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Naughty or Nice (2000)

It takes fortitude and DNA-deep optimism to be Miss Congeniality when you're facing a Grinchy Christmas. This has little to do with the fact that Sandra Bullock's new comedy, Miss Congeniality, in which she plays an FBI agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant, will be taking a run at Jim Carrey's hairy green creation. No, this Christmas it's personal:

This will be the first time Sandra Bullock will celebrate the holidays without her beloved mother, Helga Bullock, who died in April after a protracted battle with cancer.
"I know Christmas is about a bigger thing, but right now I'm not a big enough person to think of it that way," says Bullock. "I don't want to do it. It's just too soon. The holidays are something that was inherently about our family."

Hers is an unusually tightknit clan, as well as a professional support system. Her father, John Bullock, who recently moved to Sandra's adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, to be closer to her, manages her finances. Her younger sister, Gesine Bullock, an attorney, runs the actor's production company, Fortis (Latin for strength) Films. Over the past five years, the family has organized Bullock's life - and her work - around her mother's illness. They nursed Helga at a hospice and, when the time came, brought her back to die at the family's Virginia home. "When you have someone in the family who's ailing, everything you do is about that," says Bullock, her brown eyes beginning to well up. "So every Thanksgiving we were inevitably bringing a turkey sandwich into a hospital. We got really good at it. And I had something that I was supposed to do. We were there until the last breath. And now that I don't have that to do anymore, it's like, 'Well, what good am I? Why am I here?' "

Despite her feelings of loss, the 36-year-old actor is determined to keep her mother's holiday traditions alive. She spent Thanksgiving in Austin. Her father baked the bird; Bullock tried to re-create her mother's recipe for a gravy "so delicious you can pour it on shoes and eat them." To celebrate the holidays, she will decorate her house on Christmas Eve, as her family did in Salzburg, Austria, when her father was working for the Pentagon and teaching voice part-time and her mother was singing professional opera. (Her German-born mother met her Alabama-born father when he was stationed in Germany; Bullock and her sister speak fluent German.)

As of Thanksgiving, Bullock had already sent out her Christmas cards (computer animation on CD-ROMs), made her charitable donations and emptied her gift closet (she shops year-round and picks up things wherever she travels). As much as she loves giving lavish presents, she prefers receiving simple gifts. "I hate when people buy crap last-minute," she says. "I say, just scribble your name and say 'I love you' on a card."

One of the best gifts she's ever received was a souvenir of a wild night when she flung a pillow into a candle and lit a hotel wall on fire. "The following Christmas," she says, "I got the pillow, with the side that had burned off, and all the pieces preserved between two pieces of glass." Last year, her mother bought Sandra and Gesine two pigs made out of marzipan, a German tradition. "They're good luck for New Year's," explains Bullock. "And now I have them as a remembrance of Mom."

At the end of this difficult year, Bullock will spend a quiet New Year's Eve watching fireworks with friends from Austin, including her boyfriend, musician Bob Schneider. One thing she'll avoid completely is New Year's resolutions. "Every vice I have, I'm like 'Why should I give it up? It's not hurting anybody else!' This year, I'd like to be resolution-free and just accept what I've got and live with it."

Pick three words that describe Sandra Bullock.
"Hothead," "unconscious" and I'd say I'm pretty brave. If I hear "cute," "bubbly" or "girl next-door" one more time . . . but then, I would much rather be called that than "bitch."

People who know me call me so many things," she says by way of introduction. "But Sandy is usually it." Today she is Miss Congeniality, giving me a tour of her new hometown, driving around in a green Range Rover equipped with a talking navigational system. "It's basically like Big Brother," she says. "A little eerie." It is of no use whatsoever in locating George W. Bush's house, which she wants to show me, despite the fact that she hates talking politics. "Oh, I voted with an absentee ballot, which, I'm realizing now, don't get counted. How pissed-off did that make me?"

We pull up to a restaurant decorated with a giant neon rattlesnake. It's 3 p.m. on a gray weekday, and the place is closed. But when the staff sees that it's Bullock, a waiter comes running to the door. She flees. "I hate when they open up for me," she says, jumping back into the car. "It drives me crazy." That's partly why she left Hollywood for Austin: so she wouldn't have to act like a movie star or be treated like one.

Still, dressed in soft brown pants, a chunky beige wool sweater and tortoiseshell glasses, cussing like a sailor and joking like a good ol' boy, she is easily the most glamorous woman to cross the threshold of our next stop, Landry's, a riverside seafood restaurant with a neon theater marquee. "I love places like this," she gushes. "They always have a big salad bar with a lot of Thousand Island dressing."

She orders popcorn shrimp and fries with lots of ketchup. "I have a great relationship with food," she says. "I love it, and it loves me. Sometimes our love is so strong, though, that I have to get some distance."

I hear that if you love something, set it free.
I've heard that one, too. [In a Texas twang] This older gentleman had this really wild wife. And folks said, "Well, how do you keep her?" And he says, "Well, she's like a wild pony. I just leave the light on, and she'll come home at night." [Back in normal voice] It made a lot of sense to me. I leave the lights on for myself all over the house, so I could just find my way back home. I have a tendency to wander off.

You also have a tendency to keep your love life on the down-low. And yet what is that ring on the fourth finger of your left hand?
It's an eternity band that I bought myself. I usually wear it on the right, but I fly so much, my hands swell. So I put it over here. So don't get all excited. And, yes, I am insanely private.

Are you in a serious relationship at the moment?
Yes. And so far, every day has really been a place where I've wanted to be. I'm challenged and inspired, too. He's got a whole life as a musician that goes on and has continued to go on without me, which I like. And it's new, or relatively new. Over a year. So I'd like to protect him for as long as possible. It's not easy being with me, I'll tell you that much, and this poor person stepped in at probably the hardest time in my life.

What did you learn from your relationships with Tate Donovan and Matthew McConaughey?
I was young and emotionally young in my first really long-term relationship [with Donovan]. We went through a lot of rough spots together, and we were apart from each other so much that we just had lives that were once one, and then, all of a sudden, there were two other lives started. [With McConaughey,] we are opposites, but in the best way. He's just so adventurous, doesn't care what people think. And I love that energy. It got me out of my shell.

Do you remember the song that was playing when you lost your virginity?
[Mock horrified] Absolutely not. [Laughs.] Something by Styx?

How do you mend a broken heart?
You don't. It doesn't work. One day, you wake up, and you've learned how to store it, and you go to another part of the heart. I really think you can't feel that way about somebody again, but you have a very large capacity for loving, so you can forgive.

If I could read your mind, what would I know about women?
This I learned on Cybill Shepherd's new talk show [Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus]. Women are like ovens. We need 5 to 15 minutes to heat up. Men are like blowtorches. So they need to learn to preheat a little bit. You know, I can understand why women are with women and men are with men. That makes perfect sense. What doesn't make sense is women who are with men. But we can't stay away. That fact that it is so opposite to us, we've got to be there.

Do you have a gay bone in your body?
I've thought about it. I have friends - beautiful, dynamic women - who are lesbians. I condone anything where you find love and connection and happiness. But I don't feel the chemical urge. I like what the man comes equipped with. My mother said I was flirting at 11/2.

What do you know about the rules of attraction?
If you have rules, you have expectations. Every time I thought there were rules, something came out of left field, and I was like, 'Why am I attracted to this guy?" It's such a physical thing, I have to leave the room because it overtakes me.

How do you know when the thrill is gone?
If the kiss is gone. The question is, how do you know when the thrill is gone or is it just a lull that you have to work through? I am the queen of "I'll stay." I'll stick it out just to make sure that it's not a lull because this business does condone jumping ship before it even starts sinking. And the fact that you've stuck it out, honestly, probably means you'll have a great friend.

What would you like to have named after you?
Oh, jeez. A sandwich. Some grilled-cheese substance with something else in there. I'd probably be the sandwich that 20 other people already have. I'd be the sandwich next-door!

Sandra Annette Bullock ("I think my parents were watching Beach Blanket Bingo when they named me") always had a lot to live up to. Her parents would throw crazy parties where Dad would sing and Mom would belly-dance. Sandra and her sister, six years younger, whom she jealously tortured ("I told her she was adopted, and when she'd run away from home devastated, I'd help her pack"), were raised both in Europe and outside of Washington, D.C. Sandra studied piano - which she hated - and ballet, which, despite having a crush on Rudolf Nureyev, she hated even more. "It was too controlled, and I had a ballet teacher who insisted on reaming me in German in front of all the American kids." She did, however, love playing bit parts in crowd scenes in her mother's operas.

When she started junior high in Arlington, Virginia, Bullock was considered a nerd, with her pigtails and lime-green bell-bottoms. (Contrary to some reports, she never wore lederhosen to school, but she finds such inaccuracies amusing, she says - "as long as I can get a good laugh out of it.") In high school, she became a popular cheerleader, then, finding that life empty, went back to being a drama dork.

After a stint at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina, she headed to New York. Her first line in a film, the 1987 CIA thriller Hangmen, was, "Hey, Brian, what's happening, dude?" She was wearing a towel and brushing her teeth while talking on the phone. After she hung up, she told a fellow coed, "Danny's roommate is such a power tool!"

"I was waiting tables," Bullock recalls. "And we got paid $25 a day and had to bring our own little costumes. But I wouldn't be here if I didn't do that film because one of the cast introduced me to a manager. I went into an agency with something from Hangmen and some other indie film that I did that could have been soft porn had I taken my clothes off. I think the agent just looked at me and thought, 'She has the balls to come in here with that? I gotta take her on just to see what happens.' "

What happened was the usual straight-to-video comedies and action films, until the mid-'90s, when Bullock won the triple crown with Speed, the smash romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping and the cyberthriller The Net. These films cemented her charismatic screen image: an ordinary woman with a great line of wisecracks thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who saves the day and gets her man along the way. Since then, she has commanded eight-figure paychecks (she got $12 million for Speed 2), directed a short film (Making Sandwiches) and become a producer (Gun Shy).

There is still one transforming role for Bullock to tackle: She would like to start her own family and raise her children the way she was raised - bilingual, colorblind and free of prejudice. "My mother had very high standards for how you treat human beings. I don't know if children are taught in the home to make fun of people, but in our household that was a big no-no." She thinks Austin is the right kind of environment, although she jokes about New York, too. "It's good for a child to experience that. Get some street smarts. 'Now, honey,' " she says mock maternally, " 'here's a switchblade. I want you back in an hour.' "

Do you read about Sandra Bullock in the tabloids?
Once in a while. I don't pick them up, but somehow they manage to get into the hair-and-makeup trailer! And somehow I manage to open them up! Less than a year ago, my publicist calls up and says, "I'm going to send you something. I want you to see it first." And it says: sandra bullock suffering from mysterious brain illness. And I'm like, 'Well, duh!' I'd had a concussion from a snowboarding accident, and it turned into a mysterious brain illness.

Dessert is bananas foster, set in the middle of the table. Bullock pulls it toward her. Outside, a family of geese waddle by; she salutes them with a flawless Daffy Duck impersonation. The sky grows dark. She talks through several cups of decaf about her favorite games (Pictionary and You Don't Know Jack), dogs (she has three mutts, including a bitch named Bob), Web sites (she likes, architecture and literature. She's just finished reading a history of forensics and crime profilers as part of her research for her next film, a thriller directed by Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) .

The check arrives. It's $37.42, but Bullock, the former waitress, leaves two twenties as a tip. Back in the Range Rover, she puts on a CD by David Gray, a prot‚g‚ of Dave Matthews. Sandra Bullock loves to get her groove on. She glows just a little when talking about her boyfriend's recent work: "He just finished composing for a film, he's got his bands, and he'll have another album out in March."

But there is one other musician who holds a special place in her life. "Both my first and second concerts were Prince," she says. "He loves me; he just doesn't know it. He was singing and gyrating right at me, if you know what I mean. He wanted me."

He's not the only one.


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