Will somebody please give Sandra Bullock an Oscar! She certainly deserves one. For while this brave, bubbly brunette might make poor career decisions, she's certainly proved herself the best actress in Hollywood - constantly putting on a happy public face, while effectively masking her many private sorrows.
It may look like Sandra Bullock is the happiest person in Hollywood - but it's the most convincing role of her career. And she's still smiling today, despite the tragic death of her beloved mother last year, and the painful - and public - loss of several loves in her romantic life.
Sandra's co-stars constantly remark about how cheerful, kind, effervescent and generous she is on and off a film set. They also claim she throws the best cast parties in the business.
"Sure, I'm an optimistic, joyous person, but I'm also afraid and insecure," concedes the actress.
"One of the reasons I go out of my way to be kind is that I've known what it's like not to be given kindness.
"I came to America from Germany when I was in my early teens and got my butt kicked big time in junior high.
"I sounded different and dressed different. My classmates were unbelievably cruel and it left its mark. My defence was to reach out.
"As a result, for most of my adult life, anybody else's cause was more important than mine. It's only in the last few years that I've learned to be kinder to myself," says Sandra, 36, whose films include Speed (1994), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Demolition Man (1993), Practical Magic (1998), Hope Floats (1998), In Love and War (1996), Net, The (1995) 28 Days (2000) and Forces of Nature (1999).
While most actresses repeatedly fall for their leading men, Virginia-born Sandra is smart enough to learn lessons from the past - having fallen in love with former co-stars Tate Donovan (Love Potion No. 9 (1991)) and Matthew McConaughey (Time To Kill, A (1996)).
For despite a four-year romance with Donovan and a three-year on-off liaison with McConaughey, she has never got close to the altar.
In case you haven't figured it out, Sandra fiercely guards her independence. She may be an all-American beauty with girl-next-door qualities, but there's a wild streak running deep in her veins.
"With a romantic movie, there's always a temptation to fall in love with the leading man, but I have the two-week rule," she reveals. "You're thrown into a situation where you have to create this sort of artificial intimacy with the guy you're co-starring with. It's unnatural, because you spend more time with this person than you do with your significant other. I give it two weeks and just observe the person. In the beginning, you're going, 'Oh, he's so sweet, and he's so attentive, and he's so great'. After two weeks, it's like, 'Oh, he does this just like everyone else I know'. It gives you a new perspective," says Sandra who sensibly insists that opposites DO NOT attract, no matter how attractive the package is.
"I think whether people work as a couple or not is dependent on whether they have the same moral core or structure. You can each be a different person, but if you don't have the same sort of outlook on life morally, I think it's not going to work," says Sandra, who is unafraid to admit to a little romantic game-playing.
"Well, I have to say, I got this from my male friends. I think most men - I don't want to speak for everyone - like a chase. I think they like the hunt. Basically, it's a game. If you want the guy, don't give him any attention, and all of a sudden he'll show up. So, if you want to play the game, that's the way you do it. Also, I say to women, 'Be yourself'. I think we sort of mould ourselves to what we think the guy would like, and then halfway through, we start resenting them because we became what they wanted."
"But if you really like him, just kind of lay it on the table and go, 'If you don't like it, fine'. And if he doesn't, just walk away. You just gotta be able to walk a little bit. Even if it's only around the corner and you're waiting for him to follow."
"It's sad. Very unhealthy - but it's true," concedes Sandra, who has quietly been nurturing a low-profile romance for the past 18 months with Texan musician Bob Schneider, who wrote and sang the song Bullets for Miss Congeniality (2000).
"As celebrities go, Bob and I have a very low-key relationship. We live our life together one day at a time. It's something I learned through trial and error," says the actress who also produced Schneider's video for the soundtrack of her last movie, Gun Shy (2000).
"Sandra discovered Bob and has really promoted him. He is very talented," says Sandra's friend actress Rosanna Arquette.
Sandra even persuaded Disney to stump up $10,000 for her to make Schneider's Round & Round video, and chipped in another $15,000 of her own money, as well as hitting up friends to work for free and even briefly appearing herself.
"Bob and I were trying to do his makeup like the patient in The Cabinet of 'Dr. Caligari," recalls photographer Dan Winters, one of Sandra's oldest friends and the director of the video. "We had these huge black circles around his eyes. And Sandy said, `There's no way this is going to fly. It's the first time people are going to see him, and you're not going to know what he looks like! He looks like death!' And we got in this huge argument. Which is nothing new," Winters says fondly. "She says she represents the voice of the mainstream, and I definitely try to buck it."
Employing her entire family to help make the video, it was to be the last recording her mother, opera singer Helga, made before her death, singing opera in the background of Round & Round.
When the couple first started dating, Sandra suffered through such tabloid headlines as SANDRA BULLOCK STOLE MY MAN!
"For a while it was hugely devastating," comments Dan Winters. "But Sandy had this funny thing on her refrigerator. A spoof on it that someone had made up: BOB SCHNEIDER STOLE MY MAN! It's exactly like an Enquirer piece, but it's Bob and these two guys, like, Brad and Bill. It was a whole, like, gay thing and it was hilarious. The intention of it was to lighten the air."
"We give Bob the thumbs-up. They kinda fit. He's Texan via Germany," says Winters.
Sandra admits she is cautious about falling in love, having been badly hurt in the past: "Dating is complicated for me," she says. "I have a fear of saying the L- word. Oh my God! I always feel like the minute I say it the sky will fall. I'm like, 'I lllllllllloooooo . . .' Love is a bad, bad thing! I've said 'I adore you,' and that was my way of, like, saying . . . because it felt the same and I meant exactly that."
"But then Bob and I talk German all the time to each other, which is terribly funny because I'm so bad at it. Maybe saying 'I love you' in German could be easier for me," she asks rhetorically.
"But I'm not talking about my love life until I get married!" says Sandra who admits she's always been altar-shy, despite conflicting reports that she is desperate to walk up the aisle.
"I have always been petrified of marriage - absolutely afraid. I've felt like once I would get married, someone would want to change me, and I would have no choice but to become this locked-up specimen in a box. I'm worried about losing my freedom of expression. People who meet me go, 'Oh, you're really fun and wild'. Then as soon as they get to know me, they go, 'Well don't do that'. And then I don't do it. And I become this separate person from who I was. Then I resent the person who was trying to change me."
"But in the past two years, I've had some very great people in my life who have really taken care of me and shown me a different way of looking at things."
"I don't need a man to be happy. But it takes some time to realize that. I don't need to find a man to progress as a human being. I'd do it with him. And if I happen to outgrow him, or he outgrows me, that's what happens. I've never been in a place that I couldn't get out of. Yes, sometimes you stay in a place for a while because you're trying to figure out. You wonder whether you're going through a phase, or whether something is really not working, or if it's just another hill."
"Relationships have their ups and downs. In retrospect you might feel that you have been in a relationship too long. But in my case, what I find difficult is when I'm growing and the other person isn't," says the actress who was taken by surprise when her younger sister, Gesine, wed two years ago.
"I'm glad that she's happy," she says. "But I'm shocked she got married. She was the man hater. And all of a sudden she's the one getting married. I've learned from her that there's an amazing connection between people when there is supposed to be one. Both her and her husband are very unique characters. I think them with anyone else would be impossible. I didn't marry off my sister. I have a brother now. We watch him go through tough times and we want to support him. He sees our family at its worst. When our family is going through struggles, there's Ray. He's supposed to be there," she says.
But Sandra doesn't intend to stay single forever: "In the past when I thought about a marriage I got scared. Today, I could really imagine that. In the meantime I saw good examples in my surroundings and I learned much about what it means to love somebody in the last two years," reveals the actress who is grateful for the opportunities she has been given by remaining single.
"I realised there are so many things I haven't done. I've always wanted to study another language and train for a marathon. I've been working so hard to improve myself in my work and career that I sort of forgot the other things in life that would improve me. I just felt like this huge void because I felt most comfortable on a film set. I was missing out on real life," says Sandra who is torn between emulating her own parents' happy marriage, and carrying out her late mother's dreams and hopes.
"My mom was a marathon runner when she was younger, so I'm sort of doing it for her," says Sandra who was heartbroken when her mother, Helga, died in April last year at the age of 63.
"Right now, I'm training and it's really addictive. I've always been athletic, but up until now the only marathon I've ever run is the marathon of life. I'm starting with the K's first - like the 10K, which is six miles - and moving on up."
"My failures, my disappointments, have never come from work. If a film doesn't do well, or if it's a piece of crap, you have another time to try to do better. There's nothing you can do about it after the fact. But how do I bounce back from the down things that happen in life? I'm not sure."
"It's not a mistake if you learn from a disappointment and try not to repeat it. That's sort of the mantra I try to use. It's okay to screw up even on a daily basis as long as you don't keep repeating the same screw-up. I suppose you bounce back by just figuring it's for a reason and it happened to take you to a better place," she says.
"I had begun five years ago to turn my life around. I love where I am and where I can see myself heading. Gradually, I have begun letting go of the things I thought I had to do to be happy."
The actress says her new inner peace feels as if she "unscrewed my head and washed my brain. There was too much manic behaviour in my life before to do something like this."
A big part of Sandra's new strategy includes staying home more at her Texas ranch, having stunned her business managers and agents alike by selling her Hollywood Hills mansion three years earlier.
"I love working, but I also enjoy this nesting period I'm in," reveals the actress who hints at a future of blissful domesticity."
""I won't get pregnant just because my biological clock is running out. I'll only have a child with a man I'm truly in love with. I could have had kids when I was 17, but I was far too selfish at that period."
"Family is the most important thing in the world to me. I'm just dying to have kids.
""I've narrowed my dating prospects down to one person," she says tantalizingly. "Whatever happens, happens. I don't know what that will be, but there's so much joy now. So much joy."
Though it would seem she has put great restraint into her life, she is quick to point out she has no plans to become completely staid.
"The older I get, the less mature I get and I like that. I just intend to channel my behaviour to benefit myself as well as others. I did not peak in high school as so many people feel they did, but I still don't think I'm peaking. I want to do that when I'm 50," she says
Reflecting on her early success, the sensible actress admits there was a time when sudden celebrity threatened to send her off the rails. "Actually, I wasn't so young when everything started to happen for me. I was already in my twenties. I had already established who I was, what my lifestyle was."
"But during the first years I went through some depressions trying to deal with the highs and lows of my career. But it was all worked out by establishing a sense of normalcy in my career. I had to decide what it is I wanted, how I wanted to live my life and what it was I needed to do to maintain that for myself and for my family."
"My poor parents' lives kinda went out the window. But now everything feels normal. My dad still lives in the same house my parents always lived in, where I was born in. It seems like nothing has changed. I still have the same friends. We have all adjusted. We all have had to. It's like a ripple effect. Maybe it's because I wasn't a child actor that my life doesn't seem to have changed too much. Well, I kinda was, but I wasn't a celebrity," she says.
"As I've said often, I did not have a fun childhood. I'm having it now because I feel so liberated."
"I'm still going to be a party girl because I love throwing parties. I love that people say I throw incredible parties because that is what life is all about," laughs Sandra who thoroughly enjoyed making her latest comedy, Miss Congeniality (2000), in which she plays an FBI agent who goes undercover in a beauty pageant to report on corruption in the event.
The joke is that my character has always been very masculine, so she needs a tutor to teach her to be more feminine.
"That's where Michael Caine's character comes in. He becomes my tutor. The film is a lot like Educating Rita (1983) ," says Sandra who has her breasts fondled by the 67-year-old British acting legend, in which he portrays a beauty pageant consultant who does whatever necessary to transform Sandra's frumpy FBI agent into a stunning undercover contestant.
"I was like, 'Oh my God Michael Caine is gonna be touching my boobs! How do you be calm about that!
But you just gotta do your job. Michael Caine's got his hands down my shirt. No sweat, nothing. Maybe he didn't find anything; I don't know!" blushes Sandra who admits she could easily have fallen for her Miss Congeniality (2000) co-star, Benjamin Bratt, had he not already been spoken for by Julia Roberts.
"All my girlfriends tell me that Benjamin is 'the ultimate husband specimen'. So much of what makes him so attractive is not just his sex appeal. Benji just really loves women. He's a throwback to Cary Grant, but he's also Latino. And what can I say? I love Latin men," she confesses.
Despite reaching the age of 36 and still unwed, Sandra maintains she's been "very lucky in love", revealing in a recent interview, "I'm sowing my oats...I don't want to get divorced six times. I want to get married once. I have always been so scared of marriage. And people have always been trying to marry me off. It's sweet, but I haven't been a good enough lover yet."
"I'm not looking for somebody who is like me. I want someone who's different, someone who can challenge me, and can make me a better person," she admits.
"The key to any good relationship, on-screen and off, is communication, respect, and I guess you have to like the way the other person smells . . . "