Hot Phenom: Cameron Diaz

She's the one: the leggy blonde who can laugh at herself and actually act

Cameron Diaz at the premiere of 'Feeling Minnesota', Hollywood, CA, September 9th, 1996 Credit: Albert Ortega/Getty

There are many schools of acting. There is classical acting, based on the stylized projection of an emotion. There is Method acting, which involves the subtle truth of an emotion.

Then there is the How Hard Can It Be? approach. "In a strange way," says Cameron Diaz, former model, recent actress, "modeling and acting are really the same. Modeling is a performance, and you're not yourself in the pictures. You take direction from the photographer, you wear a costume." While Larry Olivier is probably whirling in his grave, the fact remains that Diaz, who walked off with a lead in The Mask with no prior film experience, actually can act.

There's also the serendipitous combo of luck, well-chosen character roles (she plays a bitchy ex-hooker in She's the One; a down-and-out felon in September's Feeling Minnesota, with Keanu Reeves) and well-chosen refusals (saying no to McHale's Navy ensured that Diaz did not drive down Kathy Ireland Boulevard). Finally, throw in a few raves: Roger Ebert drooled that Diaz was "a genuine sex bomb with a gorgeous face" (Mr. Ebert, please!), and the National Theater Owners Association crowned Diaz as 1996's Female Star of Tomorrow. Hey, don't laugh: Previous winners include Nicole Kidman and Juliette Lewis.

And Diaz is insensibly beautiful. As she glides past a row of New York policemen, the cops fall utterly silent. "Oh. My. God," says one. They gape, slack-jawed. Understand, this is New York, which is teeming with stunning women, and these are New York's finest, jaded folk who see things like human sacrifices. Yes, walking around with Diaz is not unlike being in a bad slapstick movie. You almost expect to see two moving men holding a mirror and a stunned onlooker crashing through it.

Because she looks the way she does, Diaz seems to work overtime to prove she's just like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to find her way home. She ain't. As she slides into a wooden booth at an amiable West Village dive, she orders a cheeseburger. "I love grease," she says. "When I was a kid, my mom would fry a steak, and my favorite thing to do was to soak a slice of bread in the pan, let it soak up the grease, then eat the bread." Ah, shut up.

When the burger comes, however, Diaz literally sops up the grease with the already-sodden french fries. She looks at the wooden table, which is covered with carvings. "What does this say?" she asks. "I can't read it" she slurs her words for effect "I think shomebody wash high." She has a braying laugh that erupts frequently, and she swears like a longshoreman. Yet there is a sort of breeziness about her that suggests world travel, expensive hotels, open doors.

"Halfway through filming The Mask," she is saying of the Jim Carrey megapic, "I was like, 'Is there any place my friends and family can see this movie?' I was so ignorant." She scoops up a fry that is gruesomely transparent with grease. "I was having such a good time, I didn't even think. Somebody said, 'Do you want to act?' All of a sudden I had to make a decision." She lets out a huge, juicy belch.

A boisterous gaggle of 40ish guys who collectively share one head of hair sits in the booth across from Diaz. They promptly see her, and the conversation dies. "Doh!" says one of them, just like Homer Simpson.

***

It's not hard to imagine that in high school in Long Beach, Calif., Diaz was the Scary Pretty Girl Who Hung Around the Older Kids. A confident child, she was raised by easygoing parents (her dad is Cuban, her mom is German, English and American Indian) who toted Diaz and her elder sister, Chiméne, everywhere. "My parents were young, and if they went to a party at a friend's house, they took us," says Cameron, who turns 24 this month. "All the adults treated us like we were adults." So did her parents. When she was young and curious about religion, they were only too glad to drop her off at any church she felt like checking out

Touchingly, Mom supported her young daughters' budding interest in heavy metal by accompanying Cameron to her first Van Halen show. "My mom drove my sister and me in the VW bus," Diaz recalls as she fires up a cigarette. "She took a little TV and a cooler with wine and cheese, and sat in there and did her needlepoint for two and a half hours in the Forum parking lot." The news that David Lee Roth is rejoining Van Halen makes Cameron apoplectic. "I am so happy!" she crows, holding out her hand for a high-five. "All right!"

Diaz, you see, was a card-carrying headbanger. "I was the tough kid with the jeans, the concert shirt with the flannel over it, the comb in the back pocket, the feathered hair," she says. "It was frightening. I saw every concert that came to Long Beach Arena. Metallica four times. Ozzy, Dio, hello. And I loved Ratt. Ratt is the shit! In Feeling Minnesota, there's this song that Keanu and I have to sing in a car. I was pushing so hard for 'Round and Round.'" Sadly, it was not used.

***

As a kid, Diaz planned to be a zoologist but instead settled on being a model. This happened the way those sorts of things happen. When she was 16, she went to a party in Los Angeles: "There were all these sleazy guys going, 'Hey, baby, do you want to be a model?' Giving me cards with naked girls in champagne glasses. They would say, you know, Mitch, Photographer." One guy who directed her to the Elite agency actually had a last name and a fax. Diaz was signed. Thus began an accelerated adolescence. In the summer of her 16th year, Diaz headed for Japan with a 15-year-old model pal and began to swing. "Models are like movie stars in Japan," says Diaz. The girls were set up with a two-bedroom apartment. Four blocks down the road, there was a building that housed seven clubs. "You'd just get in an elevator and ride up and down," says Diaz.

After her Japanese adventure, Diaz finished high school, acquired a boyfriend (video producer Carlos de La Torre; the relationship lasted five years) and moved in with him right after she graduated. Job, boyfriend and pad firmly in place, Diaz traversed the globe as a successful and fun-lovin' model. "When I was 18, I got alcohol poisoning when I was in Australia filming a Coca-Cola commercial," she says. "I nearly killed myself." During a day on Bondi Beach, she sucked down the national drinks from a number of countries: margaritas, champagne, vodka.

Diaz capped the night off at a Japanese restaurant. "I'm drinking sake," she says. "Then they bring out this 30-year-old sake that nobody can drink. I do it in a shot." Bowing, her hosts produce a scroll as a gift, perhaps the Japanese equivalent of a commemorative Hooters T-shirt. "They bring out more sake 'This is what our emperor drank' and I do it in another shot." Awed, they bestow a plate upon her. The next day, suffice it to say that Diaz lost seven pounds in a matter of hours.

A few years later, Diaz happened to spot the script for The Mask on her agent's desk (her agent for TV commercials, that is): "I said, 'What's this?' She said, 'A movie. Do you think you can handle it?' I said, 'Sure, no problem.' " Diaz shrugs. "I was joking. She wasn't." After many call-backs, Diaz landed the part (as well as an acting coach). "It's crazy when I look back on that," she says. "What the hell was I doing?"

At the time of filming, her co-star Jim Carrey was on the cusp of uber-stardom: post-Ace Ventura, pre-Dumb and Dumber. "We had a blast on The Mask," she says. "Jim works incredibly hard. Physical comedy nobody knows how hard it is to do what he does. If everyone could do it, there would be 100 people doing it."

Carrey returns the compliment. "Cami is an extremely cool human, despite having what normally can be character-crippling good looks," he says. "As an actress, she possesses a deep well of emotion to draw from, but the little childish sparkle in her eyes says she's no slave to it."

Diaz would be the first to agree. "I have yet to figure out my process," she says with a braying laugh, "for my ... craft! My work!"

***

Cameron Diaz is at the only place where she can be surrounded by thousands and thousands of men and none of them gives a rat's ass: New York's gay pride parade. Her height (she's 5 feet 9 inches tall) affords her a good view of an approaching float, which is populated by a number of gyrating Asian men. Most are perilously close to being nude; some are dressed as geishas. It is truly magnificent.

"Oh, my," says Diaz, raising her eyebrows at a particularly well-endowed dancer. "Look at that guy in the gold bikini bottom. He's got it goin' on. Do you think that's all him? Maybe he has a bunch of ben-wa balls in there."

Diaz wades through the spectators and the blaring of "Gonna Make You Sweat" to the relative peace of a cafe. Vodka cranberry, please. "I haven't had a drink in a while," she says. "I've been working." Since The Mask, she's done four films in succession and has just signed to star in A Life Less Ordinary, from the Brit creators of Trainspotting. It was her role as a superliberal and lethal college student in the arty ensemble The Last Supper that caught the eye of The Brothers McMullen director Edward Burns. At the time, he was casting for his second feature, She's the One.

"In The Mask, it was tough to tell exactly what she could do," says Burns. "After I saw The Last Supper and a scene from Feeling Minnesota, I said, 'OK, clearly this girl is an actress.' And her character in the original script was sort of one-note-ish. [A bitchy ex-hooker, remember?] Cameron was the only actress we tried who knew that this was supposed to be a real person. She said, 'I love it, it's a lot of fun, but this is a woman who hooked to put her way through school. She's got to have some pain.'"

As did Diaz's broken-down character in Feeling Minnesota, in which she plays the doomed lover of Keanu Reeves. Let us sum up the movie: Reeves' character is the unfortunately named Jjaks. Courtney Love has a small part as a waitress. The title Feeling Minnesota is from the Soundgarden song "Outshined." (You can almost hear the film executives rubbing their hands together: "We got all the elements! Those demographically selected 18- to 24-year-olds are gonna be linin' up!")

Of her costar Reeves, with whom she has a love scene on a bathroom floor ("We tried to make it as grungy and ridiculous as possible"), she attempts to decipher the mystery. "Keanu's just ... Keanu," she says as a teenage boy bums a cigarette from her while trying to keep his voice from cracking. "He is who he is. I know there are people who won't believe me, but Keanu is actually a very intelligent human being."

Diaz was paired with another quirky guy, Harvey Keitel, in the black-comedy thriller Head Above Water. Now she is shooting My Best Friend's Wedding in Chicago, starring with Julia Roberts. "I play a debutante," Diaz says while she absently rips a bar napkin into tiny shreds. "Lots of cardigans, lots of loafers."

The calm of the cafe is interrupted by jarring dance music that a misguided employee has put on. It is odd in this sleepy place. "God, this music sucks," Diaz says. "My boyfriend and I were talking about this last night. There's nothing that's an art form about this music. It's the same beat."

And your boyfriend would be ... ? "We've been going out since January," she says carefully. "I don't know." Pause. "I mean, it's one of those things…. He's in the business." (Hint: It's Matt Dillon!)

The music is getting to Diaz, so she gets up to leave. She has to be back in Chicago the next day, and tonight she's late meeting her boyfriend. (Hint: It's Matt Dillon!)

She strides outside and is noticed for the first time that day, by two men smartly dressed in matching Jackie O. shifts and pillbox hats. "Oh, that's the girl from The Mask," says the one in the lilac shift. "She is sweet," says his orange-clad companion.

They're right. Cameron Diaz is just Cameron. She is who she is.