Sandra Bullock: Not just a funny face

Sandra Bullock is a favourite at the box office and on set. But things haven't always been so easy, she tells Tiffany Rose
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The Independent Culture

In the middle of a press tour for Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, Sandra Bullock makes no bones about not being a fan of making sequels. And after the 1997 pitiful Speed 2: Cruise Control which sank at the box-office, who can blame her? To be fair, Bullock may have endured a few misfires over the years (In Love and War and Practical Magic come to mind), but since she seized the wheel of an LA bus in Speed, a decade ago, she still remains a bona fide star who is sitting pretty on Hollywood's A-list.

Kicking off her Prada heels, the actress settles into an armchair in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, where she's conducting interviews to promote her new comedy on which she also served as producer. Miss Congeniality, which introduced us to the accident-prone FBI agent Gracie Hart, and starred Michael Caine and Benjamin Bratt, grossed a surprising $200m at the box-office five years ago.

"Oh yeah, sequels are a disaster," Bullock says, rolling her eyes. "We had no intention of making this one, and then Marc Lawrence, the writer who wrote the first one, finally said: 'What would've happened to Gracie if the media had caught wind of what she did?' She couldn't do what she does for a living any more, because she's famous now.

"We were not crazy about the idea of doing a sequel, I mean, if you can take away the title and not put a 'two' on it, it'd be great, but you know, there's something to be said about continuing a story. Like Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas can keep telling a story, but yeah, there are disaster sequels and I should know, because I've been in one. But you know, it doesn't always have to repeat itself."

Evidently, Bullock still felt her misfit character had something more to say and another adventure to endure.

"I think that it's really important, especially for anyone who feels they don't fit in or that they're unique, or that they don't belong to the masses. I mean, what is normalcy? There's no such thing. It's society trying to control us like cattle. You just want to say, 'We can all live together and have different opinions, whether it's political or religious or what you like to do, what you like to eat for breakfast versus what someone else wants.' It's sort of like saying, 'Why don't we promote the uniqueness of someone instead of trying to make them normal?'"

It may be hard to swallow, but Bullock claims to have been an outsider during her schooldays, and this topic is still close to her heart. The oldest child of a German mother and an American father (Bullock speaks fluent German), she spent the first 12 years of her life travelling between her hometown in Virginia and Germany. Her mother, Helga, who passed away after a long battle with cancer five years ago, was an opera singer, and her father, John, a former voice coach. He now runs her thriving production company, Fortis Films, and her younger sister, Gesine, a lawyer, acts as vice-president.

"I hated my whole childhood," Bullock says. "I didn't feel accepted at school. I was noticeably different. I wore the wrong clothes and I always felt awkward. I was constantly being picked on. When I came home from school, looking like a mess and crying, my mother would ask: 'That's ridiculous. Why would anyone do that?'"

Interestingly, this difficult adolescent experience can be considered a multi-million dollar blessing. "Sure, I'm thankful for it now," she nods. "Getting knocked around a little definitely gave me an empathetic view of humanity."

Possessing a natural warmth and openness, Bullock insists everyone on the set (no matter what their position) call her Sandy. Once a $2.75-an-hour waitress in New York, her price tag has now risen to $15m a movie, but Bullock is so humble and generous - she donated $1m to the Tsunami Relief Fund - that you almost wonder if it's an act. "Growing up, we weren't wealthy, and I watched my parents work their asses off and that gave me a good work ethic," she explains.

On this warm spring afternoon, Bullock has opted for the chic polka-dot dress over jeans look. With her peaches-and-cream complexion, and her long, chestnut brown hair, the 40-year-old actress is still the epitome of youth. Combined with her eternal sunny disposition and a knack of starring in feelgood movies such as While You Were Sleeping (which earned her a Golden Globe nomination), 28 Days, Two Weeks Notice and Forces of Nature, Bullock has perfected physical comedy on screen.

She admits she goes with her gut reaction when selecting roles. "I believe in instincts, intuition and karma. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when something horrible is going to happen. I should have seen the warning signs with some of my films, but I don't regret anything."

With the exception of A Time to Kill, The Net and Murder By Numbers, it's a bit of a mystery why this veteran performer has received little respect for her serious acting roles. Yet, you have to admire Bullock for her go-getting attitude, as she is one of the few actresses to be a hands-on producer since she first produced Gun Shy, with Liam Neeson and Oliver Platt, in the Nineties. And since the mega hit of Miss Congeniality, Fortis Films has been in partnership with Castle Rock, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.

"When I first started here, it felt like a boys' club," Bullock points out. "It was the era of the 'dick flicks' - the Lethal Weapons - but then they wanted to put women in lead roles and they've always been very co-operative in funding my movies."

Alan Horn, the president of Warner Bros, values his leading lady as a hot commodity both in front and behind the scenes. "We make the biggest movies with the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and George Clooney - solid, confirmed box-office attractions, and Sandy ranks right up there among the best of them," he says. "It's unusual for someone who stars in these movies to be as effective a producer as she is."

One of Bullock's successful producing projects is George Lopez, which is the first Latino family sitcom on American television. "I gravitate towards multicultural stuff," she grins. "I'm big into Latin music. Anything that's more urban, anything that's got more flavour. But a lot of it is wanting to make Lopez a star. He'd been a stand-up on the club circuit for 25 years and I saw he had talent and he needed that break. I want to be a manager or a talent agent. I'm like some slimy circus guy with a big cigar!"

DIY is her other passion. The stories of the actress buying and restoring old houses are legendary. At the last count there was one in Georgia, a townhouse in SoHo in New York, and a place in Wyoming. However, home to Bullock still remains Austin, Texas, where she retreats for serenity, and a condo in LA which she keeps for work.

Miss Congeniality: Armed and Fabulous continues with FBI agent Gracie Hart after she successfully disarmed a threat against the Miss United States Pageant while working undercover. In the new film she is teamed up to solve a mystery in Las Vegas with a tough partner in crime, Sam Fuller (Regina King).

On one of her undercover capers, Bullock dons a pair of false breasts. "The idea came from a drag show in Vegas, where a guy plays a fabulous fat Madonna, and he had these boobs on a wire system which made them fly from side to side. I thought I need a pair of those, and so we rigged up our own version. It was so funny to see the guys on the set lift and lower the breasts, because at one point, we were literally asking: 'Is it funnier if they're two inches lower or is it better when they're higher?'

"John Cusack was filming near us and we kept passing each other on the lot and eventually he pointed to my chest and asked: 'What is that?' And I told him: 'These are the greatest things... would you like to have a feel?'

"He was so fascinated by them that I gave him his own set!" Now that's what I call a generous friend.

'Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous' opens today