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Sandra Bullock hopes for a hit with ''Miss Congeniality''

But the producer and star says not many women can open films these days

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Benjamin Bratt, Sandra Bullock
Bullock and Bratt: Armando Gallo/Retna

In ”Miss Congeniality,” Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent who disguises herself as a beauty pageant contestant to thwart a killer. But as one of the producers of the film, Bullock had weightier matters to worry about than squeezing into a swimsuit and practicing her toothpaste smile. ”Warner Brothers chose a release date for this film [Dec. 22] before we even made it,” she says. ”They picked it as soon as they read the script and knew who the cast was — they had that much confidence in the project. And I just thought, I hope we don’t screw it up for you guys.”

The prospect of going head to head with such other heavy hitting Christmas week releases as Tom Hanks’ ”Cast Away,” Nicolas Cage’s ”Family Man,” director David Mamet’s ”State and Main,” and the horror thriller ”Dracula 2000” wasn’t the only headache facing Bullock, 36. ”We finished the movie at the end of November,” she says, noting that the tight deadline Warner Bros. chose for the production — which shot on location in Texas and included the staging of a full scale beauty pageant — allowed little time for fine tuning. ”It was touch and go getting it done.” For Bullock, that meant taking on a new all work and no play attitude. ”Every minute was taken up, whereas usually I’m totally goofing off,” she says. ”So it was probably a good thing, really.”

The ”Speed” actress had good reason to get serious about her work. Her last four starring roles, ”28 Days” ($37 million at the box office), ”Gun Shy” ($1.63 million), ”Forces of Nature” ($52.9 million), and ”Practical Magic” ($46.2 million) have been financial disappointments, meaning that her future as an A list star (she took home $12.5 million to star in ”28 Days”) could ride on ”Miss Congeniality”’s opening weekend. But the former high school cheerleader is looking on the bright side. ”I used to worry, but I quit thinking about these things because there’s nothing you can do,” she says. ”I’m a girl, and there are very few girls who can open films. But look at Julia [Roberts]! She sneezes and she opens a film. I’ve learned it’s all about the material.”

To help develop better projects, Bullock has increasingly turned to producing her own films (in addition to ”Congeniality,” her credits include 1998’s ”Hope Floats” and last year’s ”Gun Shy”). ”I’m making an investment in my future, so I can always be involved in things I get excited about,” she says. Though the critical and commercial flop ”Gun Shy” was hardly a step forward, Bullock calls it a useful experience anyway. ”I’ve learned by producing and having things be disastrous. I take [those lessons] with me to the next film, saying ‘I’m not going to do that here,”’ she explains.

Still, Bullock’s newfound focus and restraint have their limits. Even though her character in ”Congeniality” preens on a pageant runway in strapless gowns and a two piece bathing suit, the actress couldn’t stay away from junk food during the shoot. ”I ate a lot more because I think I was trying to sabotage myself,” says Bullock, adding that she asked for numerous takes of one scene where she eats Ben & Jerry’s ”just to eat as much ice cream as I could. I kept thinking, I’m the FBI agent, I don’t have to be the skinniest one on stage.” Costar Benjamin Bratt explains Bullock’s behavior this way: ”There were a couple times I said, ‘Hey baby, you’ve got to get in a swimsuit; you’ve got to stop,’ and she’d just whine, ‘I can’t help it!”’

Bullock got her revenge by pummeling Bratt in front of the cameras. ”Twisted neck, a sprained back, a swollen elbow. Those are all real ailments she gave to me,” he says of the scene in which his costar tosses him over her shoulder and locks him in a pretzel hold. Bullock jokes, ”He’s such a baby! Such a drama queen! You try not to injure your partner, but I had a delicate partner, little flower that he is. Honestly, he was very careful with me because I was a girl, but I just whaled.”

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