite her packed schedule, “I feel more balanced than I ever have, having Esme and being in a steady relationship,” says Morton, who lives in London but often crashes at a friend’s New York City pad. “Without sounding really conceited, I’m living a fairy tale.”

By Jason Lynch. Liza Hamm in New York City

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