Jessica Alba: getting serious
Jessica Alba mesmerises men. It's what she does. Or to be precise, it's what Hollywood has let her do. Her signature roles so far have seen her in various states of undress, from a bikini-clad diver in Into the Blue to a lasso-wielding stripper in Sin City. In America, she's almost a figure of national obsession.
The Hollywood satire TV series Entourage devoted an entire plot to the conquest of a guest-starring Alba, while Us Weekly magazine claimed she was Tom Cruise's first choice before he clapped eyes on Katie Holmes. Meanwhile, Eminem, in the D12 song "My Band", rapped: "Yesterday Kuniva tried to pull a knife on me/ Cause I told him Jessica Alba's my wife to be."
All of which runs contrary to the 5 ft 6in figure sitting in front of me. Dressed in black trousers, a cream blouse, and patent red flats, with her hair tied back with an Alice band, she couldn't look more like a choirgirl if she tried. Her frame is petite and slim, and just starting to show signs that she is expecting her first child with fiancé Cash Warren in the summer. She's also unfailingly polite, apologising after she hiccups. "I have the worst heartburn since I got pregnant," she says, fluttering her big brown eyes. Still, I can't help but be reminded of a recent comment by a BBC Radio 5 listener, comparing her to this season's trophy-less Arsenal side: " Easy on the eye, but never going to win an Oscar."
Alba would argue differently. After all, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Dark Angel, her breakthrough TV show. But, at nearly 27, she strikes me as an actress who has to work fast or her time may pass. Hamstrung by her beauty, she is typical of what Hollywood wants from its young starlets these days: a girl-next-door with just the right amount of sex appeal for the 18-25, male, movie-going demographic. God knows how many trees have been felled to print the posters of her adorning teenagers' walls the world over. But it's precisely this accessibility that made her perfect casting as the Marvel Comics superhero Sue Storm in Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel, which grossed a staggering $618m across the globe.
If that blockbuster franchise is enough to buy her some time, it hasn't won her much respect. She complains that she gets sent far too many scripts with gratuitous nudity – "I don't think this is happening to Natalie Portman" – but her choices have been naive. Take last year's woeful comedy Good Luck Chuck, in which she played the love interest. "It's porn," she recently moaned to Elle magazine. "It wasn't supposed to be like that." Hollywood has evidently been a steep learning curve for her. She noted of her Into the Blue co-star Paul Walker: "Paul was the lead. Paul helped develop it. You wouldn't believe how much that kid got paid! And I don't think he did one ounce of publicity."
Her new horror movie, The Eye, is her chance to top the bill, in a role far removed from your typical scream-queen. A remake of the Pang Brothers' Hong Kong thriller Jian Gui, it has a pedigree attached to it, in that it's directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, the Frenchmen who were responsible for the genuinely creepy Them.
Alba plays Sydney Wells, a blind concert violinist who undergoes a double corneal transplant. As her sight gradually returns, she begins to be haunted by some horrific shapes in her peripheral vision. "She's definitely being frightened and freaked out, and losing it," says Alba. "But it's all going on in her head."
Arguably, The Eye offers Alba the chance to test her technical acting mettle. She went to two blind-orientation centres, learning basic Braille and how to walk with a cane. And she spent six months learning how to play the violin – even though, in the end, this is seen in just two sequences.
"It was so irritating," she says. "I play someone who has been playing her entire life – she's an expert, so it's second nature. So for me, who has never played it before, I needed all that just to get comfortable with the instrument... but the violin is really complex. Just holding the bow properly took me a while."
Although the film never quite delivers on its early promise, Alba argues that it's much harder to tell a ghost story in the US. "In Eastern culture, people see ghosts, people talk about ghosts... it's just accepted. And in Western culture it's just not. Educated people for the most part aren't going to say, 'Oh, yeah, I saw a ghost', whereas in the East, someone who's a doctor or a lawyer would say, 'Oh yeah, of course people see ghosts!' " Has she ever seen one? "I've never seen a ghost. But at my parents' house, we've had televisions turning on in the middle of the night, faucets turning on, doors opening... things like that."
Born in Pomona, where her father was serving in the US Air Force, Alba spent much of her childhood being shuttled across the States between army bases before the family finally settled in California when she was nine. This rather nomadic upbringing was certainly "perfect training" for life as an actress, which she began in earnest after she took her first class when she was 12. Within nine months she had an agent, and shortly afterwards made her debut in the 1994 comedy Camp Nowhere. But while working steadily throughout her teenage years – odd episodes of Chicago Hope and Beverly Hills 90210 and the like – she never quite got the breakthrough she wanted.
"If I didn't get a job, between 16 and 18, that wasn't significant, I was just going to go to college," she recalls. "I didn't want to be a struggling actor at 36 with five kids, doing something I hated. You see the story so much. It's such a vicious business to be in when you're not meant to be in it."
Her saviour came in the shape of James Cameron, who cast her as the superhuman lead, Max Guevera, in Dark Angel, his short-lived sci-fi TV series. "It's probably the most influential thing that I've ever had," she reflects. "Thank god for Dark Angel. Getting a blessing by James Cameron to star in his first television show. Really the first thing he did after Titanic was hire me."
During filming, she began a four-year relationship with her Dark Angel co-star Michael Weatherly – some 13 years older than her, he proposed on her 20th birthday, the subject of some controversy. After the show was cancelled, however, Alba began to forge a film career. With her unusual ethnic origins – a mix of Mexican, Danish, French and Spanish – she was initially pigeonholed into ethnic roles, notably the risible Honey, in which she played a Latina hip-hop dancer. "Until the last couple of years, I was often categorised – I had to be exotic, or mysterious, or the bad girl. I found the lighter my hair got, the wider people's minds got. They stopped thinking of me as someone who is Latin, which is very Hollywood."
Recent reports have claimed that Alba is ashamed of her Latin heritage. " It's crap!", she fires back when I put this to her. "I don't speak Spanish. I was born and raised in the States. My father was born and raised in the States. And my grandparents were born and raised in the States. So I'm American... I have Latin roots in America and I would love to play a Latin character. I've only been offered a few, and they weren't the right movies. They weren't characters that I felt represented Latin women to me. Latin women are intelligent..." She sighs for second. "I wish I could speak Spanish, because it would be a lot easier to play more interest ing roles."
For the moment, she's planning to take some time off from film-making after she gives birth. "I'm just sitting back and figuring out what this whole experience of being a mother is all about – and taking that in," she says.
She has been engaged to Warren since December. They met on the set of Fantastic Four, when he was an assistant to the film's director, Tim Story. Refashioning himself as a producer, Warren has recently worked with director Stacy Peralta, who made the excellent skateboard documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Their new project is Made in America, a study of gang violence in Los Angeles and its effects on young black men. "Stacy is really about opening the can about what is happening to the black man in the United States and what we're doing to them," Alba gushes, suddenly animated.
Proving she has something of a political conscience, Alba recently appeared in a pro-Barack Obama video directed by Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, alongside Ryan Phillippe and Kerry Washington. "I've always tried to be aware and do my part – and try to get kids to vote during election times, " she says. Why does she support the Democratic candidate? "The fact he's raised so much private money, and that he really feels like he's for the people, and not really driven so much by big business. And it's just so rare to find a politician that has that much integrity. Everyone views him as the next JFK. That's where people are putting him, because he's for the people and not necessarily about making more money for corporations that are running our country."
Compassionate and socially engaged, this is not the Alba that Hollywood has so far let us see. I wonder if she has plans to produce a film, perhaps with Warren. "I don't know," she muses. "We haven't really talked about it, so I'm not really sure. I wouldn't mind doing something with him. He's incredibly smart and very business-savvy. I think him being part of anything means it's going to be progressive and successful."
Does she find it difficult conducting a relationship in the public eye? She nods. "Everyone has an opinion of who you are and what your relationship is about, things that you've done or didn't do in your relationship – and it's just all crap, really. Things that are written about it are all crap."
As she accusingly fixes her eyes on me, I change the subject: what does success mean to her? "Success helps me smile a lot more," she replies. "It means that I know I'll be OK. I'll never have to be on welfare, or have food stamps or deal with poverty in any way, shape or form. So that's real nice, because a lot of people I know have to deal with that. I wasn't born into money, so it's nice not stressing about that." It's unlikely to be something she's ever going to have to worry about again. This summer, she takes the female lead in Mike Myers' new comedy The Love Guru, in which she plays – unsurprisingly – his squeeze. "It's about the need for self-love," she explains. "It's a very sweet message."
Given her ability to stir male loins, Alba would've been the ideal match for Myers' earlier creation, Austin Powers. As it is, she gets to play second fiddle to a man trying to break in to the self-help business. But in her quest for longevity, aligning herself with a man of Myers's talent is a wise move, and she was impressed by his dedication. "I appreciated the perfectionist in him, wanting to get it right. I'm that way too. I mean, why are we all here? We're all here to make it the best it can be and not make it half-assed." Maybe there's a chance of that Oscar yet.
'The Eye' opens on 24 April. 'The Love Guru' opens on 1 August