x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sandra Bullock: Back in the limelight

Feature Sandra Bullock talks about her latest film The Proposal and being lucky in love with her unlikely husband.

Steve Granitz / WireImage
Steve Granitz / WireImage

After a two-year break from the Hollywood screen, Sandra Bullock talks to John Hiscock about her latest film The Proposal, being lucky in love with her unlikely husband, and the T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing tomboy hidden just beneath her movie star facade.

It's been a while since Sandra Bullock was in the public eye. Her last film, Infamous, was two years ago and after that she dropped below the Hollywood radar because, she tells me with a knowing smile, "I was doing other things that made me happy." Those things included buying and restoring old buildings in her adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, opening a bistro and a Viennese pastry shop and, momentously, relishing the experience of a marriage she never expected with the least-likely husband anyone could imagine for the movie star with the girl-next-door charm. Bullock has re-emerged briefly into the limelight to promote her new film, the romantic comedy The Proposal, which opens here on June 18. She insists she does not want to talk about her private life, but her irrepressible nature makes it impossible for her to keep good news to herself. So when we meet to ostensibly discuss her new movie, the subject quickly veers into her off-screen adventures.

The once-driven actress, who formed her own successful production company to bring her projects to the screen - 2000's Miss Congeniality earned more than US$200 million (Dh734m) - has found it much easier to say no in recent years. She has even temporarily abandoned her producer duties. "Producing a film takes up to two years of your life, and you're constantly working, so I'm doing it less and less now," she says. "I'm doing something better, and I don't want to be away from home that much."

Home is a California beach house where she lives with her husband, the multi-tattooed motorcycle expert Jesse James, who is five years her junior and the owner of West Coast Choppers, a motorcycle company in Long Beach, where his custom-built motorcycles sell for up to $100,000 (Dh367,000) each. He also has his own degree of fame as the star of two television shows, Monster Garage and Jesse James Is A Dead Man.

Their marriage four years ago, when she was 40, took everybody by surprise including, by her own admission, herself. She met James in 2003, when she took her godson to his motorcycle shop as a treat. When she got back to her office, she was alarmed to discover he had telephoned her. They began emailing, and after about a month they went on a date. They were married in July 2005 at a ranch in central California in a ceremony attended by 200 guests, including four of her past co-stars, Hugh Grant (Two Weeks Notice), Keanu Reeves (Speed and The Lake House) and William Shatner and Regina King (from the Miss Congeniality films). "It was simple, quiet and the people who were supposed to be there were there," she says. "It was solitary, and it was ours. I'm glad I never felt that way before, and I'm so glad I said 'yes'.

"My life is full of everything that I need and never imagined I would have. My mother always told me, 'Don't get married. Make your own life. You don't need a man.' "I was boy crazy since I was nine years old, and I always had boyfriends, but I never imagined a proposal or a wedding. I didn't know what that fairy tale was about. To me it was like having a ball and chain attached to your neck. I didn't see the point of it.

"Then I got lucky because I met someone incredible. We're a team and I support what he does and he supports what I do, and we're very similar in an odd way. We just chose different career paths to get to where we wanted to go." Raised in the gang-infested South Central district of Los Angeles, James had his run-ins with the police before discovering his talent for motorcycles. The media dubbed him her "bad boy", which she resents. "I know exactly who I married. They only say that because it sells more magazines. They don't want to write about all the amazing things he does for charity and the things that he does for kids."

James came with some baggage: he has a four-year-old daughter, Sunny, from his previous marriage to the adult film actress Janine Lindemulder, and two children, aged 13 and 11, from a first marriage. "We do every mundane, normal thing that everyone else does," Bullock says of life with her extended family. "It's about enjoying the life we have and taking care of the family we have and going with the flow. Even though it wasn't part of what I planned, it's better than what I could have planned."

It is no surprise that her school classmates once voted her Most Likely To Brighten Your Day. She has an earthy sense of humour with a hearty laugh and enjoys making fun of herself. She remains firmly connected to the life she lived before she was famous, although she can turn on the movie star dazzle when she wants to. As we talk in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills she looks every inch the glamorous movie star, wearing an elegant, mauve Alberta Ferretti dress, gold leaf-shaped earrings and black tights, with her long hair immaculately styled and cascading down her back. It is plain she is not entirely comfortable with her persona as Sandra the Movie Star and would be happier as Everywoman Sandy, the tomboy who spends her days in jeans and T-shirts hanging out at her husband's motorcycle shop.

"I call it a shop, but it's about two city blocks with 250,000 square feet of meticulously clean art deco buildings that have been meticulously restored, where every tool is in place and every work station is clean," she says admiringly. "I love going to the shop, because it's like an artists' commune. The amount of talent that exists there inspires you and makes you feel really creative. He's an artist and I love being there, and I love getting dirty. I mean, if you're not getting dirty, you're not having fun. That's what a shower and a bar of soap are for."

Bullock puts her own creative talents to use in Austin, Texas, her adopted hometown where she moved in the mid-1990s while she was dating the Texan-born actor Matthew McConaughey. There, she buys up ramshackle buildings to restore and renovate. One she has opened as a bistro named Bess, and another is a Viennese pastry shop. "I have a whole business restoring old buildings and architecture and I love it," she says. "To me, that's my art and I don't have to rely on people allowing me to work, which is what happens in the movie business. In my daily life I'm on construction sites, running around in mud wearing rubber boots, jeans, a T-shirt and some kind of hat, and I'm happy as a clam. That's my daily routine."

Bullock was a cheerleader when she was at high school and she may look like a typical all-American girl. But Bullock and her sister Gesine had an unusual upbringing as the daughters of Helga, their opera-singing German mother, and John, a voice-coach father. Each year the children stayed with relatives in Germany and attended school in Nuremberg. Both are bilingual and Sandra made her first stage appearances as an extra in her mother's operas.

"I was raised in the operas. We didn't go to the movies or have magazines or anything like that," she says. "We worked, practised piano and went to ballet. You didn't go, 'Oh, I'm going to be a big movie star one day.' You said, 'I hope to be a working actor.'" After leaving college back in America, Bullock appeared in some off-Broadway plays while working as a waitress and an office cleaner. "I'm still an excellent waitress, but the office cleaning was horrible. It was an insurance agency and the people there were the filthiest people I have ever known. What we found in their cubicles was disgusting," she laughs, wrinkling her nose in mock distaste.

She landed several TV roles and small parts in movies, usually playing the star's funny sidekick, co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, and then had her first taste of film stardom as Annie, the reluctant bus driver opposite Keanu Reeves in 1994's Speed. Switching adroitly from comedy to drama and back again, she headlined romantic comedies such as While You Were Sleeping, Forces Of Nature and Miss Congeniality, while displaying her acting talents in the rehab drama 28 Days and the racially charged, Oscar-winning Crash. In Infamous, she earned critical praise for her portrayal of Truman Capote's friend, the To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee.

Bullock believes she has inherited her looks from her mother, who was a big influence on her life and who died of cancer in 2000. In the months up to her death Sandra, Gesine and their father took turns nursing her. "She was the most beautiful woman when she passed away at 63," says Bullock. "We were laughing with her and saying that we knew that when she went in for cancer surgery she was actually having a face lift."

Although Bullock is taking a break from producing, her Fortis production company is still active. Her father is the CEO and her sister is president and they have, she says, several projects in development. A Fortis production, a romantic comedy called All About Steve, is due out in September. In The Proposal, Bullock plays a high-powered, hard-nosed book editor who faces deportation to her native Canada until she declares to the immigration authorities that she is engaged to marry her unsuspecting, browbeaten assistant whom she has terrified for years. He agrees to go through with the marriage on condition she goes with him to the wilds of Alaska to meet his quirky family, where she finds herself a fish out of water in a love-hate relationship.

When she was offered the role she turned it down, as she has done with other movie offers, and it took the name of her long-time pal, the Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, who had signed on as the male lead, to lure her back before the cameras. "Ryan and I have known each other for about nine years," she says. "I'd kept saying 'no' to the film until I was asked if I would do it if it was with Ryan. I don't know if the producers knew we were friends, but as soon as I heard that, I knew it was the kind of film I wanted to make, so I said 'yes'."

The Proposal is somewhat reminiscent of the Lucille Ball comedies of the 1950s with plenty of physical comedy to go with the unlikely romance, and Bullock is naked on screen for the first time in a slapstick nude scene with Reynolds. "It was our job to make it funny, and I trusted Ryan in terms of his comedic timing, so being naked was the last thing on my mind because I just wanted it to be right?"

At 32, Reynolds is 12 years younger than his co-star but, he says: "I don't think age matters much. Sandra's pretty timeless in everything she does." Indeed, her beautiful but offbeat looks have enabled her to continue taking starring roles which would usually have gone to much younger actresses. "You know what? I'm very lucky that my career has been exactly what I want it to be," she says. "It wasn't based on anyone else choosing what I can and can't do, and I think a lot of that has to do with the types of roles that I've done. I don't need to be the leading lady: I love comedy, I love dramas, I love good stories.

"There's a perception that if you start ageing it's tough, but when you read articles they never say anything about men ageing, it's always about the women. Why is that? Sure, I'd like to stop ageing, but I have no control of that department." Like most actresses, she has had her share of co-star romances: Tate Donovan, with whom she co-starred in her first feature comedy, Love Potion No. 9 in 1992; Matthew McConaughey, with whom she appeared in A Time To Kill in 1996; and Ryan Gosling, who was 16 years her junior and appeared with her in 2002's Murder By Numbers.

"I was like a guy," she says. "I was a serial monogamist and did exactly as I wanted. I was alone, but I wasn't lonely. I was alone, but I was OK with who I was with. I was enjoying myself, and I wasn't ready to be a great partner, and I wasn't seasoned enough to be a good wife. I did exactly what I wanted. "I was never going to get married, and it had to take an extraordinary human being to make me commit to a lifetime. And it did. It was. He is. I feel very blessed."

As the title implies, her husband's new television show, Jesse James Is A Dead Man, features the motorcycle ace doing death-defying stunts, which Bullock supports loyally but anxiously. "To me there's no one else capable of doing what he can do and that's his purpose on this planet," she says. "It makes him who he is. I worry all the time, but I worry all the time anyway, so it's the perfect relationship. Now I actually have something to worry about."

The Proposal opens in the UAE on June 18.