Sandra Bullock’s latest character, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, is a ruthless political consultant given to rattling off guileful quotes from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. She’s damn good at her job, tends to pull frat-boy pranks when on a bender and couldn’t care less if she doesn’t have a date lined up. In Hollywood shorthand, she’s as ornery as Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and wilier than George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven. And if Jane Bodine sounds two steps beyond tomboy, that’s because she was a he in the original script for Bullock’s new film, Our Brand Is Crisis, in theaters Oct. 30. Inspired by pugnacious political hit man James Carville, the role called for a swaggering archetype–Clooney was once attached to the part–which is exactly why Bullock wanted it for herself.
For generations, top actresses fed up with playing the adoring wife or eye candy have bemoaned the relative dearth of meaty roles for women–the kind that bring Meryl Streep awards acclaim on an annual basis. Despite Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side and a worldwide box-office take of nearly $5 billion, she struggled in recent years to find challenging scripts that didn’t ask her to don another spacesuit for a Gravity copycat or play another thorny-on-the-outside but goofy-on-the-inside singleton. Where were all the great roles? Apparently, they were sitting in Clooney’s slush pile. So she asked her agent to start sending her parts written for men.
“I thought of it a couple years ago before I did The Heat, when I was looking for comedies,” Bullock says on a recent morning at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, sipping tea with Our Brand Is Crisis producer Grant Heslov and director David Gordon Green. “I said, ‘I want to do what Jim Carrey’s doing.’ I was looking for something he didn’t want.”
Consider that sentence: despite being one of the most bankable actresses in the world, Bullock wanted to scoop up the crumbs from Carrey’s banquet table. Imagine the parts women merely nominated for Oscars must be offered.
It’s not just an issue of character depth; it’s one of sheer volume. Among last year’s 100 top-grossing films, 12 featured female protagonists. Of all the speaking characters, only 30% were women, according to research from Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University, who began issuing an annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report in 1998 to lay bare Hollywood’s gender gap.
Now 51, an age at which Hollywood generally starts relegating actresses to secondary roles such as high school principal, judge or grandmother, Bullock didn’t have much to lose by approaching producers with her flip-the-script scheme. “I figured, What are they going to say? No? I hear no a lot. I’m used to it.” – TIME