Once you see “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock seems the logical choice to play a NASA medical engineer stranded in space and running out of oxygen after her shuttle is destroyed.
But how did director Alfonso Cuaron, who also co-wrote the film with son Jonas, know that Bullock was the right actress for the role?
Sure, she won an Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but does that qualify her to carry an entire movie set in space? It couldn’t have been “The Heat,” the comedy hit she starred in earlier this year with Melissa McCarthy. And we’re guessing that “Miss Congeniality” and “While You Were Sleeping” probably didn’t seal the deal.
“The short answer is connectivity,” explained Cuaron, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2006 film “Children of Men.”
“There are great actors whose magic is lost when filtered through the camera lens. Cameras adore certain people, and Sandra is one of them. That’s why she is a movie star. And after auditioning many unknowns, we decided that we needed a movie star because we had to have someone who the audience could invest in for such a long time. They needed to connect to her character.
“But finding the right movie star was the key,” he added. “Movie stars don’t usually like to leave their comfort zone. Why mess with success? And Sandra is fantastic doing dialogue and this is a role with very little dialogue. But she wanted to get out of her comfort zone. She wanted to go to those deep, dark corners that most movie stars run away from. She was up for anything, even the Vomit Comet.”
The Vomit Comet is a special plane that simulates zero gravity in 20-second bursts by plunging toward Earth. Bullock, 49, will not only describe her fear of the Vomit Comet, but will tell us how she felt when she learned that Cuaron didn’t reveal to her that he had decided that the Vomit Comet limited filming too much, and that he would film everything on enormous movie sets in London.
Q. Had you crossed space movies off your bucket list?
A. There was never a space movie on my bucket list. I’ve never had a bucket list. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that. Why don’t I have a bucket list?
Q. And the answer is?
A. I realized that, in a beautiful way, anything that I’ve ever wished for, I’ve gotten. So I never needed a list.
Q. So, there was never a list of things that you wanted to do that you hadn’t done before?
A. In terms of work, I only wanted to do what the men were getting opportunities to do. I wanted roles that were as multi-faceted as men were getting. Every woman in this business felt that way for a long time. Not before the 1980s, of course. There were many opportunities before that. Roles for women seemed varied and exciting. But, recently, things shifted a bit.
Q. How did that shift manifest itself in how you worked?
A. Every time I got a role, I’d think how I could make it better, how I could make it more complex or how I could make it funnier. I didn’t want to just play the wife or the girlfriend.
Q. Things seem to have shifted back again. Was there a tipping point?
A. In comedy, I think it was “Bridesmaids.” And that came about because of (“Saturday Night Live”). The women of “SNL” and the Groundlings broke the ground. They did it step by step by step. If they hadn’t done what they did, there never would have been a “Bridesmaids,” or a “The Heat.”
Q. Do you think you ever would have been approached for this role in “Gravity” if not for the Oscar for “The Blind Side?”
A. I don’t know. That would have to be a studio question.
Q. When you won the Oscar, did you think it might open some new doors for you?
A. No. There were so many other things going through my head the night I won the Oscar than how it would impact my career (laughs).
Q. That’s right; you were secretly adopting your son Louis the week of the Oscar ceremony. By the way, who says that Sandra Bullock can’t keep a secret?
A. Hey, everybody who knows me knows that I will go to my grave with a secret. If you tell me not to tell anyone, I don’t tell anyone. But yes, my head was elsewhere.
Q. What do you remember about that night?
A. People ask me that and I remember so little. All I remember is that I wanted to get home for the midnight feeding. And that I was sewn into that dress, and how was I going to do the midnight feeding in that dress? Well, I ended up doing the midnight feeding in my Oscar dress because I couldn’t get it off in time.
Q. And how is Louis?
A. Delicious. He’s in preschool, being smart, too smart. He’s so social, and his brain is so big. He couldn’t wait to start school.
Q. OK, the kid’s in school, and it’s time to get back to work. How excited were you when you were approached to be in your first space movie?
A. I didn’t think like that. I thought about being approached to be in an Alfonso CuarÃ³n movie. He is the archetype for me. He is an artist. He is the one I based everything on. I make people watch his movies. I have such an emotional connection to all his movies — how he did it, how he pushed the boundaries, where he broke the rules.
Q. You must have jumped at the chance to work with him.
A. Not really. He came at a time when I did not want to work. I had nothing to offer. I had nothing to give.
Q. What was his reaction to your lack of enthusiasm?
A. He said he was coming to Austin to talk. I was excited about meeting him, but I was hoping I didn’t like him. A lot of times, you meet someone you idolize and they let you down.
Q. Why did you think you had nothing to give?
A. I was a new mom. I was hunkered down for a while, and I was tired. I just wanted to be where I was, and not run off somewhere when I didn’t have all my strength.
Q. You’ve been through this before, not with a child, but when you burned out on your career and stopped working for a while.
A. Yes, I’ve shut down before. But you have to listen to your body. You have to honor it, but this business doesn’t want you to honor it.
Q. What changed your mind?
A. I met the person. I was just so moved and so connected to his journey of how this movie came about, not from a technical standpoint but from an emotional and storytelling standpoint. I love this man. I have very similar views, and I felt trusting of this human being. By the time he left Austin, my curiosity was piqued.
Q. So, you were psyched?
A. No. I had an opportunity to work with this great man, and I had nothing to offer. I didn’t know how to do it.
Q. That sounds like pure fear. Are you ever fearful on a movie project?
A. Every time you start a movie, you have it. I say yes, and then I panic and try to pull out. Every single time.
A. Really. I think it’s going to be a bomb, and I want somebody to get me out of it. And guess what, half the time, it is a big bomb, and half the time, it’s not.
Q. Isn’t it amazing that Sandra Bullock has survived in Hollywood with that attitude?
A. It is amazing. Like the cockroaches, I just won’t die.
Q. I wasn’t comparing you to a cockroach.
A. Well, I was, and I’m comfortable with that.
Q. Once you got over your fear and accepted the role, what happened next?
A. He told me the entire movie was going to be shot in the Vomit Comet. I told him I am deathly afraid of flying. I took it as another sign that I shouldn’t do the film. It was not in my comfort zone.
Q. How did you overcome that?
A. I decided that the universe was taking me someplace I needed to go. Once George (Clooney, her co-star) stepped on board, I was almost in tears. I thought, “Thank God, I know him. I know that he doesn’t know what this is all about, either, but that he admires Alfonso.” We were both novices in Alfonso’s world, but I was so grateful that at least there was something familiar around.
Q. You must have been elated when Alfonso informed you that he had changed his mind, and would not be using the Vomit Comet?
A. He didn’t tell me. They purposely led me to believe it was still happening. It wasn’t until a few days before we flew to London that George told me.
Q. Why didn’t they tell you? I would think that it would have allayed some of your fears?
A. The producer told me later that they decided not to tell me because they felt that I would be so excited about not filming on the Vomit Comet that I would gladly do anything they asked of me. And they were right.
Q. I know you have a tendency to look at the dark side of things, but wouldn’t you have to admit that with “The Heat” and “Gravity,” your career is in a pretty good place right now?
A. Let’s just say it’s a good work week.
Q. How was “The Heat?”
A. When the studio found out it was starring two women, they cut everyone’s salaries and cut the shooting schedule. But we went ahead and did it. It’s like making spaghetti; we threw it against the wall to see if it would stick. The great thing was that they left us alone. We were just the low-budget movie with women in it. No one expected it do well.
Q. How do you react when you’re sitting in a studio meeting and they’re talking about the Sandra Bullock brand?
A. No one ever, ever has said that in a meeting. If they did, I would walk out.
Q. You understand, though, that you are seen as a valuable property in Hollywood right now?
A. Maybe this week I am. Next week, when I make a choice that doesn’t do so well, then I’m not anymore. You can’t ever think of yourself as valuable property. If you do, you’re destined to have a nice little crash and burn. I expect great failures, and I expect great heights. You can’t control it, so you have to be grateful for what you have, and then just live your life.