Sandra Bullock: No Bull
Sandra Bullock must have asbestos fingers. Ignoring the dainty silver spoon resting by the cup of steaming liquid in front of her, she plucks out a herbal teabag between thumb and forefinger and squeezes it dry. This isn't a woman to stand on ceremony.
She's similarly unafraid to plough into the things that really tee her off. The word 'cougar', for example. It has been bandied about with alarming frequency in recent popular American culture in reference to older women-younger men romances.
On the face of it, the plot of new movie The Proposal -- in which Sandra plays a hard-faced publishing editor who coerces her assistant, played by Ryan Reynolds, into a sham engagement -- prowls that same territory. Bullock is 44; Reynolds is 32.
She rolls her eyes at the C-word. "What it sounds like is that there's this woman who's seemingly decrepit and old, who is preying on these young, nubile men, who can't defend themselves, who are cowering in a corner, can't call their mother, and this woman is sucking the life blood out of them," says Bullock, raising her eyebrows.
She can't understand why anyone would have an issue with an older woman-younger man dynamic in the first place.
"When people say it's a taboo, I ask, 'Is it really?'" she says, quizzically. The Proposal, rather than trumpeting the age difference in a self-regarding 'aren't-we-controversial' way, barely references it at all. (Apart from one smart remark from Betty White's mischievous 'Gammy Annie' when she first meets Bullock.) On the contrary, there are several gags about the family 'baby blanket', which take for granted the possibility of her character Margaret Tate falling pregnant.
When Margaret and Andrew (Reynolds) start to fall for each other -- I'm not giving anything away; the film does otherwise stick to the conventions of a Hollywood romance -- it feels quite natural. Life is like that, says Bullock.
"They might have different ages, but they are in the same place. How many people have we lost the chance to share a great time with because of our pre-conceived notions of what this relationship should look like, age-wise, colour-wise, whatever?" she says emphatically.
And it's not lip service with Bullock. Despite the 12-year age gap, she and Reynolds have been friends for many years after meeting at the dinner party of a mutual friend. Reynolds says that it's a friendship strong enough to survive "a scene in which I'm wearing nothing but Sandra Bullock". More of that anon.
Her marriage four years ago to motorcycle builder Jesse James likewise bucked Hollywood's expectations of its A-list actresses. He is a multi-tattooed man's man who custom-builds motorcycles and is five years younger than Bullock.
"I married him because he WASN'T an actor!" she laughs. At the main press conference for The Proposal earlier in the day, she chides a journalist for referring to James as an actor.
"He's a welder!" she insists, which might be downplaying it slightly. James became a fairly well-known TV personality in the US when his work was documented in shows including Motorcycle Mania and Monster Garage, and he was a contestant on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice earlier this year.
Upstairs, in a private room of a London hotel after lunch, Bullock says she feels her husband's job is more interesting than hers.
"When people see him, I see their eyes light up, and they light up for the right reasons," she says. "Not because of celebrity but because this man has actually accomplished great things that other people can't. He's extraordinary. He can make cars fly. I mean -- come on! I can't do that!" She forgets that she did make a bus fly 15 years ago in Speed (with a little help from CGI), thereby catapulting herself into the star league.
She has since moved away from the role of accidental heroine in favour of showcasing a generous talent for comedy. While she tapped her serious bone for more recent movies including Infamous and Crash, her fanbase has been built on the endearing muddle of vulnerability and goofiness that she displayed in hits such as While You Were Sleeping, Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks' Notice.
The Proposal is all the better for her cheerful willingness to take pratfalls and make a fool of herself in the noble pursuit of physical comedy. Here is Bullock negotiating a quayside ladder in stilettos and skirt; here she is running around a field in wellies and a dressing gown, a yappy little dog under one arm.
And then there is the Nude Scene. Bullock is too honest to feign surprise that it is the moment in the film she has been asked most about on her promotional tour around Europe. The synopsis is that Reynolds and Bullock's characters end up wrestling naked in an accidental kerfuffle.
Much has been made of the fact that it is Bullock's first all-nude movie scene. That said, her naughty bits are covered up by her left arm and a loofah: "I said, 'Just get me a little sponge'. They gave me a loofah! Ow!'" She maintains that it's not a sexy scene -- it's intended to be awkward-funny.
"To do a sex scene, it's just lame, they are never memorable or sexy," she says. "I did it because it's not superfluous; it was really funny in this context."
For the record, Bullock is in tip-top shape. But she claims: "You don't remember me because when Ryan takes his clothes off, you're like: 'Oh dear Jesus'. It's pretty impressive."
Ryan says similarly self-deprecating things in her favour, a strategy that succeeds in deflecting any media-generated heat from the moment. Their friendship survived intact, thank you very much, and their spouses -- Reynolds is married to Scarlett Johansson -- are cool with it.
But doesn't the fact that Bullock and her co-star fall for each other, literally and figuratively on screen, mean that this funny movie could be defined as a romantic comedy? And didn't a certain Sandra Bullock say that romantic comedy was a dead duck? Sandy -- as director Anne Fletcher and Reynolds refer to her -- prefers to call The Proposal a comedy with some romance in it. She acknowledges my eyebrow raised in scepticism. "You often find with comedy -- and this is why I stopped doing it -- people so wanted good comedy so badly that they were willing to go to bad comedy. And I thought, 'This is so wrong. We're getting paid and we're making mediocre films and I can't do it any more'."
Bullock refused several times to get involved in The Proposal, but after reading the script, she found herself seduced once more.
"I thought, 'Wow, I'm incredibly shocked that this is an even two-hander and that the female role was written as cleverly as it was, with so much fun stuff to do'."
Bullock believes it harks back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. "Those were two-handers, the barbs going back and forth. You can't make Katharine Hepburn a lampshade -- she's not going to stand for it!"
I don't imagine Bullock suffers much nonsense either. She's not aggressive, but she's certainly not the ditzy girl-next-door of her star-making early movies. She's easy to like, level-headed, more interested in restoring old buildings (she calls herself a frustrated architect) than she is in worrying about what she looked like in the buff at 44.
If there is a vanity about her, I can't see it. She's wearing a floaty, one-shoulder chiffon top but the outfit is roundly beefed up by a pair of sensible pinstripe trousers and court shoes. Her hair is pinned back to show off that famously aquiline bone structure. She looks strong.
Bullock has learned to toughen up by running her own production company, Fortis Films. "Now I more wisely pick and choose what I want to do because I don't want to leave home any more. I've found something that takes priority over my work."
Home is in Austin, Texas, her "sanctuary" where one of her refurbished buildings houses a diner, a bakery, a flower shop and a grocery. It's also in Long Beach, California, where she is a hands-on stepmother to James's three children from previous relationships. On each press trip she has had to make in the past four years, they have brought one of the children so they can dip their toes in foreign cultures.
Bullock wants them to have that same ease with travel that she gained from a peripatetic childhood with her German opera singer mother between the US and Europe. Ireland has become a family favourite. "I don't go there for work. I like to keep it as the place where I enjoy myself rather than having to work. It's just so heavenly."
But if The Proposal turns out to be the redemption of the rom com -- it is already Bullock's first US opening weekend box office No1 in 10 years -- will Bullock be prepared to trade in more of her full off-screen life to follow up its success? The fabulous Betty White, better known to Irish audiences as innocent Rose from The Golden Girls, is still going strong in The Proposal at the age of 87. Would Bullock like to be still charming our screens at that age if we will have her?
"No. I wouldn't want to be, no," she says firmly, as if I were quite mad. Well, one thing's for sure, she has no future as a lampshade.