One of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses talks to The Japan Times about tough times for female-focused movies, her ability to make millions of dollars here in minutes — and the awful truth about eating pork

LOS ANGELES — She is a former model who quickly and effortlessly became a movie star, and then a movie superstar — becoming only the second actress ever to earn $20 million for one film. She is also one of the most popular Hollywood names in Japan, where, following in the commercial footsteps of fellow American megastar Brad Pitt, her image has lately been spread far and wide on billboards and in television ads for Softbank cellphones. That 6-hour bit of filming reaped her an incredible $3 million. Cameron Diaz, however, is not the simple, seemingly two-dimensional character she sometimes appears to be on screen. “I love my contradictions,” she recently told The Japan Times, and she has a number of them.

She’s naturally blonde and blue-eyed, but her surname is Spanish in origin (her father is a second-generation Cuban-American). Yet, in the very ethnically conscious United States, she is considered “all-American,” and it’s hard to imagine that she could easily play a foreign character or one with an accent. It is her sense of humor and girl-next-door quality that make Diaz so popular, though of course she’s sexier than most girls in the average neighborhood. And while drama hasn’t been her forte to date and the actress would probably be the first to admit that she isn’t likely to be Oscar-nominated in the near future, she says that she’d like to try her hand at some meatier roles.

Diaz has excelled in comedy and in action films such as the hit “Charlie’s Angels” movies — the second of which earned her that $20 million paycheck. The first actress to collect that amount was Julia Roberts (with whom Diaz costarred in the 1997 hit “My Best Friend’s Wedding” prior to superstardom) for “Erin Brockovich” (2000). Whether or not Diaz has earned as much for any subsequent movie is unknown, and she’s not about to reveal whether she has.

As well as narrating the voice of Princess Fiona in the animated feature “Shrek the Third” (a role she has played in all three films in the series), Diaz is also currently starring in “The Holiday,” written and directed by Nancy Meyers (who was behind the 2003 hit “Something’s Gotta Give”). The film, which received mostly positive reviews in the U.S., is in a sense a return to Diaz’s comedy roots. Her previous movie, “In Her Shoes,” a film based on the best-selling “chick lit” novel of the same name about young women and their concerns, didn’t do as well as expected.

Audience expectations

“My character was rather promiscuous. Her hobby is men. Her sister has a minimal love life, by comparison. With her, career comes first. With my character, having fun comes first — men and drugs. Maybe some of the public didn’t like seeing me in such a role. I didn’t think it was so very different from some of the things I’d done before.

“I got some negative fan mail that sort of bummed me out. Because on the one hand, they love it when I’m sexy — like in (her hit film) ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (1998). On the other hand, even if I’m sexy, they don’t want me to be very sexual — they don’t want to see me being sexual.

“I thought ‘In Her Shoes’ was discreet — no big nude scenes or sex scenes. I thought it was some of the best work any of us ever did. Toni (Collette) was fantastic, and so dedicated. She agreed to gain weight for the role. Which, well, I wouldn’t gain weight for a role — that’s not part of my job requirement!” She laughs, then continues, “Curtis (Hansen), our director, had a talk with Shirley (MacLaine) before shooting began, telling her to tone it down at all times. And she did! She was so real, so wonderful. In the movie, we had no mother — she’d died. I honestly felt like Shirley was our granny. We bonded, really became friends, which is one of the best things about acting — the people you meet and get to know.”

One actor with whom Diaz’s relationship didn’t last was Jim Carrey, in whose hit comedy “The Mask” (1994) she costarred fresh out of the modeling world. Carrey has told the story of how uninformed about the movie industry Diaz was: Shortly before the film’s completion, she asked where she and her family could go to see the finished movie? “To a movie theater!” he said, before breaking down laughing.

Diaz admits, “A lot of the actors I’ve worked with get . . . like a crush on me. They want to get romantic.” As did Carrey, with whom Diaz was friendly, she says, but only up to a point (apparently both were involved with other people at the time). Reportedly, when he asked her for a date and she politely declined, he remained civil, but the warmth of their casual and joking relationship was gone, and post-“Mask” she hasn’t heard “a word from him. Not that I expected to . . . like, everyone’s busy with their own schedule and projects and things.”

What’s a girl to do?

She notes, “Men have bigger egos than women, but in this business their egos are also pretty fragile, and the problem always ends up being the girl’s. If he hits on you and you say ‘yes,’ then he thinks you’re easy and in others’ eyes you’re maybe a slut. OK? Like that’s fair. And if you say ‘no,’ even if you say it tactful-like and delicately, then you bruise his ego and he turns off you as a person altogether. So what can you do?”

What does an actress do?

After a pause, she answers, “You grow a thicker skin. You get used to occasion- ally making people, or men, a little unhappy, and if they choose to make a big deal of it, that’s their problem. Life has to go on — you can’t spend your time worrying about this. There’s work to go out and do.”

What appealed to her about “The Holiday,” besides its comedic potential?

“People underrate comedy,” she states firmly. “Comedy is more difficult — at least to write. And maybe to perform. They say it’s not so hard to make an audience cry; it’s tougher to make them laugh. And Nancy (Meyers) has a gift for comedy. She gets comedy out of characters, not just the situation. It’s not jokey lines, and she never does cliches or easy laughs — like slipping on a banana peel. She brings comedy from a view . . . a woman’s point of view.”

To that end, she points out that, particularly in the U.S., female-centered films are seldom major hits, since the average filmgoer is a teenage male. Looking back on “In Her Shoes,” Diaz says, “It wasn’t a flop. Sometimes that has to be pointed out. In this business, the mentality is often ‘hit or flop’ — nothing in between. This film did make money but wasn’t a big hit, and to tell the truth it wasn’t expected to make a fortune.”

“I enjoy working with women — as a fellow actress, but also with a woman director. Because if it’s about comedy, it’s about the characters, their inter-relationships. I’ve been lucky with directors . . . with writers. But some of the movies I see, the comedies I’m talking about, I have to groan. Because it’s so macho, so . . . juvenile, that kind of comedy. It’s too heavy-handed. When the laugh’s over, that’s it — it’s all over, there wasn’t much to it.

“But with ‘The Holiday’ and other work of Nancy’s that I’ve seen, there’s a warmth. It’s funny — sometimes very funny. But it’s all of a piece, do you know what I mean? It’s not like, here’s the non-funny part, here comes the funny line or the pie in the face. I prefer when I have other wonderful characters to play off of, and they can play off me. And the situation’s interesting . . . has comic potential. Everyone can relate to getting together with relatives and romantic partners for a holiday, and seeing how people get along — or try to get along,” she says with a laugh.

Serious roles

It was Diaz’s performance as Julianna Gianni, the obsessed lover of Tom Cruise’s character, David Aames, in “Vanilla Sky” (2001) that provided a glimpse into her capabilities as an actor. Does she hope to find other dramatic roles that show off her real acting abilities?

Again she laughs, then says that she has observed other actresses’ careers over the years, and she admires Goldie Hawn, an Oscar winner who earned fame as a comedienne but who stayed in funny roles too long, and now in her 60s still isn’t accepted by the public in darker, more dramatic roles. “I like to do a variety of things,” says Diaz carefully and slowly. “Like an animated film I’m preparing a voice for” — reputedly yet another “Shrek” sequel, but one she says she’s not allowed to talk about. “And I’m re-reading a script that’s a love story with a twist — partly comedic, and partly very sad.

“But I don’t initiate these projects, I can only choose from what I’m offered. So obviously when that juicy role does come along . . .”

A plum role something like Julia’s Roberts’ role in “Erin Brockovich,” perhaps?

She laughs. “Yeah. A true-to-life, ball-busting breakout role. Something I get to laugh and cry and scream in, and maybe with a sad ending, ’cause lots of times they give you an Academy Award if you end up dying or something.”

What, if anything, did she learn from working with Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”?

“Oh, that was real instructive,” she says. “I watched her a lot . . . I didn’t judge her. She was the star of the movie; all the characters reacted to what she did. Like, she tries to steal the man I’m about to marry, because she knows she should have gotten him to the altar first. With all Julia’s different moods, what I learned was the star really sets the mood — the pace — for production that day. If she’s in a bad mood, things’ll be tough for everyone.

“And if she’s happy that day, if she’s easygoing, then that gets reflected — in the mood of the other actors and the crew — and things’ll go smoother and quicker that day. So, well, I have my ups and downs in real life, like anyone. And I could have them more often when I’m working, except I learned from Julia’s example that it’s better to put yourself into a good mood, for everyone’s sake, so the work’s more pleasant for everyone and it goes quicker.” She adds, with a laugh, “And that way you can get home sooner!”

Would Diaz ever consider directing, a la Nancy Meyers?

She gives a small yelp of horror. “I wouldn’t consider it till I was at least 40! At least! No way. I have a private life. I love my life. I love being and staying in love, and I’m not going to discuss all that, but my point is that when you direct, and even more when you write a movie or cowrite and direct it, wow . . . you have no time for yourself for the . . . half year or year, whatever length it is that it takes to get that movie from A to Z to all done!”

What does Diaz think of her image, especially now in Japan (where she lived for a time during her teenage years while pursuing her modeling career), as an icon of girl power?

“Because of the (Softbank) ads? I think it’s great. I think it’s great they asked me! Not just because of the money. I mean because we live in modern times, and Japan, it’s famous for always being at the edge of technology, and then they choose me to advertise . . . it’s great, ’cause usually anything technology-oriented, they go with a guy, choose a male actor.

“But also I think partly it’s [the effect of] ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and maybe ’cause girls — in Japan and other places — they know I can kick butt!” She laughs. “I like guys. But if a guy messes with me, watch out! I have a short fuse.”

Now that Hispanics, rather than blacks, are the biggest minority in the U.S., has anything changed in the way that Diaz relates to her father’s heritage?

She stops to think. “I’m more influenced by growing up with a regular American childhood.” Her father worked as an oil company foreman and her mother was an export agent. “My dad didn’t share his culture much. It would be great to speak Spanish. It’s so useful in California and Florida, but . . . I do love guacamole. And someday I have to start reading books about Cubans and Hispanics and all that.”


What about playing a Latina on screen, like Jennifer Lopez in “Selena” (1997) and “Monster-In-Law” (2005)?

“They just don’t see me that way. I don’t get those scripts. Someday, maybe . . . but not so far. I wouldn’t say ‘no,’ not automatically, though I wouldn’t play that kind of role just to prove something. I don’t feel I have to prove anything,” she concludes, rather defensively.

Diaz did, in the past, have a Hispanic boyfriend, but her love life, we have been forewarned, is strictly off-limits. In January, she ended an almost four-year relationship with singer and teen idol Justin Timberlake, whose former girlfriend, singer Britney Spears, made public remarks about Timberlake, 26, being welcome to indulge his taste for “older women.”

She does, however, note that in her 2002 comedy “The Sweetest Thing,” a song was censored out. “The Penis Song” had Diaz singing with costars Christina Applegate and Selma Blair. “I don’t think men realized we were praising it,” she says. “They felt nervous or threatened. It’s OK for them to talk or sing about our body parts, but I guess it’s not OK for us to sing about theirs. It was a cute song.” Another song didn’t even get recorded because the producers couldn’t license the hit “Pin~a Colada” since the film’s makers were going to retitle it “Penis Colossal.” Apparently most of this actress’s comedies have an erotic undertone.

Finally, when asked what about her might surprise or intrigue her fans, she suddenly shifts gears, hurtling into an answer without pausing. “I surprised my dad, and I’m sure some Americans would be surprised — I don’t know if Japanese would be surprised,” she says. “I stopped eating pork, which is a big ingredient in Cuban food, which my father loves; it’s the one part of his culture he did share with us.”

And why did she stop? “I learned that pigs, which I’d always heard were very intelligent animals, they have the same intellectual capacity as a human 3-year-old. And my niece was three at the time I found this out . . . So you can imagine how I felt, and hopefully appreciate why I stopped eating pork.

“Chickens — I mean chickens! — they’re never very intelligent. But pigs are.”

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