But work requires dealing with Los Angeles, and Bullock is in town talking about Miss Congeniality 2: Armed And Fabulous to the invited press at the Four Seasons Hotel. The movie is a sequel to the box office hit Miss Congeniality, in which she plays an FBI agent caught up in a plot to undermine a popular beauty pageant. Bullock is best known for her roles in big-budget movies like the action thriller Speed and romantic comedies like While You Were Sleeping, but once the promotional route for Miss Congeniality 2 ends, she is determined to take on riskier projects. It’s a decision that’s already resulted in Every Word Is True, an upcoming drama in which Bullock plays Harper Lee, the author of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. The movie is based on Truman Capote’s research and writing of his celebrated non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which is about the shocking murder of a Kansas farm family in 1959. Lee, a longtime friend of Capote’s, helped him research the book. As she puts it, Bullock is “loving” playing the role.

So, I ask her if this means there won’t be a Miss Congeniality Three? She laughs. And when Bullock laughs, she snorts, which is appealing because she makes fun of herself, part of the process of keeping it real. She’s also sort of klutzy, as she says, and both are traits that end up being part of her character Gracie Hart’s persona. As for a follow-up to Miss Congeniality 2, Bullock says “you know what, if it’s grandma Gracie passing the torch that would be awesome. I love it, I love it so much because it’s all the pleasures that we as women and as women comediennes never get to do. The guys get to do it. Yes, there was Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, but it’s mostly men like Jerry Lewis. There’s no allowance for that. I want there to be an allowance for that, that there are more movies with more actresses that are allowed to do it. And that people will go see. You can’t make the movie if there’s not an audience for it.”

After Miss Congeniality took in a reported $106-million in the United States in 2000, Bullock vowed to avoid making another romantic comedy. She produced Miss Congeniality and the current sequel and also began producing television, scoring an immediate hit with ABC TV’s George Lopez Show. But she insists she is no longer going after box office smashes. In addition to Every Word Is True, she is currently filming another drama, Il Mare, in which she reunited with Keanu Reeves, her Speed co-star. It’s being directed by Argentinean filmmaker Alejandro Agresti. She will also produce and star in Grace, a drama about Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. “I’m looking at projects and asking ‘what’s the great story in here?’ I don’t want it to only be about my lines and my part,” she said. “It’s not going to help if you have a terrific role if the rest of the support of the film is lacking. Of course, that also applies to comedies too.”

According to Bullock, reprising her popular role in Miss Congeniality 2 carries risks. Surprisingly, few comedies feature women in starring roles without a romantic male lead. For women in Hollywood, that’s an alarming statistic. In the new movie, her FBI agent is called upon to thwart a kidnap plot involving original pageant winner Cheryl Frazier and pageant emcee Stan Fields (Heather Burns and William Shatner). The opening joke is that Hart is so well-known that she can’t be the kind of FBI agent she wants to be. Bullock turns pratfalls and her own snorting and tripping into comic fodder and the movie rolls on from there. But will audiences return to follow the adventures of the goofy Miss Hart, who needed a glamorous makeover in the first film, and needs another one? “It’ll be interesting to see,” says Bullock. “Name a comedy that’s not a romantic comedy that a woman has starred in in the past dozen or so years. It’s hard. It’s really really hard,” she says, adding that she thinks “comedies are usually more challenging to pull off than dramas. The toughest thing is the comedy,” she says, “if it doesn’t work, well, you know what, it’s definitely obvious.”

In addition to Burns and Shatner, Bullock has surrounded herself with an eager supporting cast. Regina King plays her FBI partner. Ernie Hudson is her FBI boss. Dietrich Bader has the Michael Caine part from the first film, that of the gay makeover advisor. Enrique Murciano is a young FBI agent smitten with Gracie, and Treat Williams is the Las Vegas FBI honcho as the action shifts to the gambling mecca. Dolly Parton has a comic cameo.

In Miss Congeniality 2, King, fresh from her success in Ray, and Bullock are called upon to lock horns and even fight with each other. King says her character is “someone who always seems to have been in situations where she has to prove she can handle herself. She’s quite defensive and puts up barriers to friendship. She’s aggressive. When the agents relax after hours, she sits alone. The fun thing in the screenplay (by Marc Lawrence) is how Sam, my character, and Gracie turn each other’s hostility into a working relationship and a friendship.” Murciano, who had his first professional line of dialogue in Speed, compares Bullock to “the girl next door, if the girl next door is a powerful Hollywood producer.” One of the stars of CBS’ serious Without A Trace, the young actor was thrilled to be in a comedy. “Usually I play the rugged, determined guy. Here I get to be a little bit vulnerable. I mean, come on, my character has a crush on Sandra Bullock. Who wouldn’t get giddy? When we were shooting in Las Vegas, tourists got crazy around her. Sandra’s so open and so personable, people think they have permission to go up to her and give her a hug. That all translates onto the screen.”

The most difficult role in the movie belongs to Bader. With political correctness everywhere, the success of Will & Grace on television, the gay marriage issue driving right wingers nuts, playing gay is a tough deal these days. Caine underplayed in the first film. His character was gay, but his primary function in the movie wasn’t to be gay. He had to re-make a sloppy, goofy woman who was part of a man’s world that was changing, but for the moment, needed to glam it up to succeed in a beauty contest. Bader decided to play the similar character broadly, but not stereotypically. He was walking a fine line. Effeminate gay people do exist. “Humor needs to come from an honest place, especially that kind of humor. I decided to take him to the edge, but not over-the-top. You have to think the way the character would think. As long as you’re acting it honestly, the audience will go with you.”

As the movie progresses into its Vegas show biz section, the comedy gets zanier and the production values become more lavish. Director John Pasquin notes that regardless of how wild everything gets, the comedy “appears effortless” because of Bullock’s professionalism and keen understanding of the character. “There’s a certain amount of energy that goes into making it seem effortless. That’s what’s appealing about Sandra in general. She is this incredibly beautiful woman who’s not afraid to make fun of herself, who’s not afraid to make herself look silly, who doesn’t necessarily care that she looks beautiful. We don’t have to worry if a scene is playing because she doesn’t look perfect, whether her hair is in her eyes, etc. She embraces that, which makes everybody root for her.”

With her self-deprecating sense of humor intact and onscreen, Bullock readily admits that it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not real about her. She believes that when the cameras are off, there is a difference. “Unlike Gracie, I do worry about what other people think. But it would be great if I didn’t have to.” Sandra Bullock may not be Gracie Hart, but you know it’s close. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

On a cloudy, but blessedly rain-free morning in Los Angeles, actress Sandra Bullock is perkier than any Gidget character that ever graced the screen, big or small. But Bullock’s brand of perkiness isn’t manufactured. It stems not from a desire to please, but from something more sincere, more self-effacing. She jokes about looking her “worst” when the cameras are clicking as she runs errands or drops into Starbucks for coffee. She refuses to kowtow to any Hollywood rules of engagement. “I understand,” she says, “that there’s a certain trade-off when you’re famous, but I can’t be someone or something I’m not.” Perhaps that’s why she lives in Austin, Texas, a city everyone seems to like, away from the constantly prying camera lenses belonging to the tabloid press.