Born: 26 July 1964
Where: Arlington, Virginia, USA
Awards: 2 Golden Globe nominations
Height: 5′ 7"
Strangely, for someone whose screen persona is usually so open and simple, it’s difficult to accurately describe Sandra Bullock. Sure, she’s often feted for her Meg Ryan-like girl-next-door appeal. But then, like Julia Roberts, she’s also an unconventional beauty and talented comedienne. And let’s not forget that her breakthrough came when she stole the show in an all-out action movie. On top of this, though deservedly famous for an irrepressibly bubbling personality, she was a student of The Method under Sanford Meisner and started off (to rave reviews) on the New York stage. Hard to pin down, is Sandra. Harder still when you know her unusually exotic background.
She was born Sandra Annette Bullock on the 26th of July, 1964, in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother, Helga, the daughter of a German rocket scientist, initially studied to be an opera singer in Nuremberg. To support her studies, she worked as a clerk, one day being called to the town’s Palace of Justice (where the notorious post-WW2 trials took place). Here she was to takes letters for the new head honcho, one John Bullock. Bullock, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, was a Juilliard scholar who’d joined the Army as a runner and risen to become the boss of the military Postal Exchange for the whole of Europe.
To begin with, there was no romance between the pair. But over a three year period, with John singing at recitals (he was also a part-time voice coach), and Helga gaining renown as a dramatic soprano, they grew close and, while still in Germany, were married. John’s organisational talents drew him into the Army Material Command and it was due to this work that he’d eventually become a contractor for the Pentagon, moving to Arlington and also buying a mountain property just north-west of Charlottesville. The family grew — three years after Sandra came another daughter, Gesine.
Right from the start, Sandra was a wilful and contrary child. She now recalls an incident when, at age three, with the family moving into a new home, she was directly instructed not to touch a light-bulb lying there. Her response was to karate-chop it and slice her hand horribly. It would not be the last physical injury she’d suffer as a youngster.
For an all-American girl-next-door, Sandra’s formative years were thoroughly inappropriate. Much of her time was spent in Salzburg and in Nuremberg, where she lived with her aunt and grandma, attending a local school (she’s fluent in German) and studying English with a tutor in the afternoons. During the opera season, she’d attend her mother’s performances, sometimes appearing herself as the ubiquitous "gypsy child", or singing in the children’s chorus. Also studying ballet, she quickly proved herself to be a natural performer.
At age 10, she was brought back to Arlington and attended the town’s Washington-Lee High School, alma mater of both Shirley MacLaine and her younger brother Warren Beatty. She immediately had a hard time. Coming from Europe, she was different. "I was still in green velvet bell-bottoms," she explained later "when everyone else was wearing straight legs. I always had these stupid barrettes holding my hair back. I was just a couple of beats off". Of course, she was teased, and teased some more for her — if you can believe it — ugliness. Indeed, so badly hurt was she by the abuse that she vowed to never treat anyone that way. She kept it, too, her reputation for down-to-Earth decency being unparalleled in Hollywood.
There was another lesson learned, in far more dramatic circumstances. One day, out on the property near Charlottesville, sitting in the same bulldozer where, when she was 10, he gave Sandra her first beer, and close to the creek she fell into and received the scar she still carries over her right eye, John’s knee slipped and hit the gear-shift. He tumbled from the ‘dozer and rolled downhill, closely followed by the giant machine which ran over him, breaking his legs and several vertebrae and near-severing his left arm. For 24 hours he lay there, doing vocal exercises and yelling for help in order to keep his blood circulating, until he was discovered by a group of his students.
In hospital, he was told that his legs would have to be amputated. In fact, they weren’t. After a year’s tough rehabilitation, interrupted by a cardiac arrest, he was walking again. But young Sandra was marked by this near-catastrophe, becoming very protective of her family. Though Helga would die in 2000, John would remain as Sandra’s semi-manager, while Gesine, who’d study to be a lawyer, would, like John, be Vice President of Sandra’s production company, Fortis.
As time passed, and her body changed, Sandra’s high school career became more enjoyable. She became a cheerleader and excelled at drama, though not without a fight. With her drama teacher, Mrs Filpi, she conducted a fraught relationship, often ignoring her coach and following her own path. Graduating in 1982, she’d be named Class Clown. It was also said later that she was voted Most Likely To Brighten Your Day but, as this was not the case, that was most likely just an effort to package her as everyone’s favourite girl-next-door.
From Washington-Lee, Sandra moved on to East Carolina University at Greenville, majoring in Drama and supporting herself by competing successfully in dance competitions. Having stood out in a production of Three Sisters, she decided to try her luck in New York and, packing her gear and her dog into her Honda Accord, she left Greenville three credits short of a degree. In the city (where she was once held-up at gun-point), she was accepted at the renowned Neighbourhood Playhouse, studying under Meisner and bringing in the money with bar-work at a rough-house "crack den" on 43rd and Broadway (a job she obtained by falsely claiming she had plenty of experience).
Attending many an audition, she made her screen debut in the ultra-violent Hangmen, concerning feisty veterans battling with a renegade terror team within the CIA. But her first real break came the following year, 1988, with an off-Broadway performance as a sassy Southern belle in No Time Flat. For this, though the play itself was panned, she received a review glowing enough to secure her an agent. TV came immediately. First there was an appearance in the short-lived sit-com Starting From Scratch, starring Bill Dailly and Connie Stevens and boasting the tag-line "The more she gets to him, the funnier it is for you".
Next came her first major role, and an introduction to action flicks, with Bionic Showdown. This, as you may have guessed, involved Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin uniting with Bionic Woman Jaimie Somers and some young bionic friends to track down a bionic spy. Sandra made a real go of it as a bionic girl, sending adolescent pulses racing when track-running in a leotard.
This was a fairly busy time for Sandra. 1989 also brought a small part in The Preppie Murder, the true life tale of the murder of Jennifer Levin in Central Park, where cop Danny Aiello tracked down bad boy graduate William Baldwin. Then there was Who Shot Patakango?, a story of racial tensions and teens coming of age in ’50s Brooklyn. And then there was Religion Inc, where Sandra played the sceptical girlfriend of an ad-man who promotes a new cult based on greed.
It was looking good — great, actually — as 1990 brought her first starring role, in the TV series Working Girl, based on the Melanie Griffith movie. Here Sandra, replacing TV vet Nancy McKeon, took Griffith’s role as Tess McGill, an ambitious secretary who gets into terrible scrapes while trying to bluff her way to the top. Sadly, the show didn’t last, Sandra later describing it as her "quickest flop". Her next role would not be so juicy. Jackie Collins’ Chances and Lucky were turned into a miniseries following Gino Santangelo’s building of a casino empire in Las Vegas, and the efforts of his daughter Lucky (played by Nicolette Sheridan) to keep it going. Miniseries queen Stephanie Beacham was part of the family, too, with Sandra appearing briefly as Maria, wife of Gino and Lucky’s mother.
1990 also brought the first great love of her life, when she began filming Love Potion #9. Here Tate Donovan played a geeky biochemist who’s a flop with the ladies till gypsy Anne Bancroft presents him with, yes, a love potion. Sharing it with his dumpy research scientist buddy (Sandra), the pair engage in a "scientific evaluation" of the formula. The movie would not be released for two years, and would then flop.
On-set, Sandra fell for Donovan, to the surprise of the crew. Believing her to be genuinely sweet and a genuine actress, they were shocked when she went for a guy who was "more interested in his close-ups". Nevertheless, she followed Donovan to Los Angeles and stayed with him for over three years. "The person who needed me most was always the person I was attracted to," she later explained. "My priorities were him first, me second".
In Los Angeles, work came slowly, Sandra being forced to take odd jobs to get by (she is, in fact, very handy around a bit of DIY). Eventually, though, some small parts did come. There was Who Do I Gotta Kill?, where a writer, obsessed with conspiracy theories, loses his agent, then his girlfriend (Sandra, who dumps him during sex because he can’t think of a reason she should stay with him),and finally ends up working for the Mob. Then there was When The Party’s Over, a drama concerning friendship, sex and success in the Nineties. Here Sandra played a young painter who shares a house with two girls and a gay fellow. All is well till infidelity invites terminal jealousy.
By 1993, things were rapidly changing. Sandra won a short but vital role in a remake of The Vanishing, where she played a girl whose kidnapping by psycho Jeff Bridges provokes boyfriend Keifer Sutherland into years of painful searching. Then there were two roles she won in an incredible two hour period. In Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love she was wannabe country singer Linda Lue Linden, seeking fame in Nashville along with Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney and River Phoenix. For her part, she would write and perform the song Heaven Knocking On The Door. More problematically, she’d also break her nose (something she’d also done years earlier when Gesine accidentally elbowed her when opening the garage door). For a week, she’d be filmed only from the back and side.
Things were worse with poor River Phoenix, though. Now with drug trouble he was fading fast, and this would be his final completed film before his death outside LA’s Viper Rooms. His girlfriend, Mathis, would naturally be devastated and Sandra would comfort her, the pair becoming fast friends.
The other part was in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a tale of fading machismo and undying dreams of love and happiness, where Robert Duvall and Richard Harris played two lonely oldsters in a Florida retirement home, struggling with the passing of time. Sandra played a waitress who lets the shy Duvall flirt with her. Also involved was fellow Washington-Lee alumnus, Shirley MacLaine.
1993 also saw the release of another, lesser picture — the Roger Corman-produced Fire On The Amazon — where she was involved with activists and Indians, fighting deforestation in the Amazon Basin. Deeply unhappy with sex scenes, Sandra was called upon to make out with co-star Craig Sheffer. He’d later reveal that, in order to get through the scene, they drank tequila, Sandra occasionally going outside to vomit, before returning to the shoot. Sandra was particularly reluctant to appear nude onscreen. In fact, she made the production company sign a contract stating which parts of her could not be shown, and even stuck duct tape over her nipples to ensure they would not be seen. Eventually, she would attempt to block the film’s release — though this was perhaps an effort at quality control.
But that year did bring a far happier (and more important) experience. An executive at Warner Brothers had noted her efforts in The Vanishing and recommended her to producer Joel Silver, then desperately seeking an actress to step into Demolition Man — Lori Petty having been discharged after just a few days. So, suddenly Sandra was there next to Sylvester Stallone, playing his new partner once he’s been brought out of cryo-freeze to battle his former nemesis, arch-villain Wesley Snipes. Also involved were Benjamin Bratt, as a fellow cop, and MTV comic Denis Leary. Later, Leary would reveal that, though he didn’t know Sandra, one day she knocked on his trailer door to say there were some guys in her trailer who’d really like to meet him. On arrival, he found that it was Motley Crue. Sandra, having no idea who they were, was busy making them peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches.
Though essentially a special effects super-blast, Demolition Man did reveal Sandra’s own comedic talents. And vitally her performance so impressed Silver that he in turn recommended her to director Jan De Bont, then casting for his debut feature, to be called Speed. Here maverick cop Keanu Reeves had to save a bus-load of innocents from Dennis Hopper, a criminal maniac who’s put a bomb onboard, a bomb that will blow if the bus drops below 50mph — and Sandra’s driving. Everyone told Sandra not to do it, she’d just be "the girl". The producers were most unhappy with an unknown in the part, especially an unknown who wasn’t blonde with big breasts, but Jan De Bont insisted. The result was a searing mega-hit. Sandra was made.
Joel Schumacher was now very keen to get Sandra involved in his Batman Forever, but she’d already signed up for her first lead role, in While You Were Sleeping, Demi Moore having dropped out after a dispute over her fee. It wasn’t going to be easy. The role called for relentless good humour, and Sandra was badly damaged by a split with Tate Donovan (who’d himself later be dumped by Jennifer Aniston). Still, she pushed herself and it came off. In the movie, she played a ticket seller on the Chicago tube who falls for a commuter (Peter Gallagher) she sees every day. When he falls onto the rails, she saves him and, while he’s in a brief coma, his family become convinced that she’s his fiancee. All the family, that is, apart from suspicious brother Bill Pullman — and there’s no one better at being suspicious than Pullman. Then, of course, Gallagher awakes.
The movie was a big smash, grossing over $200 million. And Sandra once again charmed the cast and crew. At one point during filming, director John Turtelaub noticed that sweets were disappearing from his own personal drawer. He asked a prop-guy to put a lock on it, but the treats kept going. Sandra, he discovered, had buddied up to the workman and obtained her own key.
Next came another hit with The Net. Here she played Angela Bennett, a computer geek who, having stumbled upon some rather sensitive information, finds that all of her records have been erased and replaced with those of a criminal. Someone, quite clearly, is trying to get her — but who? It was another strong role, and one she won with sheer personality. Director Irwin Winkler later recalled her first coming to his office "wearing overalls, the chunkiest shoes you ever saw, and a baseball cap turned backwards. Most actresses would wear the highest heels, the shortest skirt and lowest blouse to meet the director, but that’s not the way she is".
Once again, she’d find love on-set, this time with grip Don Padilla. Sadly, it would not last, the relationship not withstanding the pressure once While You Were Sleeping and The Net made Sandra one of the biggest stars of 1995 (the former actually saw her Golden Globe nominated).
After The Net, she was back with Leary in Stolen Hearts. Here he played a petty crim who, doing that one last job, steals a Matisse and takes off for Nova Scotia, where he hopes to flog the merchandise and patch things up with his girlfriend, played by Sandra. The couple then try to impress their rich neighbours while avoiding both gangsters and the FBI. It wasn’t great, but it did lead Sandra into a run of big roles and bigger pay-days. She was now paid well over $10 million per movie.
Next Joel Schumacher finally got his woman, signing Sandra up for A Time To Kill. Here Matthew McConaughey played a young lawyer in a KKK-riddled Southern town, who must defend Samuel L. Jackson, a man who’s killed the men who raped and murdered his young daughter. Sandra played a rich Northerner who asks to help McConaughey for no pay and, when turned down, resourcefully turns up information that will help him fight smarmy prosecutor Kevin Spacey.
Another hit, and yet more fun to make. Aside from getting on brilliantly with McConaughey (there were constant rumours of romance), Sandra also bonded with Schumacher. Indeed, on Joel’s birthday, shortly before shooting began, she had onset carpenters knock up a huge tiered cake. When it was presented to the director, she burst out of it, decked in balloons and a fluorescent bikini, and mooned at him, his age daubed on her buttocks.
Now came more Hemingway with Richard Attenborough’s In Love And War, based on the author’s WW1 experiences. Here Chris O’Donnell played Hemingway when he was a young ambulance driver, badly injured and falling for his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra, in her first romantic-dramatic lead). Then came Speed 2, with Sandra’s character this time taking a cruise break with cop boyfriend Jason Patric. Unfortunately, evil computer genius Willem Dafoe begins to run the boat from his keyboard and the terror begins again.
As with the original Speed, everyone told Sandra not to do it. This time, perhaps she should have listened. Not only was it a flop, but she was almost killed while filming. Fatigued while in the water, only Patric’s rapid actions saved her from being shredded.
Speed 2 was followed by Forest Whitaker’s Hope Floats, where Sandra played a young mother who returns to her small Texas hometown after a bitter split from her husband. Trouble is, everyone knows her situation as her best friend has announced on national TV that she’s been sleeping with Sandra’s hubbie. Everyone treats her horribly, except Harry Connick Jr who’s always held a torch for her — but can she bring herself to love him back?
As a properly trained actress, and being well aware of actresses’ problems in Hollywood, Sandra had decided to take a hand in her own destiny by forming Fortis Films and producing her own movies. Hope Floats was the first of these. She also took a step into the unknown by writing and directing a 30-minute short called Making Sandwiches. Here she and McConaughey, well, made sandwiches while Eric Roberts presented the weather on their TV, dressed in drag and taking off his sister. Very strange, very funny, very Sandra.
It was time for more big-budget comedy, and now Sandra took on Practical Magic. Here she and Nicole Kidman played the Owens sisters, doomed by a family curse to have their lovers die young. Eventually, they must turn to witchy aunts Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest and learn some of that old family magic. It was boisterous fun, and led to another huge hit when Sandra provided the voice of Miriam in the animated biblical saga The Prince Of Egypt.
Next she turned to Forces Of Nature, the first of several projects with comedy writer Marc Lawrence. Here Ben Affleck is on his way to his wedding but, when the plane suffers a slight accident on take-off, he has to hitch a lift with an eccentric and ridiculously endearing Sandra. Sandra would see Affleck for a while, as she would Heath Ledger, singer Bob Schneider and TV host Johnny Knoxville.
This was followed by another of her own productions, an odd little number called Gun Shy. Here Liam Neeson played an undercover agent pursuing the Mob, who’s so stressed by his job that he suffers from flatulence. Hence he visits a gastroenterologist (Sandra, as "the enema queen") whom he begins to date. It was a bizarre entertainment, and a drama-comedy much like Sandra’s next outing, 28 Days, where she played a columnist who, drunk on her sister’s wedding day, crashes her car and is sent into rehab. Here, refusing to accept she’s got probs, she’s helped to see more clearly by her fellow patients.
Now came another hit with the Lawrence-penned Miss Congeniality, where she was FBI agent Gracie Hart, who goes undercover at a beauty pageant to foil some nasty bombers. It was another superb comic performance (she was once more Golden Globe nominated), with Benjamin Bratt, as in Demolition Man, turning up as a fellow cop. After this came Murder By Numbers, where she and Ben Chaplin were homicide detectives chasing two smart-arsed and murderous young students (shades of The Preppie Murder here). Then there was Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, where she played Siddalee Walker, a young novelist who feuds with her Southern mother (Ellen Burstyn) until her mum’s old gang kidnap her and reveal mum’s flamboyant past. Ashley Judd, who’d played Matthew McConaughey’s wife in A Time To Kill, appeared as the young Burstyn.
Next there was more Lawrence with Two Weeks Notice, another rom-com with Sandra as a smart but neurotic lawyer, representing a charming but uncontrollable property developer Hugh Grant. She wants to save a beautiful old building, he wants to knock it down. She hates him but, in the grand old rom-com tradition, when she’s replaced by Alicia Witt she realises that she really loves him. The movie, one of Bullock’s own Fortis productions, was another feel-good hit.
Her personal life now was fairly complex. She’d split from actor Ryan Gosling, 15 years her junior, who’d she’d met on the set of Murder By Numbers. Then 2004 saw her dating the tattooed Jesse James, owner of the celebrity motorbike manufacturer West Coast Chopper and star of his own TV show. The same year saw an end to a long-running court battle, too. In 1997 she’d contracted one Benny Daneshjou to build her a 10,000 square feet mansion at Lake Austin, Texas, but the work done had been extremely shoddy and Bullock had never been able to move in. Now she was awarded $7 million in damages. And, being Sandra, she near-immediately gave $1 million away to the Red Cross after the Asian tsunami disaster (she’d donated the same amount after 9/11), her generosity starting a flood of huge celebrity donations.
Onscreen, 2004 was a slow year, her only appearance being in Crash, written and directed by Paul Haggis (who’d pen Clint Eastwood’s multi-Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby). This was an ensemble piece, intertwining several different stories, each concerning some aspect of racial relationships in the US. Bullock, playing the wife of DA Brendan Fraser, would slip into angry paranoia after the couple are car-jacked.
2005 would see a comeback. First came Loverboy, directed by Kevin Bacon, in which she’d taken an uncredited and unpaid cameo (as had Matt Dillon, who’d just appeared with Sandra in Crash). This had Bacon’s wife Kyra Sedgwick as a mother so badly neglected as a kid she smothers her own son. Sandra would pop up in flashback as a neighbourhood mum idealized by the young Sedgwick. Having pulled out of Prime due to script problems (the lead went instead to Uma Thurman), she moved on to a sequel to Miss Congeniality. Here, her Gracie Hart was now a media celebrity, concentrating on talk shows and book promotions rather than FBI work. When the winner of the original movie’s beauty pageant and its compere (Heather Burns and William Shatner respectively) are kidnapped in Las Vegas, she wants to go undercover to save them but is hindered by her bosses who don’t want to lose their new mascot and don’t think she’s up the the job anyway.
After this would come Douglas McGrath’s Every Word Is True, a fascinating tale exploring Truman Capote’s relationship with the killers when investigating the famous Clutter family murders for his renowned book In Cold Blood. Bullock would play Harper Lee, a childhood neighbour of Capote’s from Alabama who would work on the case as his research assistant (this was 1959 — the next year she would release her own novel, To Kill A Mockingbird). Next would come a long-anticipated reunion with Keanu Reeves in Il Mare, a remake of a 2000 South Korean movie of the same name. This would be a beautiful romance when two people in different times fall in love via letters posted in a magic mail-box.
Having also produced George Lopez, a successful sit-com concerning a Chicano family, Sandra was on the up-and-up. The $14 million she was offered for Miss Congeniality 2 hoisted her into Hollywood’s upper female echelons, alongside Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. But, hanging around her homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Austin, Texas, she remains almost wholly untouched by fame, preferring instead to indulge her interests in friends, rock-climbing (she was once saved by boy scouts when her rope caught in a crevice) and extra crispy KFC. As she says herself: "I have no desire to maintain a lifestyle. I’m a horrible celebrity. If I go out in public I dress like a pig".
With equal popularity amongst men and women, and her production company running smoothly, we can expect Sandra Bullock to move towards the high drama in which she was schooled. But there will always be comedy — in that, she has few peers.