She's no angel
Playing a stripper who's both naughty and naive in the shadowy underground of 'Sin City,' Jessica Alba once again flirts with fame
LOS ANGELES -- Sin City, the lurid noir universe sprung from the black and white pages of Frank Miller's graphic novels, teems with prostitutes, strippers, depraved priests, murderers, ex-cons, child molesters, crooked politicians, corrupt cops, and sadists. In ''Sin City," Robert Rodriguez's exacting big-screen adaptation, the men, played by Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, and Nick Stahl, are, mostly plug-ugly brutes. The women too are hard cases, but easy on the eye. Rosario Dawson, Carla Gugino, Jaime King, and Brittany Murphy all show up in various stages of undress. Even Alexis Bledel, the squeaky clean Yalie in TV's ''Gilmore Girls," turns up as a back-stabbing streetwalker.
Jessica Alba, best known as the sultry action heroine of the TV series ''Dark Angel," was not acquainted with Miller's urban hellscape when she first heard about ''Sin City," which opened Friday. ''It wasn't represented to me that way. It was presented as a Robert Rodriguez film, and that's why I wanted to do it," says Alba, who's perched primly on the sofa of a Beverly Hills hotel, dressed in a beige turtleneck, hoop earrings, and cream-and-beige squared skirt.
Once the 23-year-old actress got her callback, Alba read Miller's graphic novel ''Sin City: That Yellow Bastard" and learned that her character, Nancy Callahan, danced in boots, chaps, cowboy hat, and not much else while performing a steamy rope-and-pistol act in Sin City's red-light district. ''When I found out Nancy was a stripper, nudity was an option and Robert said we could do it if we wanted to," she says. ''But I felt like dancing around with the lasso and chaps was going to be sexy enough. Being nude, for me, would have been distracting, and I couldn't even conceive of being bottomless: My dad would disown me or something -- he'd freak out."
Alba bristles at the suggestion that the film's portrayal of women might be perceived in some quarters as misogynistic. ''The women aren't all prostitutes or strippers. What about Lucille?" she says, referring to Gugino's nearly naked lesbian parole officer. ''The women are completely empowered," Alba argues. ''I don't see them as victims at all." She readily agrees that the female characters do get beat up, slapped, and grievously injured with disturbing regularity. Lucille, for example, has one of her hands chewed off by a cannibalistic altar boy (Elijah Wood), and Nancy herself is bull-whipped by the potbellied sadist known as Yellow Bastard (Stahl). ''Yeah, but don't the guys get their head blown off?" Alba says. ''It's not just women being victimized. It's everybody."
Within those harsh parameters, Alba sees her character as a relatively pure-hearted innocent doing her best to overcome a traumatic childhood incident. ''I play Nancy as this doe-eyed character who's very sweet and doesn't come at life from a dark place," Alba says. ''For her, being a stripper is just a way to make money. If anything, she gives the guys a little light in their life because they're all pretty sad individuals."
Once Rodriguez was told that Alba, a natural brunette, had ''gone blond," the Texas-based filmmaker who served as co-director decided she'd be well-suited to bring Miller's erotically charged character to cinematic life.
''If you look at Frank's drawings, he gives Nancy very strong features, and Jessica also has these strong, dark features -- the heavy lips, the eyes. So when Jessica came in to audition for me, she looked just like Nancy," Rodriguez says. ''After 'Dark Angel,' she wanted to do something a little lighter and more innocent, but I knew she had that dark side of Nancy too. It was really hard finding an actress that could be all those things, and that's what I liked about Jessica. Also, when you read the comic, you see Frank presents Nancy as the sexiest person in the world, so of course we wanted to retain that."
''Sin City" marks the latest coup for Alba, who has two more movies coming out in July. ''Into the Blue" features the actress in a bathing suit for much of the film. She doesn't pretend the feature aspires to lofty artistic aims. ''This opportunity came to scuba dive in the Bahamas for five months, and I told them, 'I'll take that, sure.' "
''The Fantastic Four" is freighted with greater expectations. ''That's a huge one, and there's a lot of pressure," she says. Like ''Sin City," it's also based on a comic book. Is Alba in danger of becoming the go-to girl for comic book-based characters? ''These stories couldn't be more different," she insists. ''In 'Fantastic Four' I play this scientist who's incredibly repressed. Whenever she gets upset, she goes invisible. I never played a repressed character, so getting to do that was pretty great."
While 2005 is shaping up as a banner year, Alba is quick to point out, ''This is not an overnight thing for me. I've been acting since I was 12. My mother didn't want me to do it. My father didn't want me to do it. I wanted to do it. I did not want to go to school because I thought it was trite. I was always very rebellious, so acting was a way to sort of control that rebellious side of me."
At 13, Alba landed the TV series ''Flipper." After three seasons, she graduated early from high school and attended a summer workshop in Vermont run by David Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company. There she studied acting with cofounder William H. Macy and his wife, actress Felicity Huffman. ''She was my toughest teacher and made me cry. I didn't talk loud enough. They were: 'We can't hear you! We can't understand you! All your preparation is for nothing! Sit down!' I get stage fright and freak out whenever I'm on display, so that was hard."
Also difficult was the racial stereotyping Alba dealt with on her return to Hollywood. ''My father is Mexican and very dark; my mother is very fair. I used to always get [script] breakdowns for things like Maria, the janitor's daughter who hangs around with the white kid. I was born in the United States. I never thought about it until the industry made me think about being a Latin girl. It seemed like such a bizarre thing."
The pigeonholing came to an end when ''Titanic" director James Cameron selected Alba to star in ''Dark Angel." How'd she beat out the 2,000 other actresses vying for the role? Alba says she was typically direct. ''I don't really like to [schmooze]. It was a very difficult audition scene, so I was just, 'I'm Jessica, let's get to work.' "
Alba trained for a year before shooting the series. ''I worked my [tail] off: three hours a day, weights, an hour and a half of kung fu, hour and a half gymnastics, and on top of that, motorcycle training for two hours."
After ''Dark Angel" ended after two seasons, Alba starred in the song-and-dance movie ''Honey" as part of what she describes as ''a conscious effort to reinvent myself in every role. Choosing to do a 'Flashdance'-type movie after 'Dark Angel'? -- who'd do that? Nobody! I wanted to dance, and I wanted to do something that was inspiring, so I sort of did that one for the 10-year-old in me."
What's next for Alba? ''I love kitchen-sink dramas," she says. ''I never get offered them, but I want to do something small, that's less glamorous and more character-driven. But you know, this is a nice balance right now. I like entertaining people on every level, whether it's a big popcorn movie or a more intense cerebral experience."
Hugh Hart can be reached at email@example.com.