LOS ANGELES - Sharon Leal might be the only woman in Hollywood who wants to look her age. Well, maybe not every single one of her 36 years, but at least a few more of them.
Right now, in a hotel room flooded with harsh sunlight and wearing hardly any makeup, Leal could be a teenager. Late teens to be sure; 21, tops.
That youthful countenance - and a set of pipes that she showed off in "Dreamgirls" - helped win her the role of Samuel L. Jackson's daughter Cleo in "Soul Men," opening Friday in Boston. Leal plays the beaten down (and beaten up) Southern girl whose mother recently died and whose father had always been an unknown.
As Leal remembers the audition process, the first actresses considered for the part of Cleo were all 18 and under. Then someone associated with "Soul Men" caught a snippet of "Dreamgirls" on cable TV and asked Leal to audition. (Leal was the fourth member of the trio, the one who replaced Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson's Effie White.)
"I went in without any makeup, and sweatpants and no frills and thought, maybe I'll get to sing a song even though I'll probably be too old," says Leal, who has a 7-year-old son with her husband, Bev Land, also in the film industry.
But the filmmakers were worried about something else: The young woman who would play the daughter Jackson's character didn't know existed would have to hold her own on screen with two formidable men, Jackson and costar Bernie Mac.
"We were having a very hard time," recalls producer David T. Friendly, the one who spotted Leal on TV. "There's always one character you think, 'Oh, a million people could play it' - and then it's impossible."
After seeing and hearing Leal light up the small screen, he says, "I was like, 'Let's get the fourth Dreamgirl.' "
At that point, Leal's career had been steady enough to earn her face recognition but not to elevate her to a household name. In her early days in Fresno, Calif., Leal attended a performing arts high school and worked in regional theater. That led to Broadway, and parts in "Miss Saigon" and "Rent." Naturally there were soap operas, then a recurring role in the TV show "Boston Public." But it wasn't until "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?" in 2007 that Leal came to understand what it was to have fans.
"I get a lot of, 'Where do I know you from?' " she says. "When I did Tyler Perry's movie, I had no idea what kind of crazy visibility machine that would be.
"I am not at all griping about it," she adds. "But I am not at all motivated by becoming famous. I just like to work. I mean, thank God, I get to, now that the industry has become so much about publicity and the gossip magazines and people becoming famous because their parents are famous or they have sex tapes or . . . I've never really operated that way, so if I'm working and able to pay the rent, I'm happy."
The set of "Soul Men" was a happy one, she says, although the story of doing the film ends in tragedy, with the deaths of both Mac and singer Isaac Hayes, who's also in the movie. Both died of physical ailments within days of each other, shortly after filming concluded.
Although longtime friends, Mac and Jackson had opposite approaches to their craft. Jackson, the trained actor, insists on rigorous preparation even for a romp like "Soul Men," in which he and Mac play '70s singers who reunite when the star of their former trio dies. Mac, who never met a microphone he didn't have to command with a riff or a joke, was a master improviser.
Both did their own singing and dancing in "Soul Men," and though Leal had the musical experience they lacked, she didn't have the nerve to offer them advice on either. As she puts it, "You don't tell Samuel Jackson how to sing. They were not lacking in the confidence department, and we just had fun with it. I never got the sense that either one of them were intimidated."
As Jackson, who sang in college, tells a table full of reporters, "She can sing. Sharon can sing."
And did she raise his game? "You can't think about that . . .," he says. "You go out there and do what you got to do."
For her own learning curve, Leal says Cleo was a first: a "downtrodden grassroots kind of girl, which I never had to play before." Plus she had daily life lessons from Jackson, who taught her by example about professionalism, and Mac, who told her one story after another to school her on staying grounded no matter how high her star might rise.
Leal, whose parents divorced when she was young, describes her Filipina mother as a "very traditional" homemaker who hoped her daughter would become a doctor, lawyer, or nun. Her father is a retired master sergeant in the US Air Force. Leal says neither discouraged her from singing or acting, but they didn't actively encourage her, either. Still, the stage was the one place she felt at ease.
"I was insecure in every aspect of my life except performing," she says. "I was painfully shy as a kid. . . . And then the first time I was on stage, I was just completely comfortable."
Someday, Leal hopes to use her singing talent to make a recording, something she dreamed of as a child. Mostly, though, it's about the acting now - even if many of her acting jobs seem to require singing. She doesn't rule out more TV, or theater again. After all, good parts for women are few, for women of color even fewer. And of those, the best are for relatively older women.
"Most of the really meaty roles are 35 and over," she says, "and a lot of times I go to read for parts and they're like, 'We just don't believe she's that old.' "
Leal, who stars opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. in the upcoming "Linewatch," says she does get offered independent films, but mostly she pounds the proverbial pavement. Now if casting directors would only consider casting her as a woman of a certain age: her age. ("I'll go up for something and they'll say, 'The character's got a 12-year-old and you can't have a 12-year-old,' and I'll say, 'No, technically I could.' " )
"But, yeah, it's always a challenge, whatever perception people have when they first see you . . .," Leal said. "But I guess I've got time on my side . . . You always see people who are finally visible and you look at their resume and you realize they've been around for a very long time but you'd think it happened overnight . . . So these days it's always a matter of getting in there and just wowing them with talent. I don't think I have a name yet."