Taking her fears to greater heights
Updated: 2013-09-22 07:57
By Brooks Barnes (The New York Times)
Sandra Bullock, left, was isolated and suspended by wires in the making of "Gravity," with George Clooney. Warner Brothers Pictures
BEVERLY HILLS, California - Like most movie stars, Sandra Bullock has been endlessly offered up in bits by the celebrity media. In Vanity Fair's estimation, this Oscar-winning actress is "friendly and direct and so unpretentious." She is "America's sweetheart," according to dozens of profiles, a gifted physical comedian who has suffered the occasional flop.
But one of her most noteworthy attributes is almost never mentioned: Ms. Bullock, who returns to cinemas worldwide beginning October 3 in the space thriller "Gravity," is arguably Hollywood's bravest A-list actress.
Sure, her role in "Two Weeks Notice" did not require exceptional courage. But consider what came after that 2002 romantic comedy. Ms. Bullock steered away from what was working, instead fighting for smaller dramatic roles that weren't always flattering. That shift led her to "The Blind Side" (2009), a difficult film that could have turned into a melodrama. Instead, it won her an Academy Award.
Last year, Ms. Bullock, 49, appeared naked in a skit on the television show "Chelsea Lately." You don't see Julia Roberts doing that. Speaking of daring leaps, Ms. Bullock almost drowned by taking one into the North Atlantic in 2009 to film a scene for "The Proposal." After bobbing in the water for take after take, she went into hypothermia and couldn't breathe. "I'd put her toughness against any tough-guy actor out there," said Todd Lieberman, a "Proposal" producer.
Still not convinced? And now comes "Gravity."
Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, the filmmaker behind "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Gravity" stars Ms. Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts adrift in space after surviving a shuttle mishap. But it's largely a solo performance by Ms. Bullock.
"Everyone asked me if that made me nervous, and then I started panicking," Ms. Bullock said. "I was mostly concerned about the Vomit Comet."
Mr. Cuaron planned to spend days filming inside a jetliner that simulates weightlessness by climbing sharply and then plunging downward sharply. NASA astronauts gave the plane its nickname for its propensity for making them nauseated.
Ms. Bullock has been "deathly afraid of flying," she said, since 2000 when she was on a jet in Wyoming that missed the runway, and sustained severe damage.
She agreed anyway. "I convinced myself it was the universe telling me I needed to get over my fear," she said. "I said I would do it. I wasn't happy about it. But I said I would do it."
Mr. Cuaron ultimately switched to a 3-meter-by-4-meter box equipped with special lights and placed on a darkened soundstage. Ms. Bullock was "clamped" inside a "gruesome" harness, he said, and placed inside, where she remained for hours. A camera mounted on a robotic arm pivoted and circled, making it look as if Ms. Bullock were floating through the darkness of space.
"I was literally acting off of nothing for up to 10 hours a day, with headphones my only connection to Alfonso," she said. "We made a catalog of music clips - whale sounds, Radiohead, weird screeching of metal - and I memorized them. I would say, 'O.K., give me number four. That's not working. Try number two. That's better, that's getting me to the emotion I need.'"
For one sequence, Ms. Bullock had to stay still while a camera rushed toward her at 40 kilometers per hour, stopping centimeters from her face. Other scenes required her to be strung up by wires while puppeteers maneuvered her through choreographed movements.
Of the film, Ms. Bullock said: "It's about rebirth. How do you let go in the worst possible situation so you can have some kind of release and peace?" She added: "Life is not going to stop coming at you. In the end, you just have to say, 'I have no control.' Your time is precious. Are you really going to waste it worrying about this stuff?"
She was confronting those questions in her personal life in 2010, when Mr. Cuaron flew to Texas and tried to talk her into "Gravity." She had retreated there following the public revelation that her husband, Jesse James, a motorcycle customizer and reality TV celebrity, had been serially unfaithful.
She divorced him, went forward with the adoption of a baby and made it clear that she had no interest in acting anytime soon.
Now, unlike some female Hollywood stars, Ms. Bullock continues to take on challenging work.
"What roles that are available will always be a factor," said Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for "The Help" and a friend of Ms. Bullock's since 1996. "But Sandy has been very successful at not letting anyone put her in a box, and that will continue.
"She has done it by continually taking risks - showing us these other colors, hello 'Gravity' - and working her guts out, and not fixating on how she looks in every scene. Those are things that not a lot of other actresses of her echelon do."
The New York Times
(China Daily 09/22/2013 page12)