America's dream date

`I told my agent: I won't appear in soaps. And I won't appear in adverts for shampoo'; `I never expected the bus movie to be so successful: nothing I'd ever done had been a success'
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Her last film made $300m. Her new film is the romantic smash of the

summer. Douglas Kennedy meets Sandra Bullock, a star in the making

LOOK THROUGH the vast library of books written about Hollywood and you will notice a startling omission: though there have been dozens of critical volumes devoted to such great film genres as the western, the musical, the costume epic and the thriller, no one has yet written an extended study about one of the most lucrative and squishy of movie genres - that filmic equivalent of a Ferrero Rocher chocolate, better known as "the date movie".

Indeed, as any Hollywood executive will tell you, if a date movie clicks with the public, it clicks big. There are three basic reasons why the genre can be so wildly profitable:

(1) As they are, by and large, tales of modern romance, date movies are relatively cheap to make (contemporary settings, costumes from The Gap, no special effects, no car chases, no need to custom-build an atoll in the vicinity of Hawaii).

(2) They usually feature emerging young actors (think of Diane Keaton in Annie Hall or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) so their budgets aren't lumbered with $15m-worth of egomaniac star salaries.

(3) Movies remain the perfect unthreatening first-date outing - which means that, if you can come up with a film which is romantic yet witty, sexy but not intimidating (ie, no why-did-this-creep-bring-me-to-this scenes of sadomasochistic bonking), you will have cornered the worldwide "feel like going to a movie on Friday?" market for that year.

Given the huge potential audience, it's not at all surprising that most of the major studios add a "charming, love-in-the-Nineties" romantic comedy to their usual roster of muscle-bound summer blockblusters, in the hope that it becomes the new Sleepless in Seattle.

And judging by its box-office receipts to date, it's clear that the outright winner of this year's "safe date movie" award is Disney's While You Were Sleeping - which is now cruising towards taking $100m in the US and is virtually guaranteed to do similar smash business when it opens here next month. Why has this exceedingly benign and winsome film caught the When Harry Met Sally imagination of the dating public? Perhaps because - like Pretty Woman or Ghost or Sleepless in Seattle - it is, at heart, a modern urban fairy tale.

Consider its girl-meets-boy-meets-boy's-brother plot: a lowly, yet winsome ticket clerk on the Chicago Underground lives a lonely, yet winsome life, fantasising about un vie amour with a young, squared-jawed yuppie lawyer who buys a ticket from her every morning. Of course, he's not remotely aware of her existence, but when he's mugged one day and thrown onto the train track, the lonely, yet winsome ticket clerk saves his life.

But he's fallen into a coma; and when she goes to the local hospital to find out how he's keeping (bluffing his way into his room by saying she's his fiancee), his family (who know he's engaged, but have never met the woman in question) mistakenly believe that the lonely, winsome ticket clerk is their future daughter-in-law. But then she's introduced to the comatose lawyer's down-to-earth brother - and suddenly she realises that he is really the man of her dreams.

Now you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is not the sort of film where the brother suddenly owns up to being a multiple bigamist who also runs a travel agency for paedophiles. But besides providing audiences with the obligatory romantic happy ending, probably the biggest key to the success of While You Were Sleeping is its star, Sandra Bullock - an actress who, with this film, joins a small but distinctive sorority of American actresses (headed by Meg Ryan) who have essentially become the urban male professional's dream girl - funny, smart, agreeably alluring (never tarty), level-headed, and devoid of the usual metropolitan paranoias and neuroses.

Of course, before she won big-time fame as the winsome Chicago ticket clerk, Sandra Bullock had already scored what press agents like to call "her big breakthrough role" last summer, in a little action film called Speed. In it, she played a funny, smart, agreeably alluring, level-headed hostage on a soon-to-be-bombed bus; a role which some deeply suspect critics in the US said redefined the notion of women in action films because, in essence, Bullock didn't play her as a bimbo.

And it's very clear from the moment you meet Sandra Bullock - in the lounge of that hi-tech testament to expense accounts, London's Halkin Hotel - that she is certainly no bimbo. Nor, for that matter, has she allowed her new-found stardom to turn her into the sort of imperial ice maiden who acts as if she is auditioning for the role of Marie Antoinette. Rather, she opts to come across as ... well ... funny, smart, agreeably alluring, and very, very level-headed.

In fact, like any clever interviewee, she works hard at weaving a theme through our conversation. And the Sandra Bullock theme goes something like this: she is someone who is less than overwhelmed by the trappings of fame; who - despite being draped in black Armani and accompanied by the sort of pinched Hollywood press agent who looks like she hands out directions in bed - is really happiest when she's knocking around her house in an old work-shirt and denims.

"You know, there are only two - yeah, just two - things that I like about Los Angeles [her current home]. The first is the climate, which is reasonably tolerable. And the second is my house. I like my house. And I really like hanging around my yard."

My yard! Talk about sounding like the suburban girl next door. But Bullock is just that - though with a few quirky differences. Born in Arlington, Virginia - the Washington, DC, community which is home to the Pentagon, the National War Cemetery, and thousands of civil servants - she was "the girl with arty parents", as her mother was an opera singer and her father a vocal coach (albeit one who had taken a job with the US Defense Department to make ends meet).

"My Dad must be the only opera coach ever employed by the Pentagon," she says, flashing you one of her winning smiles and talking on at Mach 1 speed. "But I guess one of the best things about my folks was not just their open-mindedness, which, believe me, was not too commonplace in Virginia - but also the fact that I got to travel with my Mom all the time to Europe when she was singing in places like Salzburg and Nurnberg." (She pronounces the foreign names with surprisingly spot-on diction, perfectly accentuating the umlaut - "Well," she says, "I guess I learnt the language when I was over there.")

"So, yeah, from a very young age, I really did have this idea that there was a life - a world - way beyond Arlington. At the same time, though, high school in America is all about conforming. And yeah, like just about every other kid, I really wanted to conform. In fact, when we finally got back to the States [after an extended stay in Europe], conforming was the first thing on my mind."

She obviously succeeded most admirably, for when she finished secondary school, her classmates paid her the ultimate suburban American honour: though bypassing her for the annual "Most Likely to Succeed" award (a prize usually given to guys who end up taking over their father's Chevy dealership), she still was named "Most Likely to Brighten Your Day".

"I loved getting that award. Especially as I was convinced that I was going to become an actress. And that, for me, meant going to New York. Because in my family, nobody - repeat, nobody - went to LA. As my father would often say: `Los Angeles is no place for an artiste'. "

So, like 10,000 other young hopefuls, she headed north to the Big Bad City - and quickly discovered a truism about New York thespian life: "If it wasn't for actors, there would be no such thing as service in Manhattan restaurants."

So, while trying to get established, she worked in the usual series of no-hope McJobs.

"I spent a year working my way up from being a coat-check girl at this really scary joint called the New York/ California Club, to cocktail waitressing at some Italian dive, and waitressing at Diane's Uptown Gourmet Hamburgers. Not a lot of laughs, believe me. And in between all the coat-checking, I went through just about every acting class in the city. And, I must say, I never especially took to a lot of the techniques on offer. I mean, I've never seen the point of lying on the floor of a rehearsal room, pretending you're a banana that's just been dropped into a frying pan."

Of course, most aspiring actresses in New York never see their careers progress beyond the "Do you want fries with your shake?" stage. But Bullock did get a small lucky break in an off-off-Broadway play called No Time Flat, for which she was paid the parsimonious sum of $89 a week. But it still got her a few good reviews - and, in true "you make your own success" American style, she marched around Manhattan in search of an agent.

"There I was, with my little reviews and videos of a couple of really bad student films I appeared in, knocking on doors, saying: `C'mon, represent me.' I don't know if I was suffering from an attack of chutzpah, or was just plain naive."

Whatever she was, she did manage to land an agent who, in turn, did manage to introduce her to what she sardonically describes as "the wonderful world of American television. I told my agent from the start - I don't mind doing television, but I won't appear in soaps. I won't appear in commercials for shampoo. And I definitely won't appear in ads for feminine-hygiene products."

Her agent heeded her wishes, and she bowed to the inevitable and moved to LA. But though she did countless hours of forgettable tele-vision - and small roles in such now-you-see-them-now-you-don't films as Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Love Potion No 2 and The Thing Called Love - it was that bomb-on-a-bus movie which sent her career into high gear.

"Believe me, I never expected the bus movie to be so successful. I mean, nothing I'd ever done was a success, so why should a small action film like Speed have worked? But it did - and I think it's all due to the fact that kids loved it. They're the hardest audience imaginable, kids."

In fact, Speed was such a phenomenal hit (grossing over $300m worldwide) that kids and adults everywhere began to recognise Sandra Bullock. And she, in turn, began to discover that fame inevitably means losing all vestiges of a private life; glossy fanzines started to write things about her like: "She has been linked with [actor] Tate Donovan, her sometimes ex-boyfriend."

"Yeah, you can start getting really protective about your privacy in this business - especially since, as poor Hugh Grant found out (and I really do feel sorry for him), if you make a mistake, it's going to be played out in the public eye. But it's the nature of the game, I suppose."

Then she stops and gives you a mischievous smile.

"Hey, you don't write for one of those newspapers which is going to say that I have two heads and sleep with dinosaurs?"

You laugh and find yourself thinking: she really is an entertaining motormouth. And, as movie stars go, surprisingly normal.

! `While You Were Sleeping' (PG) opens nationwide on 1 Sept.