A SHIVERING Jennifer Love Hewitt has strait-jacketed herself with a lilac pashmina, underneath which her arms are folded defensively across her globally celebrated chest in the attitude of a stone Crusader on his tomb.
The effect is one of high pathos. If it weren't for the exotic Jennifer Lopez eyes in that heart-shaped, honey-skinned little face, Hewitt would look as vulnerable as an orphaned faun in need of a comfort-blanket. "I'm always cold," explains the actress with a wan smile, huddled up against the arctic blasts from the Dorchester's fearsomely efficient air conditioning.
It's none too warm outside, either. Yet cynics might say that Hewitt should be well used to the cold by now, having risked pneumonia many times with an eye-popping series of costumes on screen. In the flesh, however, she seems touchingly anxious to cover up in front of journalists for more reasons than goose-pimples. "The next couple of things that I do, I wanna try to focus less on my figure and more on my ability because I think that's important," she says earnestly, pulling the protective pashmina even closer.
Her hero-worship of the gamine Audrey Hepburn, whom she portrayed last year in a US TV bio-pic, inspired this 22-year old veteran to go into showbusiness. Yet although she can do the kind of wistful, yearning charm that could melt a heart of concrete, there's really nothing waif-like about Jennifer Love Hewitt.
As the quintessential American teen queen on TV and later on film, she combined the body of a babe with the soul of the fresh-faced girl next door. After a cameo in Sister Act 2 : Back In The Habit (1993) and bigger roles in House Arrest (1996) and Suburbans, the (1999), she finally made her name as the angst-ridden heroine of the hit stalk-and-slash thrillers I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and its sequel.
Although her co-star in the first Summer movie was Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame, it was Jennifer's well-stacked Wonderbra that kept getting stalked by the camera. The reputation of those fabled globes still goes before her, with one facetious website asserting that her breasts deserve to be stars in their own right.
But Hewitt is aware she's at a pivotal point inher career, having now moved several significant rungs up the ladder from teen-scream leads to the grown-up stuff. In the new crime caper Heartbreakers (2001), she gets second billing after Sigourney Weaver and above Gene Hackman and Ray Liotta, while Sir Anthony Hopkins is her co-star in the forthcoming Devil And Daniel Webster, the (2001).
Neither film is exactly slow to showcase her most obvious assets: in Heartbreakers she wears pelmet skirts so tight they must have been spray-painted on, and in Daniel Webster, she plays a modern Beelzebub in a boob tube.
But it seems she's no elizabeth Hurley wannabe: "Elizabeth's devil in Bedazzled (2000) was much more of a caricature. I had to make my devil a real person," Jennifer says with great solemnity. Luckily the girl from Waco, Texas, also turns out to have that rare Hollywood commodity: humour. She cheerfully refers to herself as "a typical midget Texan; in Texas, the women tend to be petite and the men tall. There are not many Jerry Hall's in Texas; most of the good Southern belles are pretty dainty. "
Like Topsy, she suddenly grew and grew - but in one area only - when she was 17. Such was the interest from both men and women in her new superstructure, with the shock-jock Howard Stern devoting hours of airtime to free-associating about the JLH chest, that she took to wearing a defiant, very unHollywood T-shirt with the words Silicone Free.
She rises above it all by sending herself up: "My chest grew bigger one summer five years ago, and random women would come up to me on set and go, 'Oh, who's your doctor?' And I would think, 'What is wrong with you? First of all, boobs are not this fascinating and second of all, why are you denying the fact I was working 18 hours a day on a film and not laying on a table and getting a boob-job?'"
"When you're still a teenager, you don't want anything to draw attention to yourself. I did a whole day's interviews in Australia and everyone was like, 'So are your boobs real or not?' I was taking that stuff so personally that when I was walking down the street in Sydney with my mom, I saw this T-shirt that said Silicone Free. So I said, 'Mom, I'm buying that shirt. 'She said, 'Oh, that'll be funny to wear around the house' and I said, 'Nope, I'm wearing it out tomorrow. 'So she said, 'No, you're not' and I said, 'Yes, I am. I promise you it will make a statement without making a statement. '"
"I was kind of nervous that people would be offended by it, but Australians have a good sense of humour; I don't think it would have gone over well in LA or New York. But it loosened everybody up about my chest; it became a joke. I just wanted people to take it lightly, it's not a big deal. I still wear that T-shirt, it cracks me up."
"My character wore a tiny top in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) because that's what they do in horror movies. And in Heartbreakers (2001), my character Page uses her body and her sexuality to hide the fact she's really a 23-year old insecure girl trying to figure out her life. "
Although Jennifer Love Hewitt is a year younger than Page, she's anything but insecure. A highly focused performer since the age of nine when she travelled with the Texan Show Team troupe to Russia, she also has a recording career as an R & B singer. At ten, she moved from Texas to LA with her speech-therapist mother to try her luck in the TV industry; and it's been non-stop ever since.
Patricia Hewitt, who had divorced Jennifer's medical-technician father Danny when their daughter was just six months old, named her Love after her room-mate in college. The best of buddies, mother and daughter still live together.
In Heartbreakers, Jennifer plays Sigourney Weaver's sex-kitten daughter and partner-in-crime for a perilous game of revenge against men. Like the Heartbreakers (2001) duo, Jennifer and her mother make an inseparable team, although there all similarities end: unlike the wayward, fatherless Page, Love Hewitt did at least get to know her own dad after her parents' divorce. Nevertheless it was her chiropractor brother Todd, eight years older than Jennifer, who helped his mother to bring up his sister.
Love Hewitt's fame has brought all the mixed benefits that fall to pretty young things. Profiled as a teen phenomenon by Rolling Stone magazine, Hewitt also found herself sharing joint first place with Brad Pitt in a magazine poll as the ultimate condom-worthy celebrity you would save your last prophylactic for.
She has had to ride the usual rollercoaster through the hostile landscape of rumour, which ranged from a supposed affair with Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin, who directed her in Devil And Daniel Webster, the (2001) to gossip about the bingeing habits of Love Hewitt, her lookalike Jennifer Lopez and Julia Roberts. "Alec and I became very close," concedes Jennifer, "but nothing romantically ever happened. The thing that was unfair about that was that Alec has a lot going on in his life right now (Baldwin has recently split with wife Kim Basinger) and he didn't need those rumours.
And truthfully it was insulting to me, because it went from being a ha-ha-ha rumour of 'Are they cuddling on set?' to 'Was this the reason Jennifer got hired?' Insinuations that I wasn't there for my ability, that I was just there to be his chick," she says, scornfully spitting the word out, "were really insulting. Normally I don't get offended by those things, but that I was offended by. "
As for the report that she, J-Lo and Julia Roberts all hired personal trainers to clear out their fridges in order to prevent them from bingeing, Hewitt looks at me as if I'm bonkers for believing such an outlandish anecdote. "My God, no, I would kill somebody if they took away my junk food, are you kidding? I would say, 'Get out of my house, I want my Doritos! ' Eating is my favourite thing to do: anything and everything. Southern belles are not supposed to eat a lot, they're supposed to be ladylike, but I'm not. I've never known a person who didn't love junk food and live to be at least 100. My only anxiety is that I'll eat too much and be a balloon. "
It's a legitimate concern, considering those Heartbreakers cozzies. "Sigourney and I talked about how both our characters seem to have a lot of testosterone without compromising their femininity. I really liked all the messages the movie had, but it wasn't sappy - it didn't beat you over the head with them."
Certainly it's not a comedy for the politically correct. The two women operate a caught-in-the-act scam, with Weaver screaming blue murder and maximum compensation when she "discovers" her precious darling daughter crouched down in a compromising position in front of a lustful Ray Liotta as she prepares to perform oral sex on him. "Yeah, I spent the first two days on set being rather closely attached to Ray's trousers," says Hewitt, grinning. "I had my ear right up to his crotch: they took a piece of my hair and put a wire around it, and then fastened the wire to a safety pin on his trousrs. I had to be really careful because I was wearing a 5000-dollar wig and we couldn't rip it."
"As well, of course, as being careful with Ray's trousers, careful of me coming out of my tiny dress and careful of my knees. So there was a lot," she concludes, nodding sagely, "to be careful about. "
Sweet. Like the young Natalie Wood, this fellow former child star radiates a sexy wholesomeness that she refuses to compromise with nudity. "I've never been talked into revealing more than i would want to. I haven't found a reason yet where nudity is justified in a movie. I personally think that true sexiness is the tiniest bit of skin in the right spot and everything else covered; the imagination can do a lot more than the eyes."
"Devil And Daniel Webster, the (2001) has a scene where I'm lying in bed and you see my entire back right down to the crack of my butt, but we arrange the sheets so that you don't see my bottom or anything like that. My stomach I'm fine about showing, legs I'm okay about, but I like to keep that other stuff for me. Sex scenes are not really me; I'm old-fashioned, I guess. I don't think that sex is something people need to see on screen, to be honest. And I've not seen a movie yet where it has had anything to do with moving the plot forward; it has all been pretty much gratuitous. "
The secret of her self-assurance, she maintains, is her mother, who travels everywhere with her on publicity tours for what Jennifer breezily calls "my fake movie life. "
Patricia accompanies her, says Jennifer, "to remind me how lucky I am. It's when people get rid of the people who were part of them before that they start to change. Family and friends around us help to remind us of who we are. It's easy for a young actor's head to be turned. I had a lot of friends who would go on the path of drinking and stuff like that; I saw them go from people with complete promise who had all these dreams they wanted to accomplish to people who just didn't do it. You don't need to move out and be on your own to prove you're grown up; you can be an independent and strong person and still have somebody there when you come home to tell you that it's okay."
"You can't run to another 22-year old; you have to go to somebody who's been there. My mom is 56 and she's the smartest person I know. We talk things over and she plays devil's advocate with me. In the end I have to make the decision and she pretty much stands behind whatever I say, but she's really good about that. "
Jennifer, who has dated MTV presenter Carson Daly and rock singer Rich Cronin of the band LFO, is currently seeing a Broadway actor. "He's really nice, but I don't talk about him," says Hewitt, refusing to confirm that her boyfriend is the Tony-nominated, pants-dropping Full Monty, the (1997) star Patrick Wilson with whom she has been seen around town.
But her mother Patricia remains the constant factor in her life and her closest confidante; not that Hewitt, who comes across as quite a little wiseacre, seems to need much advice. "In high school they gave me a pretty hard time because the teachers said I was ruining my life by not getting an education - as if I was going to grow up dumb because I acted. That just shows how little they know about me," she spits.
"Being taught on set was a lot better because it was one-on-one; and I have better social skills than most people my age because of travelling to places my friends were only reading about. " Her long-term plan is to go to film school and learn how to direct. "But it's finding the time," she sighs. "The great thing about college is that it's always there, but this business is so fickle that when it's your moment I think you have to go with it and test it. "
"And with Heartbreakers, I felt like I had won a contest to be on a film with my heroes. I think my job is the best in the world: I'm still baffled that I get to do it. I'm not cynical. Every single day I remember the 50,000 other girls that would probably love to be doing what I'm doing. I don't get jaded; I couldn't, because it wouldn't be fair. "
You can see her point when she gets to co-star with the likes of Anthony Hopkins in the forthcoming Devil And Daniel Webster, the (2001). "There's nothing like four o'clock in the morning with Anthony," she rhapsodises. "He was hysterical, a hoot; he's so funny, sitting in a dusty barn in a naval hanger in the middle of Long Island. "
What with a scheming man-trap like Page and now a bodacious Beelzebub under her belt, that girl-next door image will certainly take a beating. "Beelzebub is the first really bad part I've played," she reflects. "We like to walk around and pretend we're not affected by evil and sin, but we're a society that is completely devastated by it. "
Love Hewitt had better get used to walking on the wilder side of life. In New York, the cabbies already mistake her for Lopez.