Jessica Biel: Out of this world

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Jessica Biel has shed her pin-up image but exudes sex appeal even when playing an alien, as Gill Pringle discovers

Jessica Biel is an actress who has somehow slipped into the collective male consciousness, so that today her name is uttered in the same breath as A-listers like Scarlett Johansson or Rachel McAdams.

Therefore, while preparing to interview her for her latest film, it was surprising to discover how unfamiliar I was with much of her previous work. Apart from her 2006 role in The Illusionist, her résumé includes: Stealth, Cellular, Next and London – all Biel films that few remember – leaving the critically reviled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry as, by far, her biggest box-office successes.

Though smart and sassy as Larita Whittaker in last year's Easy Virtue, audiences stayed away in droves, leaving her in the odd position of being a movie star with no real hits.

Biel is doubtless a talented girl although her relationship with Justin Timberlake has created far more column inches than her actual film achievements. It's an utterly curious phenomenon; an actress whose career appears to be largely buoyed by a few well-placed, scantily clad men's magazine covers.

Clearly, it's been a clever ploy and, having made her name on TV playing the virtuous daughter of a preacher in hit series 7th Heaven, it's understandable why she would seek to re-invent herself. Posing topless in 2000 for men's magazine Gear, wearing nothing more than a smile and a pair of scanty flesh-coloured shorts, arms placed strategically over her naked breasts, she announced herself as something more than just another cast player on a popular TV show.

The daughter of a spiritual healer mother and business-consultant father, raised in Colorado, she appeared in several musical productions in her Boulder hometown and was just 12 years old when she was discovered by a talent agent while attending a modelling conference in Los Angeles. Subsequently auditioning for several TV pilots, she caught her first major break, aged 14, cast as Mary Camden in the popular Christian-themed 7th Heaven.

Now 27 years old, she's since been proclaimed numerous times over as the sexiest woman alive, and yet, when we meet, she appears nothing like the wanton sex goddess of her magazine covers. But on screen, she's playing sexy again although this time in animated form, voicing the love interest of a green-skinned alien, in galactic adventure film, Planet 51.

Even as an animated alien, she still manages to ooze sex appeal: "You think I have sultry sex appeal? Thank you! That's lovely," she says politely when we meet at Los Angeles's famed Griffith Observatory, dressed somewhat primly in a patterned knee-length skirt, buttoned-up blouse and sensible sweater. "It was just about trying to create a 16-year-old girl, who thinks she has this confidence and this sexy 'I am a woman' attitude and, at the same time, is really still trying to figure it out with boys and is still trying to see how far she wants to push the envelope with authority and with what people tell her to do. I think I was just trying to create that person that I felt like I was, when I was 16, which was confident, but insecure."

In common with many recent animated films, Biel's Neera also shares a physical resemblance, from the voluptuous lips to the strong teeth and almond-shaped hazel eyes: "I also noticed some physical things that I do myself. It was so weird to hear my own voice," says the actress who shares voice time with Gary Oldman and John Cleese.

"It was a nice change not to have to go through hair and make-up – to just go to work.

"Not that the film-makers would have known this about me, but I so much related to my character of Neera because, when I was 16, I was also pushing it, on every angle, with my parents and the world. I thought I had it going on. I thought I knew everything so I related to her feeling of risk-taking. I had a little bit more of a bad attitude, as a 16-year-old. Neera wants to help this planet and change the world into peace; think for herself and be really independent and a risk-taker. She's way more of a positive, charitable person than I was as a 16-year-old but, the risk thing, the independence and the confidence with boys, I related to a lot," says the actress who, herself, is a firm believer in the possibility of alien life.

"I definitely believe in the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. There's just so much space out there to not believe in that. For me, the idea with this movie is to be open to change. You should be accepting of change because, only through change, can you grow and learn more about yourself, as a human or alien."

Getting back to Planet Earth, and her career as a film actress, she adds, "Doing any kind of family entertainment comes as a huge relief from making something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was probably one of the hardest experiences for me, emotionally and creatively. It was intense because I was at this high level of freak-out, for about a month. It was just so not this world. That kind of emotional strain was so different. Planet 51 was just fun. I wanted to do it because it was speaking to my inner child. Yes, I want to be an alien. Yes, I want to be green!"

Biel's Planet 51 alien landscape is surely not so much removed from the somewhat "alien" lifestyle she's led since replacing Cameron Diaz as Justin Timberlake's girlfriend three years ago. Prior to that she dated former co-star Chris Evans and New York Yankees baseball star, Derek Jeter.

"It's definitely been weird and sort of bizarre to deal with," she says of her relationship with Timberlake, which has been victim to more "it's off!" tabloid rumours than most celebrity affairs. "But you have to have a sense of humour about the whole thing. Honestly, I look at a magazine and they know more than I do. You do really have to just get into a place where you feel Zen about it – take a deep breath and know that somebody is going to be taking your picture while you're going to the laundry and picking up your dry cleaning. "

In common with many actors today, Biel is trying her hand at producing in an effort to find quality material. Aside from upcoming studio movies, Valentine's Day and The A-Team, she is attached as producer/actress in no less than nine upcoming independent films.

Promoting Planet 51 while on a break from filming The A-Team on location in Vancouver [where, incidentally, Timberlake was at her side almost every weekend despite persistent rumours that they've called it quits], Biel says she has high hopes for her next role as sharp-shooting Lt Sosa, starring opposite Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson in this feature film remake of the Eighties TV series, starring Mr T and George Peppard.

"It's going really, really well. I'm getting to work a lot with weapons again, which I haven't done in a long time. Joe Carnahan, our director, is hitting the nail right on the head. We've got a really interesting tone going on. I think I was a little concerned, at first, about whether we were going to be really super-cheesy or dark, or what we'd be doing. And, I think we've found lots of humour, at the same time that it's quite emotional with dramatic moments. There's a lot of different things combined into this one movie but there's also many throw-backs and a lot of paying homage to the original show. We're in the middle of it – but everyone says it's looking really beautiful and the scenes are cutting together really well so that's pretty much all I can say."

Discussing what motivates her as an actress, she says, "The truth is, you really don't make these movies thinking, 'Oh, this one's it. This is going to get me my Academy Award.' You don't think about that. You think, 'I love this story, I love this character. I can't wait to play this character.' And then it comes out and people start talking about it, and it's exciting. Privately you give this speech and everything, but you really think, 'Whatever. If I win, amazing.' I mean, I can't even believe if that would happen. That would be incredible. But is that the goal for my work? 'I must win an award'? No. You do think about it, but you don't dwell on it, because it just sort of feels so untouchable and so unrealistic. You just feel like there's no way you'd win, so whatever, you just laugh about it and have a good time. But I think I'd be lying to say that you don't fantasise about it.

"And I enjoy working. There's always a constant fear of the unknown as in 'When am I next going to work?' That's always there. I try not to think about that too much, but it's always a little bit there. When will I work and can I pay my bills? Is it going to be creatively interesting? That's always there for me, a little bit, as much as I might try to say it's not."

'Planet 51' is released on 4 December

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