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Wet Hot American Alba

Jessica Alba masters the power of sex (and revenge) in August’s ”Sin City” sequel. Off camera, she’s the head of a $50 million brand. A brain for business. A bod for sin. Now, that’s a dame we’d kill for.

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”How do I look?” Jessica Alba asks, and the question may as well be rhetorical. Clad in a figment of a bikini, she stands on top of an apple box at the edge of a cliff in Malibu, overlooking the cerulean Pacific as a fan blows her hair into a golden tornado and a chirpy chorus assures her she looks ”ah-mazing.” It’s sexy in a way that’s less about sex than it is about some platonic pop culture ideal of sexiness, an abstraction of sultriness and suntan oil straight off a poster decorating the inside walls of a 14-year-old boy’s mind. She’s a locker-room reverie made real.

For the rest of us at this May 8 EW photo shoot, there’s a different question: ”Where do I look?” No one quite seems to know where to rest his gaze for longer than 1.3 seconds. Seven people huddle around a covered laptop to look at the photos, examining Alba’s image in the black-draped interior like it’s a camera obscura and they’re trying to avoid looking directly at an eclipse. Alba, meanwhile, isn’t fazed in the least. She adjusts the fan to compensate for the ocean breeze that has picked up at her back, asks someone to hit play on her iPod playlist, and then returns to posing. This ain’t her first rodeo.

Indeed, in Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — the long-anticipated sequel to Robert Rodriguez and Miller’s 2005 noir live-action comic book that hits theaters on Aug. 22 — Alba straps on the cowboy boots and twirls the lariat one more time as Nancy Callahan, a gun-toting stripper with a heart of gold and bullets of lead. In the first film, Nancy was known for the havoc wreaked upon her. But the sequel is more concerned with what she wreaks upon others, as she seeks to punish those responsible for the death of her protector (Bruce Willis). What’s more, hers is the first story in the hyper-masculine Sin City movieverse narrated by a woman. ”She was more naive in the first film. Ignorance was bliss,” Alba says. ”In this one there’s no bliss and no ignorance. I wanted her to transition from being a victim to being someone who’s in control of her own story.”

In the nine years since the first film, Alba too has taken a pen to her own narrative, writing the second act of her choosing. At 33, and after two decades in showbiz, she has two other full-time jobs: mother of two and president of a multimillion-dollar company. So when she breaks out the swimsuit for a magazine cover, it’s the decision of a woman who not only knows that sex sells but can also calculate its exact market value. In Hollywood, sex and commerce form less an intersection than an elevated freeway, with one running parallel directly beneath the other. What’s interesting about Alba is that at some point between the two Sin City films, she appears to have slid into the driver’s seat.

She’s at home with this aspect of her fame in a way she wasn’t when, as a teenager, she was handpicked by James Cameron to star on his hotly buzzed-about 2000-02 sci-fi series Dark Angel. Poured into skintight leather outfits as a genetically modified supersoldier, Alba graced the cover of Maxim in 2000 and topped its Hot 100 list less than a year later. For a girl from the inland suburbs of Los Angeles raised in a strict Catholic household, becoming a pinup-perfect sex symbol took some getting used to. ”I didn’t have a lot of experience, so at first it was all kinds of weird,” says Alba. ”I’m kind of a prude, and I didn’t really understand. They would always ask me provocative questions about my sexuality, my this or that. Sometimes I would lie and say something that wasn’t true to make myself seem more interesting than I was. I mean, I didn’t even know how to walk in heels until I went to the Golden Globes for the first time.”

It’s a week before the photo shoot, and Alba is sitting three feet away from a framed diaper. We’re in one of seven conference rooms packed into the Santa Monica headquarters of the Honest Company, of which Alba is cofounder and president.

For actresses, Hollywood can feel a bit like Logan’s Run. Once you hit 30 and the crystals in your hands start glowing, you know your allotted time may be almost up. In the capricious world of fame, it never hurts to have a retirement plan. Alba’s is Honest, a start-up that has turned into a full-fledged operation producing and selling a line of baby and household products (annual revenues are now north of $50 million). Alba spends more time in its offices than she does on film sets these days, working from a metal desk democratically located amid a sea of other employees, a bright-pink paint job the only indication that this particular desk belongs to the boss. Honest is expanding into 10,000 more square feet of space, though Alba complains that some of her colleagues are giving her a hard time about the skylights she wants.

”I was always afraid it was going to go away, my career,” she says. ”I worked so hard to be relevant and to have some type of job security, at the same time knowing that it’s all going to disappear in a hot second because this business is so fickle.” Entrepreneur isn’t exactly a role many would have expected from her, and that’s one of the reasons she cherishes it. Another is that it allows her to be stationary. ”For a long time, I didn’t have any real personal relationships,” Alba says. ”I wasn’t here [in L.A.] long enough to cultivate any. Not even with my family.” But in 2008, she married producer Cash Warren, with whom she has two daughters: Honor, 5, and Haven, 2. ”It wasn’t until I was pregnant with Honor that I was in one place for one year, and I hadn’t done that since I was 13,” Alba says. ”With the kids, I just couldn’t do back-to-back filming anymore. I needed something a little less erratic.”

It’s possible she also wanted something a little less erotic. After all, it’s difficult to oversexualize diaper-rash cream. ”I totally get her wanting to do something like Honest,” says Jaime King, a close friend of Alba’s since they appeared together in Sin City. King, a model from a young age, understands the desire to prove one has more nutritive value than eye candy. “When you’re being trotted around in a bikini or a tiny dress, or touted as a sex symbol, it’s hard not to feel internally that no one takes you seriously.”

That need to be taken seriously hasn’t always been clear in Alba’s choice of film roles. After the successful comic-book combo of Sin City and two Fantastic Four films, in which she played invisible woman Sue Storm, she hit some career potholes that included critically mauled comedies such as Good Luck Chuck and The Love Guru. Bad reviews and Razzie nominations hit her hard. ”It would bum me out,” she says. ”No one tries to have a crappy performance. No one’s like, ‘Today I’m going to be really bad at my job, and I want people to laugh at me and think I’m a joke!’ My approach isn’t the same as it was back then, though. Acting is something that’s different to me now.”

These days, Alba sees her Hollywood career as something she gets to do as opposed to something she has to do. She works when she feels like it, with people of her choosing. A Dame to Kill For marks her fourth film for director Robert Rodriguez in as many years. The Sin City films hold a special place in Alba’s heart. Although hers was the last major role to be cast in the original, she was one of the first to sign on for the sequel. ”Jessica was always asking when we were going to do the next movie,” says Rodriguez. ”She really helped to keep the idea of the sequel alive.” Frank Miller was so captivated by her work that he started writing her into his second script while they were still filming the first. ”The first time she came out and played Nancy Callahan, I actually burst into tears,” he says. ”It was exactly as I envisioned it when I wrote the character.”

That bare midriff may be the same this time around — a feat in itself — but its owner is not. Alba is far more comfortable in her own exposed skin. ”I have a fearlessness now I didn’t have before,” she says. Now, when Alba discusses her sex appeal, it’s with a certain detachment, as if she were delineating her company’s assets. She’s a woman in control of her personal brand: the No. 1 shareholder of Jessica Alba Inc.

Being naked on camera is out, for starters. Although she was digitally de-clothed in 2010’s Machete, she doesn’t do nude scenes in any movie she makes. (”I want my grandparents to see it!” she says.) Still, she understands that in the heightened reality of the Sin City universe, seduction and provocation are indispensable. ”Sex is absolutely what helps sell this movie,” she says. ”Which is fine with me. I’m also playing a character when people are taking pictures of me. That’s what I do, but it is not who I am.”

Meanwhile, up on that Malibu cliff, a bikini-clad Alba…wait — where’d she go? A quick scan finds her over to the side, now the eighth person leaning into the laptop for a view. She assesses the picture with a calm, critical eye. ”That’ll work, I think,” she says.