Party Girl, Interrupted
Sandra Bullock's 28 Days
Sandra Bullock walks straight to the buffet table. "Now what I have to do is see what you have here that the other rooms don't." She pokes around the pastry plate, between the bagels and croissants, and spies something. "Oooh, a cheese danish!" She picks it up with the pads of her fingers so her nails don't sink into the gooey dough and takes a seat in the plastic chair. This morning, she has already been to six rooms just like this, and with the possible exception of the cheese danish, they all look the same -- tape recorders lined up before her, eager journalists peering at her carefully, clutching a picture of her to autograph after the 20 minutes are up. Over the next several hours, she will go through this drill many more times -- after print media, there is also television and radio stations to meet. This is known as a "publicity junket," in which studios (in this case, Columbia Pictures) fly journalists (in this case, me and others) to a location (in this case, Los Angeles) to promote their film (in this case, 28 Days). In the movie, Sandra Bullock stars as New York writer Gwen Cummings, an all-hours party girl whose tortured tailspin winds her in rehab, where she rails against the authorities and, later, against her disease.
Sandra Bullock (Sandy to her friends) is better-looking in person than onscreen. She is neither blond nor buxom, but is one of those Hollywood rarities: a natural beauty. While make-up artists have too often greased up her lovely almond eyes with charcoal liner or kinked her dark hair for whimsical effect, Sandra Bullock in person is just simply disarming -- the sparkling eyes, the natural, gaping grin, the feathery lashes, the gently cleft chin, the perfect Roman nose. Although her biography puts her at five feet seven inches, her delicate features and slight frame make her seem diminutive, although hardly fragile. Her slightly husky voice speaks in earnest, open-faced monologues that often collide with a girlish, insistent giggle. She likes to giggle.
"I knew for sure she was going to be a nice person," says the film's director, Betty Thomas, a funny, no-bullshit broad who long ago turned in her uniform on Hill Street Blues to helm such successful comedies as Dr. Dolittle and Private Parts. "To me, she represents that accessible star. But it turns out she's strong, complex, humorous, fights back, believes in things." Indeed, Sandra Bullock is all those things. But it is that word -- accessible -- that keeps percolating through each of the interviews.
Sandra Bullock sits down in her chair and cuts her recently discovered danish down the center. "Does anybody want half?"
Sitting directly across from her is a tall, wiry young guy -- with small black eyes behind round glasses and a curly mop of hair on his head, he looks more like a cartoon than a real person.
"I'll take it," he says, stretching over the table, his pale face prickled with pink, and the actress-turned-hostess hands it to him. She dusts off her hands and swipes her loose brown hair behind her ears.
"Now what can I answer for you that no one else has answered yet?"
And I can't help thinking that Sandra Bullock really works hard at making people feel comfortable. And I can't help thinking that this guy's gonna keep that cheese danish forever.
At 10 that morning, I arrive on the second floor of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, which is peachy pink and teal, like some extravagant handprint of Eighties indulgence. Scrounging for free coffee, I wander into the first room on the left, and wedge myself past a cluster of journalists to the coffee maker.
Forces of Nature: The Junket Junkies
"We have a new kid in the room," says a frizzy-haired brunette with a folded index card in front of her that reads: Anne. "Steve, I think you'll have to sing for her."
Steve stops typing on his laptop to peer at Anne over his glasses. After a moment of silence, he launches into a spirited version of a showtune I can only identify as "Why Am I Here?" When he finishes, we give him a round of applause, and he touches his hairy hand to his chest in an exaggerated gesture of modesty. "This is your first junket?" Steve asks. I nod. "Well, I'll give you some advice. Enjoy your swag." He opens a cardboard box given to us upon arrival and begins to swing the red-enameled 28 Days coffee cup from his index finger. "And whatever you do: Don't ask any questions."
Jeff, who is bearded and Canadian, snorts. "You know, Steve told that to a couple of college kids once. And you know what? They believed him!" The table roars with the memory. "Sat there with their lips sealed the entire time!"
"What did you think of the movie?" Steve asks. But before I get a chance to respond, he has answered his own question. "I loved it. Loved. It." He returns to his computer.
A woman named Linda walks into the room and dumps her bags on the table. She is strikingly attractive, but with a coarse way of speaking that curls her thin lips slightly when she talks. "Has anyone taken the bathroom soap yet? It's mine!" She buries her glasses in her untamed blond hair and looks straight at me. "Shit. What are you, 17?"
"This is our new friend," says Steve.
"Oh yeah?" Linda takes out a cigarette and rolls it between her fingers. "Where are you from, new friend?"
I tell them.
"Sandy's hometown!" Anne squeals with delight and claps her hands. "We lucked out. We'll have to use this," she says.
Steve raises his bushy eyebrows and starts tapping things out on his laptop. "Okay, what does Sandy's house look like?" he asks, perching his fingers over the keyboard.
"I've heard it's very nice," I lie. I've never heard anything about Sandra Bullock's house, although at a party once someone pointed in the general direction of it. My head bobs awkwardly. "I've never actually seen it," I admit.
They stare at me blankly.
"This your first junket?" Linda asks. I nod. "Well, you came to the right room."
"Everyone wants to be in this room, because we get the best quotes," explains Steve.
"You've been on a lot of junkets?" I ask. They all burst into laughter. "What's the best one you've been on?"
"Years ago we went to Paris for Anastasia," Linda says, and sighs.
"We were in Maui for The Beach," explains Anne. "DiCaprio was great, but Virginie ..." she says, rolling her eyes. Virginie Ledoyen is the exquisite-looking French co-star of the Danny Boyle film.
"Boring and dumb," Steve says definitively.
"She dropped her bagel on the floor -- and then picked it up and ate it!" Anne adds.
"With all the little carpet fuzzies sticking on it," Linda chimes in, her face scrunched up in disgust.
"And girlfriend has more hair under her arms than Julia Roberts," says Steve while I wonder vaguely if that is as remarkable as the tufts of hair curling from his nostrils.
They go on to dish about several other big-name stars -- actors who smell, actors who are stupid, actors who are drunks. They live and breathe celebrity scoop, take pride in these private revelations about the beautiful people. Junketeers, they're called, or junket junkies, veterans everyone there knows by name, whose day planners are booked every weekend with these trips, mostly to Los Angeles or New York. At one point, they share pictures of each other from Maui, like college friends after a wild, half-forgotten party.
Then a Columbia Pictures rep enters the room. "Hate to break up this little party, boys and girls, but we need bodies in those other rooms. Someone has to go."
Everyone looks around. "Well," Anne says, shrugging her shoulders, "it's gotta be the new kid."
My new room is only half full, with less experienced writers, quieter and less abrasive than the junketeers. Over two and a half hours, we will interview seven 28 Days stars for 20 minutes each -- like moving from one first date to the next. Yes, the cast got along famously. Yes, it was the best/most educational/funniest experience I've had in a while. Yes, I'd definitely work with so-and-so again. But with this cast, it does at least sound sincere. After all, the film was shot while the leaves were turning in Asheville and Wilmington, North Carolina, with an ensemble that includes Secrets & Lies' Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Steve Buscemi, whose own film, Trees Lounge, remains one of the most harrowing depictions of alcoholism's ability to erode the soul. But they are only minor characters in this film, and as such, they are not at this junket. Instead we fumble through interviews with actors we know nothing about: Mike O'Malley, perhaps best known for his short-lived, self-titled television series; Alan Tudyk, a character actor from Plano whose over-the-top, gay, German stripper is poised to be the film's breakout character; Azura Skye, who blows my only prepared question when she reveals that no, she's not related to Ione Skye. When the awkward silence in the room becomes unbearable, the man sitting on my left, whose English skills are limited, asks only one question: "Uh ... what was it like to work with the star?"
A Time to Kill: The Interview Begins
At this affair, we are interviewing six people and Sandra Bullock.
Just a week prior, the Premiere magazine with a scantily clad Sandra Bullock on its cover hit the stands. It is sandwiched between the press kits and notebooks of almost every journalist here. In it, Bullock talks about shattering the girl-next-door image that has dogged her since 1994's Speed, in which she played, most likely, someone very much like herself -- playful, sarcastic, endearing. Those are the hallmarks of nearly every memorable character she has played since, from the jilted ex-Prom-Queen-in-transition of Hope Floats to the savvy law student of A Time to Kill. It has been a dubious achievement, searing her charming personality on audiences who quickly embraced her, but lending the impression that she might lack a certain ... range? 28 Days is a film she hopes will remedy that -- and hell, stranger things have happened. In the film, she anchors genuinely moving moments, like the one in which she finally breaks down, jittery and babbling, to her counselor (Buscemi). It's not played for tears or laughs; because it is a jumbled mess of the two, it is achingly real.
But when Sandra Bullock, so eagerly anticipated, sidles up to our table and asks, "Now what can I answer for you that no one else has answered yet?" she is met with an eerie silence.
The man to my left asks, "Uh ... what was it like to work with the director?"
"I am a horrible celebrity," Sandra Bullock is saying. Although Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover story that featured her photo along with a $12 million price tag, you get the feeling Sandra Bullock might be the last person on earth who could tell you why. She admits to being incredulous that Betty Thomas ever wanted to hire her for the role of Gwen Cummings, a role she eyed enviously as rich and deep and complex. This quality in her could alternately be described as modesty or a nagging lack of self-esteem or a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge her own fame. Either way, it results in something cool and unguarded about her, as though she is past all the Hollywood bullshit. And yet when she jokes about how she is a horrible celebrity, there is some longing in her voice. The following rant was prompted when one writer at the table referred to her as a movie star: "I think you should have to take a test to be a celebrity, and I should have failed a long time ago. People expect certain things, like at premieres, the way you dress, or the way you act. I'm horrible at it. Any time I have to go to an event, it's like I have a meltdown over what to wear. And it's never the right thing. I never look great. It's always so far from what I would normally wear. And I'm uncomfortable. I'm like, 'I can't move, my boob is falling out.' What do I do?"
Hope Floats: No More Girl Next Door
Although a disarming confession, it's also a performance of sorts, which she slurs with a hearty, nearly snorting giggle throughout, and afterward she looks slightly depleted. She is staring down at the table, brushing her hair with her fingernails methodically. "I don't know," she continues, "I wish I could find a comfort with it. I think maybe I am, slowly, because I go to a premiere like what, once a year? That's it. And maybe I'll go do an event. Maybe. But that's it. So I want to be able to enjoy those things. I'm having a really hard time doing it." And then, almost as if she is apologizing to us, she adds softly, "But I'll get better."
Sandra Bullock is a woman who wants to feel more comfortable in her own skin. She has come a long way from the naive thirtysomething blindsided by fame, but this is a lifelong goal for anyone, and one quite fitting for this film, which depicts the perpetual, one-day-at-a-time struggle of a recovering alcoholic. Self-improvement has been on her mind lately, not just for herself but for everyone.
"No one in this room and no one outside this room should not go to rehab," she explains. And she's dead serious. "People think rehab is for drugs and alcohol. That's not it. It's a place of honesty, and it's a place where you deal with what happened in life, what happened in your childhood, what happens on a day-to-day basis. We can't handle everything. We're bound to crack." She speaks from experience. In order to research her 28 Days role, she entered rehab herself. Although she was at first rebuffed by the patients ("You have some dingbat actress coming in, going, 'I'm going to research you and your problems, and I'm going to write about it.' Why would you want to be in there? I would be offended."), she soon decided to spill the beans on her own failures and frustrations and, presumably, addictions and abuses. It paid off. "It was the first time in a long time that Sandra Bullock, actress, ceased to exist completely. It was not a newspaper, radio, or TV. It was like the first time I had had an honest conversation with anybody in ... I don't know how long. If ever."
She admits many of these anxieties slink off when she gets to Austin, her newfound hometown which she talks about with the rapture of a young lover. "I've always been a traveling kid," she explains, "but every time I step off the plane and I hear the crickets and I smell the wet soil ..." It is as if she is at a loss for words. She goes on for nearly seven minutes, a good third of her time in the room, waxing enthusiasm about SXSW, the supportive nature of Austin audiences, the throbbing energy of Sixth Street, the lushness of the hills. "I've never felt a sense of true home and community where I wanted to build and I was concerned about what was going on around me. And I'd never read a paper to see what was going on in the community in my life before. I've never felt more myself than when I'm there."
She stops for a moment, and begins backtracking a bit. "I'm sure it's irritating to have me there sometimes," she concedes, laughing. "I mean here comes this person who enters into Austin going, 'This is my hometown!' But I found this place, and I said, 'I will try to fit into what you do, because this is the way I want to live my life.' And I love it. I feel like it's a place where I always should have been. And that's a great feeling to have."
Just at that moment, the Columbia rep comes in to cut her off. Sandy (can I call her Sandy now?) smiles politely and stands up. In a startling contagion, the other journalists whip out the picture of her from the press kit. The rep hands her a black Sharpie, and she begins to sign.
"Would you make that out to Bryan?" one woman asks. "He's my dad."
"Oh, I like the ones for dad," she says, and turns to ask me when I'm flying back to Austin. She is explaining to me that she won't be going back immediately, since she's going on her first vacation in a year, when the man to my left hands her a magazine.
"Sandy, my editor will kill me if I don't get a picture of you," he explains. "This is our magazine. Can you pose with it?"
"It's not picture day!" she says, trying to be jovial. Everyone is staring at her, waiting for her to cave in, but if she says yes there will be more and more ...
"C'mon, Sandy," he says.
"Look at my hair!" she says, laughing. There may have been a time when she would have said yes. Those were the days of the girl next door, afraid to disappoint, afraid to seem ungrateful or snobby. But this is Sandra Bullock a little older, a little wiser, and fully cognizant that in this business, if you want a picture of me holding your magazine, you'd best show up on picture day.
"Thanks a lot you guys," she says, changing the subject politely, clasping her hands together, and leaving the room. But don't think for a minute she's not accessible -- as if to remind us, half an untouched cheese danish is still on the table, waiting to be wrapped up and taken home.
28 Days opens in theatres Friday, April 14. Gun Shy, which Bullock stars in and co-produced, opens in theatres on the same day.