NOT many young men appreciate the fact that the girl next door will feel much warmer in your arms than the cool, ethereal, and utterly unattainable goddess from the cinema poster. You have to be a pot-bellied thirty-something before the truth finally sinks in. By then the alarming truth is also realised about those Hollywood beach babes whose plastic cleavages and brick-laid smiles are suddenly not anywhere near as heart warming as the shy smile of that pretty lass standing next to you in the bus queue.

Thank heavens, then, for Catherine McCormack, one of those wonderful hybrid creatures who combines the celestial aura of Hollywood stardom with a bashful, natural, girl-next-door beauty. She herself is disarmingly honest about her own image. For her role in The Honest Courtesan she readily used a body double. ''Rufus (Sewell) got to lie naked with this beautifully structured woman,'' she confesses. ''I would go off and a goddess would take over. I've never looked better on screen.''

Handpicked by Mel Gibson to play his wife, Murron, in the William Wallace fantasy Braveheart, her accent may have been more convincing than the see-yooo Jummy parlance of Mel Gibson but, in fact, this bonnie wee lass is a Southerner.

Born on New Year's Day, 1972, in Alton, Hampshire, da' was a steelworker and ma' died from lupus disease when Catherine was only six. Educated at a convent and then private school in Alton, before attending the Oxford School of Drama in Woodstock, her film debut was as a troubled student in Loaded, directed by Anna Campion.

Braveheart was the vehicle which really should have given her yon ''Freedom!'' to pick and choose her next project, but despite the film's phenomenal success, at the tender age of 23 she turned her back on lucrative offers to work instead as a bar hand in a pub in Fulham, west London. Her reason? ''Every part I was sent seemed to be for tragic women with long hair. So I got my hair cut and sat around because I wanted to do films with strong women in them who have something to say.''

Finally, she chose to play former prostitute Annie Grant opposite the Big Yin in Deacon Brodie. Soon the role of lady of the night had became a leitmotif - in The Honest Courtesan (dumbed down for the American market and translated into Dangerous Beauty because our cousins across the pond didn't know what courtesan meant) her embroidered undergarments were up and down like a Venetian blind as a sixteenth-century madame in deep water in Venice.

The final cut was disappointing for all involved. ''I had no idea it would turn out so rose-tinted. I hoped it would open up better films for me, but it absolutely did not.''

There was better fare however, in the moving and beautifully scripted Dancing at Lughnasa she starred alongside Meryl Streep as a browbeaten girl who bears an illegitimate child in the morally-straitjacketed Ireland of the 1930s.

Appearing with the luminaries of the movie world has fast become second nature: Shadow of the Vampire saw her paired with Willem Dafoe, The Weight of Water with Sean Penn, Spy Game with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, The Tailor of Panama with Pierce Brosnan . . . More recently McCormack has been treading the boards, something she had not done since she was a 19-year-old student playing a 90-year-old in a Russian drama called The Mother. She has also directed her first movie, based on William Boyd's tale, Cork, a love story set in Portugal.

Fellas, swoon in vain over Sophie-Marceau; fall in love with Catherine McCormack, in Braveheart, BBC1, 9.00pm