It's early morning, and Rebecca De Mornay is chain-smoking and gesturing broadly as she discusses her latest movie, "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," which opens Friday.

We're sitting in a Disney World restaurant, along with about 100 other movie critics, and De Mornay is being escorted from table to table every 15 minutes to answer the same questions for 10 of us at a time.And she doesn't seem too thrilled about it.

De Mornay exudes confidence, but it's the confidence of an actress who is doing the publicity thing because she has to, not because she wants to. Still, she's doing it - she likes the movie and wants to support it, and she enjoyed playing a villain for the first time and hopes it will provide her first hit in nearly a decade.

As she sits down at the table, she's anxious to find out how the group felt about the film. The first thing she says is, "Well, did you like it?" There's a lot of hemming and hawing, until someone finally says, with a jovial laugh, "You're not supposed to ask critics that question - we like to keep our opinions inside until we write them."

De Mornay isn't amused and looks slightly insulted by the comment. But she gamely plunges in, answering questions, which are primarily about her character in the film: Peyton Flanders is a deranged woman seeking revenge on Claire Bartel, whom she holds responsible for her husband's suicide. But Peyton doesn't go after Claire with an axe. Instead, she worms her way into Claire's family and attempts to win away the affections of her husband and children.

De Mornay was thrust into the spotlight in 1983 when she co-starred in "Risky Business," which put Tom Cruise on the road to superstardom. But De Mornay was never quite able to make another big box-office splash, starring in pictures like "Dealers," "And God Created Woman" and "Feds."But those movies and versatile supporting roles in such films as "Runaway Train" and "The Trip to Bountiful" helped casting directors realize that she has a remarkable range.

So, while taking the role of Peyton in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" was certainly a challenge, it was also just another step in a career of choices that allow De Mornay to keep from being typecast.

"It was fun for me to watch it, but it wasn't really fun to play this role," De Mornay explained. "It was intense and lonely. When I was playing it, I isolated myself from most of the cast and crew for three months so I would stay inside of a vision I had of what Peyton's world was. It was really going out on a limb to do

this part."

She said one concern was how to play the character in a way that would allow the audience to find her, at least to some degree, sympathetic. "One of the dangers of this kind of role is that you can go way over the top because it's such a flamboyant character. I sat long and hard with Curtis (Hansen, the director) to tell him how subtle I wanted to play it, otherwise it would be laughable. He also wanted to underplay the thing. We were in tandem on that.

"Just playing someone so psychotic, I realized I had to make her believable, I had to create a whole inner landscape for her. She marches to a different drum than everyone else in the movie, and staying true to that vision for three months straight was difficult.

"This movie really demanded a lot. One of the things I'm grateful for is that I've had a lot of acting training. All the human emotions all of us have. We have intent to murder in us, we have rage, we have grief - we have everything. As an actor it's your job to make these feelings, which society teaches us to cover, readily available. So, when it came to a scene of rage, I was ready."

De Mornay said the most difficult scene was a confrontation with mentally retarded handyman Solomon, played by Ernie Hudson, who is physically quite imposing. "It was the psychological humiliation of another human being, which is so true to what we've all experienced in some way. To summon that kind of power in myself, to completely put down a man twice my size - and to do it effectively - that was spooky."

Though she has no other projects set at the moment, De Mornay says with a smile, "I'm kind of all prepped now to go do another psycho." After a pause, however, she says, "But I'd actually rather do a very passionate, innocent woman."