LOS ANGELES — She’s one of the most looked-at women on the planet, but these days, Jessica Alba isn’t looking at much of anything.
“I totally appreciate the stuff [I usually do],” the “Sin City” stunner said last week on the set of her latest movie. “But you know what? It’s a lot more interesting for me to play someone who is blind and a classical violin player than someone who is running around in the rain wearing a white T-shirt.”
In one of the most daring moves of her young career, Alba is spending her days stumbling around the dingy streets of downtown L.A. for “The Eye.” It’s a gritty reinterpretation of the cult Hong Kong thriller “Jian Gui” and casts the actress as a sightless violinist whose cornea transplant gives her an unwanted peek into the world of the supernatural. The high-profile autumn release has Alba working for producer Tom Cruise (a huge fan of the original film) and has forced Alba to stroll considerably outside her comfort zone.
“I had wanted to do it for a long time,” she said of her first thriller. Dressed in a turtleneck, slacks and a trench coat your mother might find at Ann Taylor, Alba is certainly a long way from her “Into the Blue” bikini. “This, I think, is really intelligent. It’s a beautiful story about this girl’s journey gaining her sight and dealing with never having had it. Gaining it, and then losing her sanity. It just happens to be wrapped up in a horror movie.”
An immensely successful horror movie, in fact, that has spawned two sequels overseas and recently launched an American career for its Asian creators, Danny and Oxide Pang (the directing brothers’ “The Messengers” debuted at #1 in February; see ” ’Messengers’ Scares Up A Box-Office Win Over Love-Struck Mandy Moore “ ). For obvious reasons, the film seems destined for comparisons to such imports as “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” but Alba’s leading man insists “The Eye” will give American audiences something unique to look at.
“The challenge, anytime you’re making a movie in a tried-and-tested genre, is to bring something that feels different about it,” Alessandro Nivola (“Jurassic Park III”) said of the mission facing himself and Alba, along with co-star Parker Posey. “Increasingly, the horror movies I’ve seen dispense with any kind of attempt to create a reality in the world of the film. It’s just one ghoulish moment after another.
“This was the perfect movie for Jessica to do also, because she has ambitions to be taken seriously as an actress,” Nivola continued, watching Alba prepare for a scene that had her blind character struggling to get out of a cab. “She hasn’t, until now, really had the opportunity to do a role that enabled her to play a real [person].”
In order to play the part, Alba embarked on an ambitious training schedule that had her ducking into her trailer between takes on this summer’s “Fantastic Four” sequel so she could grab a violin and practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Asked about the instrument, Alba offered a frown and a two-word answer: “It’s impossible.”
“All the notes are accurate. I am playing the actual notes of the music,” she said of what the audience will see. “But [on set], it just sounds like a cat in heat.”
Nevertheless, as a symbol of her commitment to be taken seriously, Alba has refused to give up. “I average an hour-and-a-half practice,” she said. “When I can, it’s three hours, but yesterday it was just 15 minutes during my lunch. We’re working 15-hour days, so I only had 15 minutes to study this wonderful piece that [directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud] chose for the movie, which is very difficult. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but that’s why we are in this crazy-ass business.”
Alba insists that she’s also in this crazy-ass business to tell the story of real people, and she’s slowly but surely getting to do more of it. “Sure, ’Fantastic Four’ is a big Hollywood comic book movie, but what attracted me to it was that the female superhero was a maternal figure,” she said. “[Sue Storm] is in a family dynamic, and that to me was much more interesting than a girl who was just in leather, being sexy, cutting people’s heads off.
“Here, I want to represent musicians and people who are blind in the best way I can,” she continued. “So I don’t take it lightly. It’s a nice challenge to have.”
She’s met the challenge with research and has since learned a great deal about a world she knew little about. “I would go around my house, and I walked with a cane, with sleep shades on in complete darkness,” Alba explained. “You get really claustrophobic. I mean, even just drinking water or anything, you just get really claustrophobic. There has been a few little panic attacks and nightmares about being blind. It’s a really different reality.
“Now, I look for Braille everywhere,” she added. “[Often at restaurants], there are no menus in Braille. If someone is not sighted and they are at a restaurant, they just have to trust whoever is reading the menu to them. On soda [containers] at McDonald’s, they have a little bit of Braille on the lid. I just wasn’t really aware of these things.”
Jessica Alba is spending her days and nights trying not to look at anything — in many ways, however, she’s seeing some things for the very first time.
“The Eye” continues shooting for the next few weeks. The thriller is targeting an October 12 release.
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