May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Until last month, the closest look most Americans got at Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced Yo-an Griffith) was his blink-and-you-missed-it role as the guy who rescued a frosty Kate Winslet in Titanic.

Now, thanks to such British coproductions as PBS’ Great Expectations and A&E’s Horatio Hornblower (in which he displayed his killer abs), Stateside audiences are getting an eyeful of the Welsh actor’s notable, er, body of work. ”He’s terribly hard to ignore, isn’t he?” agrees Expectations producer David Snodin, who cast Gruffudd despite the 25-year-old’s admitted unfamiliarity with the Dickens classic. ”He has a combination of intense talent and sensuality that’s pure star quality.”

Born in Cardiff, Wales, Gruffudd has been working since age 13 when he snagged his first role — on the Welsh soap Pobol Y Cwm (People of the Valley). Still, it wasn’t until he quit the prime-time drama six years later to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that he decided to commit to his craft. ”It wasn’t like a childhood dream: ‘Oh, I wanna be a star,”’ he says. ”But I came to realize I had a gift and…I’d be foolish to throw it away.”

In 1996, he landed in Titanic, and though his part was small, his memories of shooting the top-grossing film of all time loom large — especially director James Cameron’s ”flare-ups” and quality time with a certain fellow heartthrob. ”Hanging out with Leo was like [being in] a toy store,” says Gruffudd. ”We played Nintendo and PlayStation and skateboards and basketball. To recover, I’d go to Kate’s room, which was quiet and lit with candles, and we’d have nice cups of tea and a chat.”

These days, Gruffudd’s been getting more nibbles from Hollywood, and the actor — who next doffs the period costumes to play a U.N. soldier in Bosnia for the BBC’s Peacekeepers — is routinely mobbed by teen girls when he returns home. ”I wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t enjoying it a little bit,” says Gruffudd, who’s been dating girlfriend Charlotte for more than three years. ”But my friends still pick on me in the pub and say things like ‘You just put on makeup and flounce around.’ That tends to keep you from getting ideas above your station.”

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