September 08, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Peter Greene says he wasn’t sure he wanted the role of Zed, the rent-a-cop who terrorizes Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. He wasn’t concerned about the impact of a homosexual rape scene on his career. He was worried about embarrassing his parents: ”Once they said, ‘No, go ahead,’ I said, ‘Fine.”’

That combination of on-screen evil and offscreen sensitivity characterizes Greene, who grew up in New York City and got his theatrical start doing what he calls ”Off Off Off way Off Broadway.” Lately, he has become one of Hollywood’s busiest bad guys, most widely seen on video as the nightclub owner Jim Carrey flushes down a toilet in The Mask and as a gang member in Judgment Night. He is currently in theaters as a terrorist in Under Siege 2 and a fence in The Usual Suspects. In real life, though, Greene comes off as a giant exposed nerve ending — apologizing for an interrupted phone interview with the explanation that he and his girlfriend are having a fight, and confessing that the only movies of his he’s watched all the way through are the ones in which he’s had bit parts. ”You see the mistakes,” he explains. ”I went to The Mask premiere, but I was sitting in the lobby.”

Another movie that Greene hasn’t sat through — the one that brought him to Quentin Tarantino’s attention — is the 1991 drama Laws of Gravity, in which he stars as a thief torn by loyalty. That role — along with his performance as a schizophrenic searching for his daughter in 1993’s Clean, Shaven — makes the actor more than a garden-variety screen hood. ”I think that a lot of actors who are very emotional and intense seem to play the same characters over and over, but Peter’s range is enormous,” says Clean, Shaven director Lodge Kerrigan. ”It would be a shame if he gets typecast.”

The future holds more sinister roles for Greene, who with his sunken eyes and chiseled cheekbones looks eerily like another movie heavy, Eric Roberts. (”I don’t see a resemblance,” Greene says. ”He’s a nice guy, though, good-looking guy.”) He recently wrapped Coyote, in which he plays a crime lord, and is set to costar as a blackmailer in the thriller A Rich Man’s Wife. Though concerned about the restraints of typecasting, Greene spends more time talking about freedom — the chance, for example, to improvise his creepy game of ”eenie, meenie, minie, moe” in Pulp Fiction. ”You need a role for which you’re given some responsibility,” Greene says. ”Otherwise, it’s not worth a goddamn thing.”

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