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Sandra Bullock: Speed Freak

As her ‘Speed 2’ co-star Jason Patric puts it: She’s everything you think she is and not

Sandra BullockSandra Bullock

Sandra Bullock, 69th Annual Academy Awards, March 24th, 1997

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“Hey, April. This is April. April, hi, honey!” Sandra Bullock slaps her leg, leading April – 10 quivering pounds of gargoyle-faced, bull-chested, stick-legged Boston terrier – to vault onto her lap. “April got a bath today,” says Bullock, growling fondly to the sneezing, bug-eyed dog. “You have that shiny glow that is so luxurious.” April now does what even Bullock’s most over-heated fans wouldn’t dare: She slurps busily at the star’s face. “Oh, yes, I know, I know…” says Bullock, trying to control the hummingbird-busy bundle while catching a couple of chin-to-eyebrow licks from April’s surprisingly lengthy tongue.

Bullock sits in a plain, white office amid many similarly plain ones in the Austin, Texas, production headquarters of a movie called Hope Floats. It’s an intimate, character-based film in which Bullock plays Birdee Pruitt, a divorced mother who returns to her Texas hometown to make a new life. Hope Floats won grudging support from 20th Century Fox as part of Bullock’s agreement to make Speed 2: Cruise Control for the studio. Just before April (who belongs to the film’s storyboard artist) skittered into her office, Bullock had been making it clear that the Speed sequel will be her last film, for a while at least, as the lovable ditz who makes buses fly or skids along wave tops as America’s sweetheart. “It’s not that I have clout,” she says, “but I am being given a lot of liberties right now. If I don’t make the most and the best of these liberties, I shouldn’t have them.”

Clearly, the critical and commercial blistering of Bullock’s last two films – Two if by Sea, with Denis Leary as her frenetic Romeo, and In Love and War, with Chris O’Donnell as a woefully miscast Ernest Hemingway – have taken their toll. Finally subduing the wanton April, Bullock fesses up: “I look back on certain choices that I made, and I wonder if I did it out of the working actor’s desperation to just take anything that comes along. I allowed myself, several times, to be mediocre. I’m very well aware of that, and [those films] are good reminders to look back and say, ‘Don’t do that.’ And it’s halfway out of trying to be pleasing to everybody. You find mediocrity that way. I’m not going to allow myself to be mediocre or anything that I am involved with to be mediocre.”

Bullock, who speaks in long skeins of monologue that sometimes seem not to depend on the attentive presence of another party, abruptly frowns. Still tan from several weeks afloat on the Caribbean during Speed 2 and skinnier than ever (“I just see my character in this as very gangly”), Bullock looks curiously like an Egyptian queen, with her aquiline nose, perfect cheekbones and neatly cleft chin. That is, until the dog interrupts with a decidedly unroyal fart. “Oh, April, you have gas again,” says Bullock. “Thank God she wasn’t near the flame.” Bullock pulls a stubby, flickering candle from the side of her desk to the area of toxic emission. Gingerly, she bowls the worried-looking creature through the door and shuts it. “April,” she decrees, “you are condemned.”

It’s not only flatulent canines who have found themselves on the wrong side of Bullock’s door. Last year, the actress conducted a notorious spring housecleaning of her top advisers. She fired Tom Chestaro, her manager of 12 years, and Steve Warren, her attorney of seven years. Chestaro was reportedly seeking his commission for the film deals he helped to set up (he refused to comment).

With the help of her father, John Bullock, who’s been filling her management gap, the 31-year-old actress cut a pretty good deal when she signed on for Speed 2 for a reported $12.5 million and Hope Floats for an estimated additional $11 million. The notion that one who’s granted liberties must work extra hard to deserve them is a typical-enough Bullock credo. She tends to depict the people she admires as paragons of some virtue or another. Thus her director in A Time to Kill, Joel Schumacher, is the most considerate man in the trade; her Speed 2 co-star Jason Patric is the most dedicated to the work; her great buddy (and, speculation has it, former boyfriend) Matthew McConaughey is the man with the most heart. “These are people of passion,” she says. “And, generally, I think people are deathly afraid of passion. It’s something that you can’t control, you can’t bottle it. And, it’s a beautiful thing when you’re the recipient of it or the one who can watch it. I’m really drawn to people like that.”

McConaughey calls Bullock “Redblood – as in, redblooded American woman.” (It’s a line his character uses as he wakes up – amorously inclined – with his wife in the short film Making Sandwiches, directed by Bullock.) “People say, ‘Oh, the girl next door,'” he says. “There’s a lot of validity to that – she’s not up on a pedestal. She’s not vain. She likes the windblown theory. She likes to get in there and get her hands on it, you know. She likes to get her hands on it, whatever it is.”

Bullock is getting her hands on it so often these days that she rivals April in terms of…speediness. She has worked steadily since the 1994 Speed 2 put her and Keanu Reeves on the star map. She’s in negotiations with director Griffin Dunne to do a new movie, Practical Magic, about witches. She just bought a house in Austin to go with the one she owns in Los Angeles and the loft she keeps in Manhattan and aims to use more.

And for the last few weeks, Bullock has done her damnedest to make the world ready for Patric – best known for serious roles in the likes of After Dark, My Sweet and Sleepers – as an action star and marriage-bent comic foil in Speed 2. Her tale of how Patric saved her life – the fatigued Bullock was almost shredded in a complex boat shot, until Patric intervened – has been told so often, it seems like part of the movie’s marketing campaign.

On the Caribbean set of Speed 2 in November, Bullock made it clear that her interest in Patric wasn’t motivated by romance (he’s dating model Christy Turlington) or the box office (the absence of Reeves and that bus may be a bigger problem than anyone is admitting). Bullock wants the world to see Patric’s unknown qualities as cast and crew do. “We get to enjoy him and revel in the fact that very few people get to see this person like he is,” she says. “Sometimes I tell him how frustrating it is for me to be talking about [him] and people go, ‘I don’t really get it – he’s very tense, moody.’ But Jason goes, ‘I save it for those I care about. It’s not meant for everybody else.’ And I just say, ‘Thank God there are people like Jason to remind you to do that.'”

Following one of his many soakings on the Speed 2 set, Patric muses about Bullock: “Is Sandra worthy of this acclaim and the sort of connection that people seem to have toward her? Absolutely. Hers is an intricate but very simply played-out sincerity. She does it without being fawning, and that’s her trick. I think, in general, she’s always been above the material she’s been given up to this point in her career.”

After six months of work, stress and danger with Bullock, Patric is ready to answer a key question: Is she the person we see onscreen? “She’s everything that you would think she is,” says Patric, “and not.”

The stutter-stepping ascent of Sandra Bullock begins with Working Girl; very few saw any of the six episodes of the TV sitcom, which aired in 1990, fewer still the Roger Corman B-flick Fire on the Amazon. She was so nervous about a shirtless love scene in the latter that she covered her nipples with duct tape, threw up, did the scene, threw up, removed the duct tape. Who Shot Pat? was a teen-gang drama of the sort now sold in gas stations. She filmed Love Potion No. 9 in 1990, playing a bucktoothed, geeky “psychobiologist” opposite a likewise nerded-out Tate Donovan. The co-stars fell in love. Although the film would wait two years to see release, the romance lasted some four years. One of the poignant things about Bullock, whose best onscreen gift may be her vulnerability, is that the ashes of that affair still seem to drift across the present. (“You have one great love in life, and I’ve had it,” she said when the wound was still fresh.)

When love was young, Bullock says, she was going through her “season in hell,” careerwise. There were meetings, auditions, call-backs and movies (The Vanishing, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) that didn’t quite make her a name. Nothing solid until 1993, when a Warner Bros. production exec named Lorenzo di Bonaventura persuaded producer Joel Silver to give Bullock a shot at co-starring with Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man (after actress Lori Petty was dismissed). “It was a great opportunity,” says Bullock, “even if they chopped off my hair and put me in stretch pants.” (Memo to fans: Bullock does not admire her butt nearly as much as you do.)

Of Stallone, Bullock recalls: “We’d knock heads, but at some point, I became like his younger sister. He’d bang on the trailer with his golf clubs in the middle of the night: ‘Come out and play.’ You know, he’d want to swat golf balls in the middle of the night.”

Hollywood was learning that Bullock had that quality that saves certain puppies from the altitude chamber. Bullock began charming reporters. “She is the sort of person who thanks you for laughing at her jokes,” wrote one scribe. A moving target, she claimed to be shallow: “My day depends on how well my hair is working out.”

The unmistakable pivot of Bullock’s career was getting behind the wheel of that big Santa Monica, Calif., bus in the first Speed. Fox didn’t want her, but first-time director Jan De Bont did. “She had such an incredible freshness,” he says. “You really want to be her friend.” That’s what he became. “Jan – he made my career,” says Bullock, “because he had faith in me in his little silly bomb-on-the-bus movie that everyone laughed at.”

Speed made Bullock an A-list player. She followed with two more hits – While You Were Sleeping, a romantic comedy, and The Net, a thriller about hackers that unhinged a few Bullock fans on the Internet. One has written a song that’s posted on her followers’ adoration-laced (“When did she take your heart?”) Web site: “Does anyone have [pictures] of Sandra nude?/It’s something I’d like to see/Preferably in mesh stockings and high, high heels/Could you send them to me?”

A Time to Kill, in 1996, was meant to be a transitional movie for Bullock: Could she be taken seriously as a character actress while still carrying that bewitched audience? The answer seemed to be: maybe. Showing up in a whiter-than-white (and plenty tight) tank top, flashing an equally brilliant smile, she tried to make her character into a whip-smart, city-bred brat and a gentle threat to the troubled marriage of a roosterish attorney (McConaughey) and his wife (Ashley Judd). Ultimately, she turned out to be: our same sweet Sandra, working hard but overshadowed by a pro cast that included Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.

The winter of 1996 found Bullock a box-office queen in an unenviable state. Having tested her craft to little thanks, her name being bandied about as McConaughey’s sometime flame, she was now shooting the obligatory sequel to the movie that made her famous. When Meg Ryan was promoting Courage Under Fire, somebody asked if the gritty war film meant Ryan had abandoned her image as America’s sweetheart. Ryan replied coolly, “Doesn’t Sandra Bullock get to be that now?”

Bullock waves off the sweetheart tag, but she’s well aware that the press is on her now in a way that only presidents and Miss Americas are privileged to suffer. “It’s a violation,” she says, recalling a false tabloid report that she’d pitched a fit on a set. “At first my feelings were really hurt,” she says. “But you know what? It just doesn’t make any difference. I don’t want to lose any life or any sleep over it, or any humor.

“It’s been crazy. I was gone the whole time that this wonderful [post-Speed] bang happened, and all of a sudden I came back home for two months, and I realized my life was vastly different, and I missed my friends and my family. I had lived out of a suitcase, which I do really well, and that’s what scares me. I feel more at home on a set, in other people’s rental homes, than I do in my own home.”

Bullock is flipping through a book of family photos of her childhood. Anybody who wants to be an actor would do well, it seems, to be born into a traveling family. Military brats legendarily benefit later from the personality chops developed in making new friends. Bullock’s path was more novel. She and her family were along for her opera-singing mom’s ride. Helga Bullock was the daughter of a German rocket engineer, clerking to support her voice studies at a Nuremberg, Germany, conservatory, when she was called into an expansive office in the city’s Palace of Justice (where the historic war-crime trials had been held) to take a letter for the head man. This was John Bullock, who’d risen from working as an Army officer running wartime PXs to heading the entire Post Exchange program for Europe.

“The romance didn’t take right away,” says Sandra as she peruses photos of her parents. “Mom used to ride her bicycle to work every day, and Dad would blow by in his Mercedes. Didn’t give her a ride. No, I think it was a good three or four years.”

So it was, confirms John Bullock. As the boss, he had noticed that Helga was gorgeous. But John (who’d split up not long before with a first wife from his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.) felt an affair with an employee would be unseemly. “You can see the looks aren’t from me,” he says soon after shaking hands in a swank Beverly Hills, Calif., industry haunt, but the rough architectural strokes of chin, lips, nose and brow, and a not-to-be-suppressed twinkle in the eye, recall his daughter.

On orders from Helga, John Bullock declines to cite his age (in the mid-70s, if you do his career math), but he clearly shares his daughter’s energy. He unblinkingly took the public-relations hits for the canning of her old advisers, and is at once genial and not to be messed with – or summed up easily. John was singing lieder at recitals for culture-starved postwar Germans as Helga prepared for her career as a young dramatic soprano. “Both are essentially artists,” says Sandra. “Both loved opera – they went through a war, and they both chose a field that’s a dying art. He was considerably older, but they found each other – two totally different people who found a common ground and, I think, could not have been as big as they were in spirit without each other.” Bullock tilts her head at a photo of the smiling pair in wedding garb. “This is Mom and Dad getting married in Germany. Look at her. Doesn’t she look like Jackie O.?”

“Oh,” says John matter-of-factly when the line is quoted to him, “Helga’s better looking than Jackie O.” He just laughs when asked if his daughter’s charm sprouted early, recalling her as the waist-high girl “making goo-goo eyes at the Realtor” on a house-hunting trip. Real estate mattered for the itinerant Bullocks. From the time of Sandra’s birth, in Washington, D.C., they went back and forth to Europe as Helga’s career dictated. The grade-school Sandra was impish. She’d walk a lady guest to the bathroom, then ask, as she’d heard a pediatrician do, if the woman had “wiped properly.”

John settled the family in Arlington, Va., and took a Pentagon job (originating with his work for the Army Material Command), which he politely refuses to describe. He bought some nice acreage near the Blue Ridge Parkway, northwest of Charlottesville, Va. One day, as the family crossed a stream there, an accident occurred that had a curious payoff. Sandra was gripping John’s hand as she slipped on a mossy rock and went down hard. She has called the resultant scar, a usually disguised crescent over her left eye, “my battle wound” and has resisted fixing it. One nurse at the local university hospital was clearly struck by the pluck of the child who walked in with a bloody towel held to her head.

Jump ahead a few months to John saying goodbye to a handyman after a morning of bulldozer landscaping. Minutes later, he tripped the gear shift, and the ‘dozer vaulted forward. John dived off, but the machine – several tons’ worth, on clanking tank treads – spun itself around and ran over him as he lay dazed in a ravine.

It broke both his legs and several vertebrae below his neck, and half-severed his left arm, which he strapped into place with his belt before going into shock. At the hospital, the nurse who previously had been charmed by the wounded Sandra refused to accept the attending physician’s prognosis of amputation of both legs. She massaged his feet “for hours and hours,” says John, to restart circulation.

Legs still with him, John Bullock spent an uncertain year that included a life-threatening cardiac arrest. It was some months before the kids were allowed into the ward where he lay bandaged and tubed. “They said Sandy was so worried about Gesine [ga-ZEE-na, Sandra’s sister born four years after her],” says John. “Gesine was OK, but Sandy turned as white as this.” He brandishes a starched linen napkin, then apologizes for telling the story. But he’s fond of the part about the nurse.

Such traumas yielded to the old gypsy life, and Sandra spent successive years taking classes in Salzburg, Austria, and Nuremberg before coming back to junior high in Arlington. Looking for the definitive picture from that time, she flips through the photo book: “There’s me as a happy baby, me asked – don’t even think about it. Me and the dog; me as cowgirl; as angry German girl with bunny – I still have that bunny – me and my sister; there is my boyfriend at the prom, and I’m very angry at him ’cause we broke up. Yeah, angry prom girl. I was angry…. Me, Grandma, me doing some sort of beauty thing, which, of course, I lost.”

Per Hollywood custom, Bullock insists that she was a loser geek early on at Arlington’s Washington-Lee High School. She was a misfit, she has said, before she entered into a phase of supernormalcy, where everything she owned was monogrammed and she became a cheerleader – suddenly popular. That turnaround, she has remarked, “was sad.” According to Gerrie Filpi, Bullock’s high school drama teacher, there was a price to pay. “There’s a mask that some actors have trouble dropping,” says Filpi. “Sandra was so popular, there was so much attention paid to her, that she didn’t spend as much time as she should evolving.” The teacher’s words echo questions Bullock still seems to be asking herself.

A curious footnote to the high school career is a seeming white lie that Bullock repeatedly has told – that she was voted Girl Most Likely to Brighten Your Day by her classmates. Although the title could easily have been invented for Bullock, it wasn’t hers. She won Class Clown and Funniest, and was even voted Most Likely Couple to Get Married, with classmate Greg Davis, but the Girl Most Likely to Brighten Your Day was one Barrie Britton. As a look at how Bullock has conceived – you could even say packaged – herself, the misremembered title is quite illuminating.

Bullock went off to East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., to study drama, but she had enough awareness of her own appeal to leave school just short of graduating and head for New York. There she waitressed, attended the celebrated acting classes with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and began to chase after her big break. Her sense of timing has always been deft, and her move to Los Angeles – even though she recalls it as a time of struggling up canyon roads in her aging, smoking Honda while Jaguars blared their horns behind her – quickly resulted in her break with Working Girl.

Bullock felt she was in over her head, but with her customary drive and ballsiness, she went for it. “I don’t look; I just go,” says Bullock. She admires the same spirit in others, such as McConaughey. “Matthew just had a spark to him,” she recalls of their meeting on A Time to Kill. “He gets a joke that nobody else gets, has a rhythm to himself. Ask me to describe him – I can’t even begin to pull enough people together. Take a little Will Rogers, a little Paul Newman and then some bizarre character actor, some totally whacked nut case – like Boxcar Willie. And then you take a 6-year-old, and you mesh that all together; that’s kind of close. But there’s nobody like him.”

When Bullock took a break from prepping Hope Floats to tape an Oprah appearance (joined by Patric, who was civil, despite his usual subterranean seething), the talk-show host reliably speared her with a straight-out question as to whether she and McConaughey were dating. “No, we are not,” said Bullock, chipper enough, admitting only to great friendship and that “whatever woman gets him is going to have to get by me.”

Whatever their relationship was – and given that Ashley Judd recently named McConaughey as one of her two co-star lovers, it had to be tangled – the duo bonded deeply. In any event, Bullock had her miseries during the shoot, with management problems and the impending breakup of her relationship with film technician Don Padilla. What A Time to Kill director Schumacher remembers is the day Bullock brought instant solace when he faced his own misery.

“We were on this huge courtroom set,” says the director. “Sandra was completely on the other side of the room, and I was diagonally in a tiny corner with video machines in front of me. My assistant handed me a cellular phone, and I found out that a woman whom I adored, a friend’s wife who had struggled with cancer for, oh, 10 years, had just died. And I just lost it. No one saw me behind these video cameras. I just turned away and broke down. Sandy was suddenly there, on top of me. It was like she sensed something was wrong. Most actors on the set have so much self-involvement. They’ve got to worry about their hair, their makeup, their props, their lines, their marks, their battery mikes, so their antennae are not always out to others. But Sandy’s pores are open to everyone around her.”

Bullock will talk only elusively about her troubles then – a churning mix of personal and professional doubts: “I had to look at myself and go, ‘I’m responsible for so many things now, what am I choosing to hold close to my heart? And what do I choose to let go of and not control?’ You learn what you’re made of. I could have thrown in the towel, or I could just put my head down and say, ‘OK, give me a windbreaker, I’m going in.’ And it was beautiful to realize that your friends are not just hanging in for the good times. ‘Cause the good times mean absolutely nothing at all.”

As always in bad times, blood is a good deal thicker than water, and in the spring of 1996, Bullock called father John to the rescue. He insists he came in to look after her bookkeeping, get the haywire aspects of her business under control, simply give her breathing room. When she fired her manager and lawyer, gossip pointed to Dad as the axman. Without elucidating his actual role – beyond pointing out that no major decisions get made without Sandra – John seems quite willing to take the heat. He says that his daughter, unadvised, would work for far less than she’s worth. When it’s suggested that a tightly budgeted film like Hope Floats could use Sandra’s $11 million salary to lower production costs, he removes his glasses so you can see right into his eyes and cites the eternal law: “It’s fine to work for less on independent films. But actors cannot allow studios to chomp into their market value.”

After Hope Floats, Sandra could use a little downtime, to which the actress pays lip service – the same way she talks about the potential for marriage and motherhood. Resting doesn’t seem to suit this speedy motor scooter, despite John’s head-shaking grumble, “That’s worrisome.”

Sandra would like to do another intimate character piece. “I don’t take large leaps away from the last thing I’ve done,” she says, “because I can only do work where I can apply what I’ve learned in life. My progressions will always be small, but I don’t like to stay with the same thing; I did repeat Speed, but it’s a different thing this time, luckily.”

As Jan De Bont puts it, “The movie starts around Sandra this time. She’s the one that is more upfront now, more in your face. And I’m always looking for that one moment that I feel is pure. Because there is a purity to Sandra, but it takes a little work to get it out.”

Watching a Caribbean sunset after a day gulping salt water on Speed 2, Sandra makes an admission: “I think my spirit is tired. It’s like I’ve been on a set for the past two years, almost straight, and I haven’t lived my life. For some reason, I just want a tremendous amount of quiet. I want to find something very character driven and small that isn’t governed by, you know, its opening-day grosses; something where creatively I can be responsible for pulling it together. I feel like every project that I pick sort of parallels where my head is at, something that happened to me in life that I can sort of exorcise.”

As Bullock sits in Austin awaiting her next session with her director Forest Whitaker, an aide will sporadically pop in with an update on the outfitting of her new house. Austin is to be home for now, and Birdee – her character in Hope Floats – is definitely that sought-after projection of herself. “This script is very much parallel to me,” she says. “When I first saw it, I went, ‘Well, well, well.’ I mean, the names have been changed, but the elements in her life are parallel. It’s like when you can’t fake it anymore.” Birdee will learn that what her mother, played by Gena Rowlands, did in her life was exactly what Birdee is supposed to do. “She embraced life her way,” says Bullock, “and it didn’t appease and please everyone. You don’t have to be pleasing.

“And, yeah, she’s nothing like anyone I’ve played before. Nothing. It’s really hard; I’m struggling. We all migrate to what’s safe, but that doesn’t protect you or make you resilient. I’ve been trying to find the word that says what I need to be in life: Brave is that word. It’s the only thing that I ask myself to be. Not accomplished or whatever. Brave is the thing I don’t ever want to lose. Because no matter how many times I get knocked or I get blessed, it means that I’ll always be able to go again. And if I couldn’t go again, that would kill me.”

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