June 20, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the lounge of L.A.’S funky chateau Marmont, Demi Moore, clad all in black, hair swinging like sheets of molasses, lights a Marlboro and leans back, her lips tilted upward in the slightest of smiles. She looks like one sexy femme fatale, which is exactly what she plays in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. As fallen Angel Madison Lee, the 40-year-old Moore graces the screen for her first mainstream role in six years — since 1997’s ill-received G.I. Jane. Her heavenly return has solved one juicy mystery: When would Moore, an A-lister who turned her back on the biz after a string of duds (including 1996’s Striptease, G.I. Jane, and 2000’s little-seen indie Passion of Mind), give Hollywood another go?

Answer: when Angels came a-calling. Producer-star Drew Barrymore and her gang developed the role of Lee, a gold-gun-toting, Ferrari-screeching baddie, especially for Moore. ”We’d never have gone forward with that character in the absence of Demi,” says director McG. ”She’s so lovely and so powerful. Here’s a woman who has three children — she goes toe-to-toe with Cameron Diaz in a bikini. She’s awesome. I just enjoy her performances and her gutsiness.”

The Angels team enticed the actress to a pitch meeting at Barrymore’s place, where they sold Moore on the idea of Madison Lee in lieu of an actual scripted part. ”How many opportunities do you get to kick ass and look good, where having good hair and lip gloss is really key?” she says. Joking aside, Moore admits to some back-to-school jitters. ”I went in with a fair amount of uncertainty, especially after really choosing not to do anything,” she says. ”In truth, if I waved my magic wand and said, ‘Okay, I’ve been sitting back, and now it’s a good time to think about work again,’ I don’t know that this would have been it. But often I think what we want and what we need aren’t always the same thing.” In the end, Moore says she was convinced by her costars and good old feminine intuition: ”It was their passion and enthusiasm and energy that ultimately sucked me up,” Moore says. ”There was a gut feeling: They were a great group of girls, and it just felt right.”

Another group of girls were also behind Moore’s celestial screen turn: Angels fans Rumer, 14, Scout, 11, and Tallulah, 9, her children with ex-husband Bruce Willis. ”The second I mentioned it was a possibility, they were, ‘You have to do it!’ [I said] ‘Wait a second, give Mommy a little time!”’ Mommy’s had a fair amount of that in the past few years, after ditching La-La Land to raise her family in small-town Hailey, Idaho. She says the move wasn’t a deliberate sabbatical. ”There were obviously some big shifts in my personal life — with [the death of] my mother, my marriage,” Moore says. ”I don’t think it was that thought-out. I think there was just something more important in that moment that I needed to be present for…. My priority was just [my kids]. They’re it.”

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