Out of the Box

Cameron DiazStaying on top is often the hardest role a Hollywood actress can play when her 40s are looming. Some manage with sheer force of a talent that can’t be ignored, like Meryl Streep. Some steer popularity into clout, like Drew Barrymore, now a successful and prolific producer. You can simply be blonde and beautiful, but with armies of starlets not even old enough to drive dressing like porn stars, your days are numbered.

Cameron Diaz has done all the above to varying degrees, but mostly she’s stayed on her game for so long by having one of the most varied acting careers in the business. Like many young actresses, her big break was playing eye candy, as love interest Tina in 1994 Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask.

While her contemporaries traded on their popularity to appear in bigger and bigger films, Diaz did the thought provoking, little seen ensemble drama The Last Supper. With Hollywood in the palm of her hand following There’s Something About Mary, she was barely recognisable in Spike Jonze’s enigmatic Being John Malkovich.

Diaz has her feet firmly between worlds again in Richard Kelly’s new film The Box, not just the arthouse and multiplex, but drama and science fiction. It’s a film Kelly needs to succeed. After his auspicious 2001 debut Donnie Darko tagged him a young director to watch his next effort was 2006’s Southland Tales, which received a critical pasting and barely scraped back $250,000 of its $15m budget.

Perhaps mindful of the bafflement felt by Southland Tales’ many critics (and small number of viewers), Kelly tones down the mind-bending in The Box, instead using distinctive period setting and production design to make his mark. But it’s still a Richard Kelly film, so you’ll spend at last some of the time with furrowed brow. Ask Diaz herself put it when we spoke to her on the phone from LA “Did you expect to know what was going on?”

In signing on to Kelly’s film, it looks like Diaz is continuing a carefully crafted career plan to combine the mainstream with more challenging movies. “Who has time to make conscious decisions?” the 37 year old jokes. “When it comes to work I’ve done everything from the gut. I wanted to make this movie because I wanted to make it with Richard. You really can’t plan anything, I just do what makes sense to me. It’s like a rhythm in a song, sometimes you’re upbeat and then you go into the bridge and come back out and you follow different rhythms. This film just came at a certain rhythm.”

Unlike many other successful actresses, Diaz is yet to produce, although a project is slated for 2011. Instead, she places her fate in the hands of some of today’s most distinctive filmmakers. “That’s why I do my job. I’m not a director, I don’t want to spend a year on a movie figuring out every part of it. My job is to tell my character’s story in the time I’m given. I hopefully give the filmmaker as much as I can to help their story.”

Like she did in Being John Malkovich with a frizzy wig, thick glasses and frumpy garb and In Her Shoes as a functional illiterate, Diaz isn’t afraid of imperfect people. It’s something she again explores in The Box as Norma, who finds walking painful after losing the toes of one foot in a childhood accident and gives the character the gravity of minor, everyday suffering many people face. For a 5’8″ blonde, sun-kissed, southern Californian former model to play so many characters with disabilities is interesting to say the least. Maybe she’s trying to tell us even beautiful blondes who command $20m a picture have problems.

“We’re all human,” she says. “Every human being has the same exact experience and we’re all just trying to do the best we can. We all have our struggles. We all fall down. We all pick ourselves up. What this film shows is that we all make decisions that have consequences, even with your best intentions, no matter who you are.”

While many of us wish we could have the same experiences Diaz has, such connection with the humanity of her characters — whether a CG animated princess (Shrek) or bored trust fund kid turned bank robber (A Life Less Ordinary) — has worked for her so far. Now a bona fide Hollywood veteran, not even forty but with a 15-year career under her belt, it looks like a work ethic that’s here to stay.