On screen, Sandra Bullock is lost in space, but bringing up three-year-old Louis is all it takes to ground this solitary superstar
SANDRA Bullock’s ability to lead the American box office by the nose is based on a rare talent that turns mortals into stars, and sometimes even world leaders – namely, that she seems like the kind of person you could share a pint with.
With her broad smile and snorting laugh, she seems like a good, gregarious companion for any pub, and her way of prefacing points with a chummy “you know what?” makes her easy on the ear even when she’s completely disagreeing with your carefully nurtured pet theory. Exhibit One: Bullock doesn’t think she’d make a good bar room buddy at all. “I like lists, I’m controlling, I like order,” she ticks off. “I’m difficult on every level.”
The self-deprecation doesn’t make her seem any less amiable, does it? Back when she was at school, and Miss Congeniality was twinkle in someone’s tiara, her 1982 graduating classmates voted Sandy Bullock the person Most Likely To Brighten Your Day. The daughter of a Pentagon contractor and a German opera singer, Bullock came to wider notice with Speed, then continued to use her perky persona to drive unwieldy comedy vehicles like If Two By Sea and All About Steve, until she learnt to say “no” a little more often at the preproduction stage.
Certainly Bullock likes to be liked, but instead of coasting on surface charm, she puts in the hours. A friend who worked with her on several films confirms that she will stop and listen to everyone and anyone on her way to the set. She’s also pretty obliging: in the middle of filming in New York, a fan leant forward, shoved his mobile phone in her hand, and asked her to talk to his wife. Bullock did so.
The reason people marvel at this is because Bullock is a serious A-list star. Received wisdom has it that female stars cannot open a movie, yet The Proposal, The Blind Side, and this summer’s comedy The Heat have all pulled in about £25 million on their opening weekends. Who says women over 40 can’t rule the box office? Then try to imagine fellow bankables like Leonardo DiCaprio chatting up a stranger’s wife on the phone, or Tom Cruise taking members of his film crew out for salsa dancing.
Last time we met, Bullock was just as giddily good-humoured, showing off shoes she could barely walk in, and comparing women’s arousal to ovens (“we need about 15 minutes to warm up”).
Back then she was promoting a comedy and enjoying married life to motorbike customiser and reality star Jesse James. I didn’t meet James, who was tucked away in an adjacent room, but she was happy to enthuse about embracing his petrolhead pursuits. After the interview, they were off to Silverstone. “I would love to be on Top Gear as a star in a reasonably priced car,” she said, cheerily, as she left the room.
Bullock is no longer married. Days after her Oscar victory (she was named Best Actress for the The Blind Side in 2010) James apologised for having an affair and she filed for divorce. Their five-year marriage was over, but it also heralded the beginning of Bullock’s new life, as mother to adopted son Louis. It speaks volumes that despite intense scrutiny, she managed to conceal a big personal moment – and that unlike other celebrities criticised for trans-racial adoption, Bullock was largely cheered on for having found a “new man”.
Louis is now three years old, and usually photographed as a grave-looking child, heading in or out of his mother’s car. His mother says this is because Louis isn’t a fan of paparazzi attention, and the face he pulls is usually him “giving them the stink-eye”.
Bullock has raised him largely in Austin, Texas, as far away as possible from Hollywood, but occasionally she gives him a window into her other life. In September, she was invited to add her palm prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – Bullock already has a star on the Hollywood Boulevard – and she agreed because she thought Louis might enjoy the day. “We had a square of cement made up for him at home afterwards, so when he came in he could do his own little hand and footprint and write his name. And later we’re going to put it at the front of the house,” she says, with pride.
Celebrity can blight childhood with its tendency to reward ambitious self-absorption. “I wanted him to feel special too so that when he’s 15 and he hates me and I’m an embarrassment, I’ll say, ‘Come here and let me show you something we did when you were younger, and how much you liked me at that time.’ On the Walk of Fame, Louis was remarkably stoic in his miniature grey suit given the crowds and cameras surrounding his mother during her palm print ceremony, but at the end, he gave her a kiss. “I gave him gummy bears,” she says. “So then he was okay with being there.”
This public appearance of mother and son was a rare event. Aside from premieres and promotional duties, Bullock mostly eschews the trappings of Hollywood: she doesn’t have a home there, she doesn’t try to flog you a line of watches, perfume or make-up, and while she donates to causes, she doesn’t try to foist her political ideals on her fans. She doesn’t tweet, or run an official website and stopped reading magazines, unless they were vetted in advance by friends and pronounced Bullock-Free, after being featured regularly in the fashion pages, in “worst dressed” sections for the heinous crime of wearing a premiere gown that wasn’t a single-coloured sheath.
Now she dresses more carefully and conservatively, with a style that tends towards alpha executive. Her straightened black hair is all business, and her eyes are lined and shadowed in neutral pinks. The dark suit with skinny black trousers is chic and self-effacing. Yet she’s also wearing a pair of snazzy, strappy, vertiginous shoes – so maybe despite herself, she cannot take her rigid role entirely seriously. Bullock is certainly tough – few softies get to her level in any business – but mostly she is tough on herself. She recognises that her success over two decades means that she is financially secure for years to come, but then admits she worries about old age: “It all comes back to when I’m old and alone, because I never assume anybody will be by my side. I always think the worst.”
Bullock won’t address the most painful parts of the past few years publicly. This is the woman who once said: “Nobody can make me cry in public. I’ll punch them first before they make my mascara smear.” Yet when talking about her character’s depressed loneliness in her new film Gravity, she can’t help but drop clues about her retreat from films and public life.
“When adversity hits, what do we do? We isolate and find ourselves more alone than ever. When you have adversity and you have pain, you never feel more alone than you do at that moment, even if you are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people,” she says earnestly. Last year, James remarried, to an heiress to a shampoo fortune, but by the sound of it, there was never any chance of a reconciliation with Bullock, who says she “never makes the same mistake twice”.
In the weeks following her Oscar win and James’ confession of infidelity, she hid away, visited by friends like Ryan Reynolds, Hugh Grant and her sister Gesine. She also found a comforting rhythm in her life when Louis joined her a few months later.
Usually Bullock is up before 6am to check email and prepare meals, then she breakfasts with Louis at 7am. She drives him to nursery school and while he’s there, works out with swimming, dance and gym, and gets on with movie business. Most evenings they are both in bed before nine. “I have a very sexy life,” she quips.
Until Louis, she was a self-confessed workaholic, not just starring in films but also producing them through the production company she set up with her sister. After Louis, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go out to work any more. When Spanish director Alfonso Cuaron sought her out to star in Gravity, she turned him down at first, saying she didn’t want to miss her son. Fine, said Cuaron, then we’ll make sure that you don’t miss him. The studio built a set for Louis to play in, next to the Gravity lot, with bumper guards to protect an inquisitive toddler.
While Louis was off the set having fun, his 49-year-old mother acted out a role that is something of a tour de force, a film far more Oscar-worthy than The Blind Side. Cuaron’s 3D survival thriller stars Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts who dodge meteors and the usual narrative expectations when faced with a string of crises, starting with the destruction of their shuttle. Clooney proved to be an ally on set, playing basketball with Louis and joining forces with Bullock to bait Cuaron with jokes. The two actors share a lot of history: the same smart-goofy image, a similar deflective sense of humour, and one marital breakdown apiece. “George and I didn’t have a lot of time together, and I wished we’d had more,” says Bullock. “I’ve known him since the time when neither of us had a career. He hasn’t changed since the days when his hair was dark and curly and I’d love to do more movies with him.”
When promoting the picture at the Venice Film Festival Bullock and Clooney caused some speculation by spending longer together than was strictly professionally necessary. Would it be so horrible if they got together for real? Bullock already has her gun ready to shoot down that idea. “Too similar” apparently – although “we’re probably the only two that haven’t dated in the business.”
Clooney’s co-starring role is a key device, but it is Bullock who is in practically every frame, often alone, with the camera in her makeup-free face – a level of scrutiny she has been shying away from. As part of her research, she put in a call to the astronauts on the International Space Station, leaving a message on their internet phone. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who spent 159 days aboard the International Space Station, 225 miles from Earth, in 2011, answered some basic inquiries from Bullock, including “Where do you go to the bathroom?” Bullock says: “They weren’t very forthcoming with that answer.”
Since opening in the US, Gravity has been a commercial hit, a critical success – and a topic of some controversy in the world of science. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has already pointed out that nearly all satellites orbit earth west to east, not east to west as in the film and pondered why Bullock’s hair did not float freely on her head, like everything else in her spaceship. Above all, there’s a sequence where she removes her spacesuit to reveal a cute vest and pants set, rather than the more usual long johns, cooling tubes and adult nappy.
Yet Bullock suggests that Gravity was already weighed down with a lot of detailed work to simulate the effects of weightlessness and space travel. Instead of a normal set with crew, lights and props to guide a performance, for much of the shoot, Bullock was tethered to innovative rigs in a custom built light box on a London soundstage to mimic zero gravity. She was often alone in complete darkness. “If you spend enough time with yourself in silence, you’ll be surprised what goes through your head,” she says.
Some things were better left unthought, like how an actor copes with long takes in cumbersome costumes. “There were times when I wore a space suit, then had to crawl into this contraption, and then they locked me in,” she says. “It took about 20 to 25 minutes, and getting out of it was a miserable experience. I just stopped drinking any liquids an hour beforehand, which probably wasn’t the healthiest choice, but I didn’t want to get in and out of the contraption more than I had to.”
Worse than that was the prospect of riding the weightless simulator plane, nicknamed the Vomit Comet. Bullock doesn’t like planes at the best of times. “The idea of plummeting out of a sky, when I didn’t want to be in the sky in the first place, was something I had to make peace with,” she says.
Then at the last minute, Cuaron decided he could simulate the effect instead. “And by then, because I’m so afraid of flying, I was okay with anything else that they wanted me to do,” says Bullock, who suspects that this may have been part of the plan.
So has she conquered her fear of planes? “No, it’s still there. But you know what? The other day I was on a flight that hit turbulence and realised I wasn’t scared.
“Usually I can’t control that feeling, but then I realised it was because my son was with me on the plane, so I couldn’t be scared and panic – because my job is to let him know that everything is all right.” n
Gravity (3D) (12A) is on general release from Friday, 8 November