Interview: Sandra Bullock, actress

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SANDRA Bullock isn't the first Hollywood star to speak out about her imperfections, but she has always had an irrevocable proficiency for self-deprecation. "I have cellulite," she says. "And I wouldn't know what to do with breasts if I had them. They make an outfit look good, but when they put in fake ones, they change my personality entirely. I can't fold my arms."

Sitting in a hotel room, sipping herbal teas, Bullock says her first official nude scene has meant she can rely on at least one conversational touchstone for her new film The Proposal. For most of her career Bullock has refused to bare all, but in The Proposal she comes out of a shower and collides with co-star Ryan Reynolds with nothing to cover herself except hands: hers and his. Now everyone wants to know whether she read the script and thought the strip made for an indecent Proposal.

"I'm always in fantastic shape," she deadpans. "And if my nakedness makes people laugh, then bring it on, because I've done those scenes where it's supposed to be sexy, and it really isn't. Especially when it's men on film doing full-frontal nudity. Yes, it's embarrassing that people are going to point fun at my body. But by the third day the crew had seen it all."

It's worth putting this unsexy body talk into perspective. Bullock turned 45 this month: a long-legged, clear-skinned, caramel-eyed actress who has already seen many of her contemporaries – actresses who came to prominence in the 90s – fall off the face of the earth.

She may not be Helen of Troy, but her combination of equine goofiness and easygoing allure means that in a movie world of big lips, full bosoms and empty heads, Sandra Bullock continues to work. The public may not have cared for her in the rehab comedy 28 Days, or the thriller Premonition, but they love Miss Congeniality, where she played an FBI agent going undercover at a beauty pageant, and Two Weeks Notice, where she propped up Hugh Grant's boss until she finally got fed up and handed in her notice.

Ironically, around that time Bullock herself seemed to weary of her celluloid persona as pert comedy queen, and announced in 2002 that she was resigning her crown.

"I stopped doing romantic comedies because I couldn't stand them anymore," she corrects. "They weren't funny and they weren't romantic. The kinds of thing I can do well were not being produced. I'd read the scripts and go – that's uninteresting to me and insulting to women. If I do something on film I don't want a 12-year-old girl to go see my film and come out thinking 'If only I had bigger boobs or more clothes in my closet'. I don't want to be a trailblazer, but I don't want to take steps backwards either."

Onscreen and in person Bullock is likeable and smart, which is why we're both calling The Proposal her First Official Nude Scene. When she started out, an early film forced her to go bare in part-profile but, savvy even then, she insisted on duct-taping her body to protect herself from the camera's sweep.

"I was young and inexperienced, but I was still smart enough to not trust those people," she smirks. The importance of such control goes even further back, to her first big break as the lead in a TV spinoff of the hit film Working Girl: "It was miserable; I was terrible and was getting blamed for it not being funny," Bullock says. "But the problem was that there were so many cooks involved. I remember thinking – just give me funny stuff to do, because what you're giving me isn't funny. They didn't know what to do with me and I didn't know how to fix it."

The series ran for 12 episodes before Bullock was thrown back into waitressing and bartending jobs, but the experience convinced her that she had nothing to lose by standing up for herself and talking back. "On one of my next films, the director would come in every day and say: 'You might be getting fired today.' Eventually I said: 'OK then, fire me – because I don't want to play what you want me to play.' I never got fired, and I just kind of willed it that I would not be in that situation anymore."

It's odd how many of America's successful rom-com princesses have this kind of toughness. A recent interview with Julia Roberts reveals a pretty determined woman, while professional ditzes Meg Ryan and Cameron Diaz may fluff and giggle onscreen but in person they exude the steely confidence of military generals who have never lost a battle.

Bullock is friendlier than most, and frank about her need to meddle in projects. "I will make myself sick on films just because I want everything to be right," she says. "I can't sleep if something hasn't been done or is out of place."

At 30, Bullock merged into Hollywood's fast lane in a runaway bus for Speed, but a high-octane career led to burnout. By 2002, she was so exhausted "my body began shutting down" while filming Two Weeks Notice with Hugh Grant. After the film wrapped, she sounded bored and disillusioned with acting. At the height of her career, she quit.

"All I did was work," she says. "I did three or four films a year and it felt like a treadmill. Nothing was exciting to me anymore. So I took time off, and that's when all kinds of interesting things crossed my path." One of those things was Jesse James – his real name – who she met when she took her godson to his custom bike-building shop. Bullock and James seemed to have little in common. She was America's perky sweetheart and he was… "A welder," she supplies helpfully.

Or at least a man who custom-builds bikes, used to act as security for the band Soundgarden and has an awful lot of tattoos, including one on the palm of his hand that reads "Pay Up, Sucker". They wed in secret in 2005, and when she went on the David Letterman show afterwards, the host asked Bullock if she'd lost a bet. For Bullock, previously linked to actors Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling and Tate Donovan, romance was the last thing on her mind when James started what appears to have been a courtly new media wooing by e-mail.

When she finally returned to film, the new Bullock was less interested in making another Speed sequel than in acting challenges. In 2005 she played a seething race-conscious political wife in Crash (which won a Best Picture Oscar) and then surprised many by turning up in Infamous as author Harper Lee. It was a remarkable performance for those of us used to her cuddly slapstick. Indeed, Bullock says she was surprised to be offered the role as Truman Capote's soft-spoken childhood friend. "I kept asking the director, 'Why do you want me to do this?' she recalls. 'I mean – do you need funding for this film, is that what it is?'"

It remains her favourite role, but it was largely ignored because audiences had just seen Capote, another film version of how In Cold Blood came to be written. However, she has no regrets: "As an actress you want to branch out and do all kinds of work. Just to be able to try to play her was really exciting. No-one expected it. Miss Congeniality is the furthest thing from me, and I relate to the woman in Crash – not her bigotry, but the rage. That came easily. But I know who I think I am." v

The Proposal is released on Wednesday