Skip to main content
bigger picture

Vincent D'Onofrio, left, and Sandra Bullock star in the Netflix film The Unforgivable.KIMBERLEY FRENCH/NETFLIX © 2021/Netflix

Sandra Bullock doesn’t see her characters as heroic. “Heroes know they’re successes,” she says during a recent Zoom interview. “In my work, I never feel there’s a heroism that I can relate to or project or understand or feel confident in.”

I don’t agree. To me, Bullock, 57, has been exploring a new kind of female heroism in her work for years, in the projects she acts in and often produces. It percolates under the comedy of The Heat, the cynicism of Our Brand is Crisis, and the caper of Ocean’s Eight, but is more evident in the relationship dramas of The Blind Side (for which she won the best actress Oscar), Gravity and Bird Box (her first Netflix film). Her characters aren’t superheroes; they are heroes of the slog – women who rise to face challenges they didn’t create and don’t want.

In her new Netflix film The Unforgivable, Bullock’s latest character, Ruth Slater, is a hero of persistence. Ruth sacrificed her own youth to raise her much younger sister Katie, and then served 20 years in prison for the fatal shooting of a cop who was trying to take Katie away. (Based on the British series Unforgiven, it’s set in Washington State but was shot in Burnaby, B.C.)

We meet Ruth as she’s released, and then watch her tough it out in a town that loathes her – she defends herself in a grimy halfway house, works the graveyard shift in a fish plant, enlists the help of a sympathetic lawyer and his skeptical wife (Vincent D’Onofrio and Viola Davis). All with one goal – to persuade the couple who adopted Katie (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) to let her back into her sister’s life.

It’s an intensely physical role: Ruth beheads salmon, builds walls (she’s a trained carpenter), slams other women around. Bullock doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her – her sharp cheekbones and sinewy arms tell their own story. As well, for half the movie Ruth barely speaks, “so her physicality was everything,” Bullock says. “Ruth is someone who spent 20 years in the position of defence – who is no stranger to violence; who is not posturing to look a certain way. It was a battle every day – what to say and what not to. Because what we don’t say was often more important than what we do say. It’s all about survival, and looking over your shoulder.”

That physicality was also “a release and a relief” for Bullock. During the interview, she was speaking from a beautifully lit, elegant room, her grooming impeccable as always. But playing Ruth, “my body just relaxed and became what it was supposed to be for that time – from how I sat, to my stance, to how I used my hands,” the actor says. “I didn’t care what I looked like.”

Shooting began a month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, paused for six months, and then resumed in September, 2020. But Bullock’s lack of concern about her self-presentation lasted long after the film wrapped. Emerging back into “the real world,” her first thought was, “You can’t keep being like this – pull it together.” Then she gave herself a talking-to: Why couldn’t she stop accommodating others’ expectations? Who was she posturing for?

“It was a big existential thing that happened,” she says. “Being physical, and angry, and not being apologetic was really nice, I gotta say – because women are not supposed to feel that. But guess what? We do. We are just expected to not show it.”

So isn’t that a kind of female heroism? Bullock still isn’t having it. “I’m a mother,” she says. “I feel like a constant failure.” (She adopted her son in 2010 and her daughter in 2015.) “How can you be a hero if every day you say, ‘Please let me succeed today where I failed yesterday’?”

She feels the same about her work: “Maybe I keep taking jobs because maybe this one will feel like I’ve accomplished the right thing and been 100 per cent,” Bullock says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be there, but that might just be the plight of being an actor. We never feel we’ve done it.”

She will admit to being proud that her children are “safe, kind, happy, smart, funny, unique and who they’re supposed to be.” And for each film she’s done, she knows exactly what she was experiencing in her own life at the time, and what she was trying to say. The Unforgivable is a paean to her daughter, Laila, who was in foster care before Bullock adopted her when she was 3.

“It’s about what Laila must have gone through, and what I had to learn and prove of myself, to prove I was worthy of her,” Bullock says. “I learned so much of a world that broke my heart – and which is predominantly that way because of poverty. Ruth is a product of the system. She tried to mother Katie, when she herself never had a mother. There will be so many children who can look at this and relate.”

Bullock became a producer to “fight for the unusual, fight for the storytelling I’ve always dreamed of,” she says. “If my film is going to bomb, I want to make sure I’ve done everything I possibly could for its success. I’m the actor, so I’m the perfect tool – I can throw a fit if we’re not getting what we need.”

Her work is her way of journaling, of sharing her concerns at each stage of her life. And this stage includes some big questions. “Why don’t we make more stories about the sacrifices in less advantaged communities?” Bullock asks. “Why do we only shine a light on what looks pretty, and is digestible, and doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable? Why can’t we feel inspired by a story that initially makes us judge, then at the end you realize you were judging because you were seeing with the wrong eyes?”

Perhaps that’s why Bullock is resisting my choice of words. She’s not trying to be a hero – she’s trying to be a human.

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.