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AT THE MOVIES

She's not blind to her looks

But versatility, not beauty, is Jessica Alba's aim.

January 31, 2008|Brooke Hauser | Special to The Times

This spring, Jessica Alba will give birth to her first child with fiance and movie producer Cash Warren. But on a recent evening, the 26-year-old star was anticipating another due date: the release of "The Eye," a remake of the Pang brothers' 2002 Hong Kong thriller. Alba stars in the film as a blind musician who, after receiving a dead woman's eyes in a double corneal transplant, is haunted by hellish visions.

"I want people to talk to the screen and be like, 'It's behind you!' 'Get out of there!' " says Alba, giggling gleefully. "I think that's fun."

Alba is actually a bit of a closet horror fan. As a kid, she used to hide behind her parents' couch to sneak peeks of scary movies such as "Hellraiser" and "Friday the 13th," as well as Hitchcock classics. And she once took a date to see "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to ensure maximum cuddle time. "When you're just starting to get used to the opposite sex, it's a great icebreaker," she says, her voice cracking ever so slightly.

While she still likes getting her thrills and chills, "The Eye" appealed to Alba because "it has some humanity to it," she says. "Nobody's getting mutilated." She also saw it as a chance to challenge herself and, in the process, perhaps even change the way audiences see blind people. "I wanted her to get her disability when she got her sight," the star says of her character, a concert violinist. "It's kind of a reverse of how everyone feels about this handicap."

As a character study, "The Eye" marks a bit of a departure for Alba, who is perhaps better known for her bikini-perfect body than for her acting chops, despite being serious about her craft.

On this January evening, the mommy-to-be was in full nesting mode in her L.A. home, awaiting the arrival of her friend and stunt double from "Fantastic Four" for some girly bonding time ("I might do nails") before heading to the Sundance Film Festival to support "Made in America," a new documentary from Stacy Peralta about gang violence that Warren co-produced.

Alba is more than comfortable with a peripatetic lifestyle. Her father served in the Air Force, and she moved around a great deal as a child, spending time in California, Mississippi and Texas. Growing up, she and her older brother, Joshua, enjoyed all the staples of a Mexican American household -- though the actress is also of Danish and French ancestry. She remembers dinners of carne asada, rice and beans, and tripe soup, as well as "tortillas with every single meal -- even spaghetti."

By high school, Alba had embarked on an acting career, filming the TV series "Flipper" in Australia and being privately tutored on the set. Later, when she returned to Southern California to continue acting on TV shows, including "Chicago Hope," she found herself searching for a real sense of identity. "It was a weird time," recalls the actress. "I wanted to figure out my purpose in life."

Performing helped give her that sense of direction. After taking an acting class with William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman at New York's Atlantic Theater Company, Alba got her first big break, starring as a genetically enhanced action hero on the television series "Dark Angel," created by "Titanic" director James Cameron. Since then, she has played a host of "hottie" roles, including a sexy scuba diver in "Into the Blue" and a sweet-natured stripper in Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," a movie that required the star to do her homework.

Among the tips Alba picked up while shadowing strippers for "Sin City": To deal with anxiety, down a shot and stare at one spot on the wall. At the time, the experience was quite a reality check for the sheltered actress, who had been anticipating a little more glitz and a little less grit.

"You know, you saw Demi Moore in 'Striptease' and you're like, 'Oh, my God, it's the most glamorous thing ever!' " Alba says. "And it's not. . . . So, I watched Beyonce videos and channeled her."

"The Eye" offered the actress a very different kind of challenge. Alba's preparation for the role began a few years ago when she started eschewing lunch breaks for violin lessons in her trailer on the set of "Fantastic Four" and later "Good Luck Chuck." ("My costars would hear the violin and they'd go, 'Rrrehh, rrrehh.' You know, it sounds really bad," she says, laughing.)

She also worked with a blind consultant and attended a blind orientation center. There, she began learning how to read and write basic Braille and walk with a cane while wearing sleep shades. "When you get over the shock of not being able to see, you definitely get more attuned to the rest of your senses," the star says of the experience. "I became more sensitive."

Certainly, her impending motherhood will help Alba develop an entirely new skill set in her personal life, but professionally she's continuing to expand her horizons. Next up she's set to appear opposite Mike Myers in "The Love Guru," but beyond that, she's looking for roles that will demonstrate her versatility. Most of all, Alba, who admires Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning transformation in "Monster," wants to be seen as a multifaceted actress who can take on any role.

"I'm not really attached to my appearance," she confesses. "I know I can get dressed up and look like something. But what's more of a challenge is someone allowing you to play that role and letting you go there -- having a director and writers believe in you. To do something where I got to just concentrate on the performance and discover, that's the ultimate, as far as I'm concerned."

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