Benjamin Bratt for “Miss Congeniality”

He was the hunky star of Law and Order and now he’s one of the hardest working movie stars around, showing his diversity as an FBI agent opposite Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, an astronaut in Red Planet and unrecognisable as a hit man in Steven Soderbergh’s critically lauded Traffic. And he’s not about to rule out a return to the series that launched his career. A very charming and open Mr Bratt talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles about his career and even about his other major love, one Julia Roberts.

Benjamin Bratt is sporting a small goatee that enhances his charm. Feeling relaxed and typically serene, the former star of TV’s Law and Order quit the award-winning cop show to smell the roses and take a break. But somehow things didn’t quite pan out the way the actor had planned. “I’m on a real roll. Since I left Law and Order, I’ve made six films. The whole reason I left Law and Order was I wanted to have a life. That show is a huge commitment,” Bratt explains. Best Thing. Then came the independent film Pinero, a bio movie about the playwright Miguel Pinero, and then it was on to the sci-fi drama Red Planet which was filmed in Australia.

Next, Bratt spent a month in Belize filming the cable TV movie After the Storm, based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. As soon as that film wrapped, Bratt shaved his beard and flew directly to Texas to star opposite Sandra Bullock in the comedy Miss Congeniality. “When the offer came in for Miss Congeniality I actually thought of saying no because I was so exhausted. Then I looked at who was already cast,” he said. “I would be giving up working opposite America’s sweetheart (Bullock), a British knight (Michael Caine), Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Saying yes was a no-brainer”.

The film revolves around Gracie Hart (Bullock) who has dreamed of emulating the career of her mother, a highly esteemed FBI agent who died in the line of duty. Unfortunately, Gracie’s aggressive nature has branded her as a loose cannon, and the only one in the bureau who actually believes in her is fellow agent and friend, Eric Matthews (Bratt). When a terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant.

Unfortunately, Gracie is the only female FBI agent who can “look the part” despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being “just one of the boys” and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl. To assist her with the emergency assignment, the bureau enlists the help of Victor Melling, (Caine) an obsessive and pompous pageant consultant, to transform Gracie from a “woman without a detectable smidgen of oestrogen” to “Gracie Lou Freebush,” glamorous beauty queen. Transformation complete, Gracie must get comfortable with the mercilessly driven and perfectly coifed contestants, infiltrate the pageant and thwart the terrorists.

Bratt says that part of the attraction to Congeniality, was the Pygmalion theme running through the comedy. “People love to see makeovers. You know what it is about fashion magazines or in television or in a film, people love to see that transformation. It’s a lot of fun to watch it occur, and I think, you know, Sandra is a brilliant comedienne. She exacted everything”. Bratt remained in awe at the way in which Bullock “is fearless at making stuff look stupid or foolish. She has no fear when it comes to poking fun at herself and that’s really the joy in working with someone like that because, in a role like this, you have to commit one hundred percent”.

It was risky for the actor to leave Law and Order, risky that he might get typecast as a cop. In Miss Congeniality, he can’t escape that image. “I’m still the man with the badge and the gun. What’s that all about? I’ve never been able to figure that out because I would say the majority of the roles I’ve played in thirteen years as a professional actor have been either cops or agents or … park rangers, the guy with the gun strapped down the side. I don’t know what that’s about. I think it’s a curse I have. I have to check morality and integrity. That’s it”, he concludes laughingly.

Bratt sees his character, Agent Eric Matthews, as “that guy we all went to high school, or college, with. He’s really an archetype. He’s that cocky, red-blooded American who thinks he’s good at everything and is so self-assured, and he fancies himself a ladies’ man and everything else. He’s so broadly painted that he’s like the side of a barn with a red target painted on it. He’s really easy to poke fun at, and really easy and really fun to play”.

Bratt had such a ball making Miss Congeniality that he was even happy to endure some physical pain during production, he recalls laughingly. In an early scene, Bratt and Bullock engage in some competitive wrestling, and that sense of on-screen competition continued in real life between the actors. “Both of us went at it gung ho, and I realized that I was easy on her and realized rather quickly that there’s no going easy on her because she’s coming at me full throttle, so I gave it right back to her. By the end of the day she was the last man, [or woman] standing. I went back to the hotel room with a twisted neck and a sore back, but she helped me out. She sent me a masseuse from out of town”.

That’s Sandra all right – Miss Congeniality both on and off the screen. “It’s so boring but true. I wish there was some really twisted nasty stories I could tell you about her. The worst thing I could say is that she is an addict of sorts – to ice cream. But in all honesty she is a remarkable person, an amazing actress and a very good producer. Bratt adds that the thing he finds most appealing about her is that “she’s one of the best kinds of human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. She’s truly generous. It’s really nice to watch her interact with people who are just passing by when we were shooting on the street or extras who come up to her, approach her, she is as kind to them as she is to people loves and cares about, is working with”.

Others are as complimentary of the gentle Bratt, none other than his high profile girlfriend Julia Roberts, who began dating the actor since 1997. In a recent interview, Roberts mentioned that no matter how handsome Bratt was, he remains a much kinder person even than his handsomeness. Asked to respond in kind, Bratt chooses his words carefully. “I think it speaks volumes that I think the answer is in the fact that we’ve chosen each other to spend our time with. As far as I know, you only get one shot at this life. It only goes round once and time is precious. When I’m not working, you’d better spend that time with someone important. She’s certainly one of them”. There was a time when Bratt refused to discuss the relationship with the press, but this Benjamin is more open than in days gone bye. “Julia and I don’t focus on our relationship so we’d prefer others didn’t either. Having Julia in my life is just one part of being in this happy light that is my life these days”.

And in dealing with celebrityism, Bratt now adopts a more philosophical approach to the prying eyes of the press. “You know, I understand what it is. And I acknowledge that I didn’t know the choice that I made as a performer, was to be in the public eye but as I said I also understand that there’s a natural curiosity with what private lives must be like. But I also think that, as a fellow human being, I should be accorded a level of privacy and respect as anyone else. So, it’s a delicate balance and some of the things that are written or speculated, rumours that have circulated, you’ve gotta just laugh at them and have a sense of humour about them and not take them so seriously. You know. It’s hard to do that sometimes. I’m not so good at that”.

Bratt is on a roll, with his love for Julia and his renewed passion for acting. He’s a genuinely nice guy who loves to act. Bratt even admits to a possible return to series television. “I don’t think that there is any longer a dark shadow cast over actors who work in television, so I would readily go back”. Even though Bratt says he is having a good time doing films that he does concede that he would love to reprise the role of Detective Curtis in Law and Order. “Dick Wolfe and I have remained friends and we have actually talked about possibly doing a two or three episode arc”.

To display his diversity, Bratt took a two-day break from Miss Congeniality to film a scene opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones in Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming drama Traffic. “I begged big time for that part. I’m like everyone else in Hollywood these days who’ll make any concession to work with Soderbergh,” says Bratt, who knows first-hand just how much actors will sacrifice to be in a Soderbergh movie. Soderbergh directed Roberts in Erin Brockovich, which will surely earn the actress an Oscar nomination, and Roberts is forgoing her $20-million US salary to star in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven which begins filming in January.

Life is good for young Benjamin – both on and off the screen. And he’s now the first to admit it.