“It’s so much more fun than playing the good girl,” Laura Harring said of her role in “The Punisher” during a recent stopover in Dallas. The beautiful, dark-haired actress co-stars in the big-budget adaptation of the Marvel comic as Livia, the hard-hearted wife of crime lord Howard Saint (John Travolta) who orders her husband to kill not only the undercover agent whose sting led to the death of her son, but the man’s entire family as well. The resultant slaughter turns the agent, who alone survives, into the title vigilante, who targets all the remaining Saints, as well as their whole organization, for termination. “Evil characters don’t realize they’re evil,” she explained. “They’re in such pain and have such fear that they’re almost in survival mode. Whatever it takes to survive is what they do. We all have pain in us that we can tap. The challenge is to tap into the pain of your character, to really imagine those circumstances, and to do that you have to give yourself time to really live that life.” Harring especially liked the way in which writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh has chosen to introduce Livia, veiled in black until she slowly lifts the covering to reveal her face. “I thought that was very cinematic and dramatic,” she said. “And great for a comic book movie.”

But between shots all was hardly so intense, Harring recalled. “Off camera John Travolta and I were singing and dancing. We’re both dancers, and it was fun,” she said. She also appreciates the moments of humor and human drama Hensleigh included in what’s primarily an action movie. “The violence has to be balanced with some humor or humanity–human relationships, something warm that’s a positive kind of emotion,” she said. “And I think this movie achieves that. Pure entertainment. You have the adrenaline rush from the action, but you also have the laughter, which to me is wonderful.”

Harring spent her youth in Mexico before her family moved to Texas when she was ten. At sixteen, she persuaded her mother to let her study in Switzerland, and after graduation spent a year traveling and serving as a social worker in India. Upon her return to America, she entered the Miss Texas beauty pageant, won, and went on to be chosen Miss U.S.A. (She also married Count Carl von Bismarck, and though the couple later divorced, she still bears the title of countess.) It was her stint as the contest winner that led her into acting. “A producer saw me and called me in for ‘The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory’ (1987),” she explained. “To play Santa Anna’s wife.” The Mexican president was played by Raul Julia, and it was while watching him that Harring decided she wanted to become an actress. “The moment I saw him concentrating for a scene, so focused you could have heard a pin drop, something happened inside me where I knew that that’s what I wanted to do–a flash, like a lightning bolt. And I’ve been in Hollywood ever since.”

Harring has appeared in a wide variety of films, from an exploitation quickie like 1990’s “The Forbidden Dance: Lambada” (in which she played a Brazilian princess) to comedies like “Exit to Eden” and “Little Nicky” (with Adam Sandler) and the remake of “Willard” with Crispin Glover. But perhaps her best-known film role was in David Lynch’s enigmatic “Mulholland Drive,” which won both her and Naomi Watts widespread acclaim. Do people ever ask her to explain that picture to them? “Every day,” she answered, smiling. “But I don’t mind. When we were reading [the script], we had no idea what it was about. We tried to pretend to David that we knew. I tried to get David to tell me. It’s one of those movies you can talk about for a long time, and you can see over and over, and I’m so happy to have been a part of that.”

Harring’s next role will take her behind the camera. Inspired by colleagues like Salma Hayek, who made “Frida,” she’s created her own production company, which is embarking on its first project. “It’s a great script, a very low budget, arthouse film, and it deals with a very current issue,” she said. “I’ll be starring in it and the director is so talented. I’m very excited, because as women we’re not represented in Hollywood at all. I feel one has to start taking control of one’s career. It’s so rewarding to have creative input. As an actor…it’s not your vision, and you don’t have final say.”

Producing–and perhaps later directing–will also give Harring the opportunity to tackle a wide variety of roles. “I just love playing the femme fatale or the glamor girl or whatever,” she said, “but I love playing different characters. I like to do new things, expand my consciousness. I like to live life to the fullest. If I don’t, I feel like I’m wasting my life, and I’d rather fail and try than not try at all.” One idea that especially appeals to Harring came when observers remarked on the chemistry between her and John Travolta on the “Punisher” set, leading to a suggestion that they should make a romantic comedy together.

“You know, that is the best idea I’ve heard all year,” she recalled replying.