In tougher roles

Hollywood

In tougher roles

Taking on challenges: Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side’.

Sandra Bullock has been doing interviews all day in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, but she’s still full of energy when we meet, and is as witty and self-mocking as a fan might expect from her film roles. Oddly, perhaps, she’s rather more slender and pretty in the flesh than on screen.
We’re here to talk about her performance in her new film The Blind Side, which is based on a true story — the film for which she has since won an Oscar. She plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a well-heeled, white Memphis woman who takes in a homeless black teenager, a giant, almost silent man-child called Michael Oher, then mentors him through high school to a football scholarship at her alma mater, the University of Mississippi.

The film could not have served her better, but then last year was a good year, professionally at least, for Bullock. Indeed if ever an actor had a full-spectrum, 360-degree banner year to celebrate, it was Sandra Bullock in 2009. (“Hey, every year’s a banner year!” she mock-protests.) First The Proposal, a romantic comedy of the type she has been honing to a fine, gleaming point for about a decade now, made an estimated $320m at the box-office on a mere $40m outlay. Meanwhile, The Blind Side, late in the year, crossed over in its second and third weekends to a more conservative audience that often dodges Hollywood product. Directed by John Lee Hancock, it has made more money than any previous movie featuring a single above-the-title female star: $265m and counting.

Faith, family & football
As often happens in the Hollywood crapshoot, Bullock was initially underwhelmed by the part that was to win her an Oscar. “I mean, I loved the story but I didn’t know how to play her — and it was a while before I got there,” she says. “The director said, after about eight months, ‘Why don’t you go and see Leigh Anne and see what I’m talking about? It’ll explain her.’ I met her and was really blown away by the energy she had. I stopped thinking about it like an actor just seeing a part, and the story is what finally got me.”

The Blind Side comes adorned with aspects of casting and storyline — especially its emphasis on the three F-words of the South: Faith, Family, and Football — that seem designed to court a more conservative audience. Country superstar Tim McGraw plays husband Sean Tuohy, a franchise-restaurant millionaire.

In the movie Bullock has a well-crafted Memphis accent and frosted-blond Big Hair, and the transformation is fun to watch — “You know, I would not make a good blonde; it’s just too much work” — but the Alpha-Mom role never really strays far from the no-nonsense, stiff-necked workaholics Bullock plays in many of her comedies (“art imitating life!” she chortles).

At 45, Bullock is a mega-star, but despite all the hit films she has starred in, she has never seemed at ease with the rigmarole that goes with being a celebrity. I ask her — and this is of course a while before she wins the Oscar — how the whole pre-Oscar whirl is treating her. “Leaving my house and getting on to a red carpet is always crazy for me, because you have to find a way to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable situation imaginable. How do you talk yourself down so it’s all water off a duck’s back? It’s a world that’s not mine — I just come in and do my job and then go back home.”

Part of the reason why Bullock has always seemed a bit different from your common-or-garden Hollywood A-lister is her slightly unusual choice of spouse, and — until last week anyway — how private she has managed to keep her private life. Her husband of five years is motorcycle builder and stuntman Jesse James, and when we meet, Bullock knocks back questions about their life together like deftly fielded shuttlecocks; they pile up at my feet unanswered, or barely answered. When I suggest there’s a similarity between Tuohy adopting Oher and Bullock (who has no children of her own) taking on James’s three children from previous relationships, she waves the suggestion away with a laugh.

Getting noticed
In her early years, Bullock had studied drama at East Carolina University, after which she moved to New York, attended acting classes and appeared in the odd student movie and off-Broadway play before being spotted. “Getting into television was a total fluke. Random audition out of Backstage magazine. You get a part in a play, someone sees you, suddenly you’re zipped off to California and you’re like, ‘Oh this is odd, but hey, I’m working, paying the bills.’”

Her early roles weren’t auspicious; one job was second-string in Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Six Million Dollar Woman. “I wouldn’t trade those early parts for anything,” she says. “They’re all steps on the way to being right here.”

Thereafter she netted parts in movies large (Demolition Man) and smallish (Love Potion No.9) before her out-of-nowhere double-smash with Speed and While You Were Sleeping in 1994-5. The first briefly turned her into, as she says, “action-movie chick,” while the other signposted the “romcom chick” side that has since predominated, although she’s never been happy with the term.

“Usually comedy is only available to us ladies in the romantic comedy. That’s why I hate romantic comedies. I want to make comedic-comedies — let’s get back to being funny!”
The 90s saw Bullock co-starring with then-bankable male leads such as Matthew McConaughey (A Time To Kill), Harry Connick Jr (Hope Floats), and Ben Affleck (Forces of Nature), and since 1996, she has also produced many of her films. Although the last decade has seen the consolidation of an identifiable Sandra Bullock ‘brand’, or so it feels, she claims there’s “no brand,” that it’s all just a fluke.

Did she feel the world changing around her as she became better known? “Definitely. You realise after something like While You Were Sleeping that in the near future you’ll no longer encounter people who don’t have a preconceived idea of who you are. I saw that — and it made me sad.” Her remedy for this has been to keep her distance from Hollywood. She lives mainly an hour south of LA, and keeps houses in Texas and Georgia. Does she regard the movie business as meaningless and empty? Is she wary of celebrity culture?

“Oh yes. Because it is meaningless and empty!” she laughs. “I’m not wary of it, though — I’m just aware. It holds nothing for me, although it will hold a great table in a restaurant, when you’re at your peak. If you don’t have other real things in your life that you love just as much, then you will drown in it.”

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