Even at the pinnacle of the Hollywood hierarchy, there are many degrees of fame. Some A-listers can go about their lives relatively unhassled by autograph seekers and tabloid photographers, provided they steer clear of sex scandals and DUIs. Sarah Jessica Parker, for instance, can often be spotted dining at one of the sidewalk cafés near her home in New York’s West Village, nary a lensman in sight. And Uma Thurman is able to handle school pickups and drop-offs without anyone causing a fuss. But then there are stars like Cameron Diaz, who, try as they might, never seem to get a break from the madness—even in a tiny mountaintop village in Peru.
Last year, Diaz journeyed to South America as a guest host of the Canadian travel show 4Real. The idea was for her to visit a young shaman in the Peruvian hamlet of Chinchero, where he leads spirit ceremonies and dispenses medicinal herbs. One would imagine this remote region to be among the few places on earth where Diaz wouldn’t have to deal with the paparazzi (or “motherf—ers,” as she’s called them), but, alas, that was not to be. “We couldn’t go anywhere without people being like, ‘Cameron! Cameron!’” recalls 4Real’s producer and host, Sol Guy. “And there were paparazzi everywhere, pushing and shoving us.”
The frenzy reached its apex when the show visited Machu Picchu, the so-called “lost city of the Incas.” As Diaz and her crew were standing on a cliffside spot from which the view is most majestic, a gaggle of tired-looking women in grubby cargo pants arrived, having just hiked four days to take in the vistas. And were they appropriately awed, after their long uphill trek, at the picture postcard–worthy sight before them? Nope. They hardly seemed to notice—they were too busy gawking at Diaz and begging her to pose for photos.
On a dreary February day in New York, there are, thankfully, no such scenes when Diaz shows up for her interview at Gemma, the restaurant in the trendy Bowery Hotel. It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Thursday, and the dining room is deserted, just as she had planned it. As she enters, the actress, who is running a few minutes behind schedule, breaks into a mincing slo-mo jog, bouncing across the room and faux-frantically waving her long arms. “I’m so sorry,” she says when she arrives at the table, practically somersaulting onto the leather banquette. “Mercury is in retrograde, and that messes with technology, and I was trying to get on e-mail to approve something, and my computer kept crashing….” And with that she starts rubbing her mouth against her cowl-neck sweater, then furiously wiping her lips with her hands. “I feel like I have stuff all over my mouth. Do I have, like, gunk on my lips? Am I grossing you out?” she asks, dissolving into a fit of giggles. “It’s like, eewwww, gross!”
It’s this image of Diaz that fans know best—the hot babe who’s not afraid to look like a big ol’ dork, burping, tripping over her feet and blurting out ditzy things. At this year’s Oscars, Diaz’s presentation almost seemed self-parody; she bungled “cinematography,” pronouncing it “cinnamon-atography” before quickly recovering her poise and hamming it up for the crowd with an exaggerated “Oh, I can do it!” On a recent episode of Oprah she called in to commend her best friend Drew Barrymore’s million-dollar donation to the World Food Programme and ended up babbling on so long that Winfrey had to step in and cut her off practically midsentence.
This goofy-meets-gorgeous combination has proved to be a winning one: According to The Hollywood Reporter, she’s the third-highest paid actress in Hollywood (after Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie), commanding $15 million a movie. For her work in last year’s Shrek the Third, she reportedly took home twice that, thanks to a profit-sharing deal.
In her latest film, What Happens in Vegas, opening in May, the slapstick Diaz again comes out to play. She stars as Joy McNally, an uptight Wall Street trader who, after a bad breakup, heads to Sin City for a weekend of fun. There, she meets a ne’er-do-well furniture maker (Ashton Kutcher) and, after a night of drunken groping, ends up marrying him in a quickie wedding chapel. The next morning, of course, the two realize that they kind of hate each other. But before they can annul their union they win a $3 million slot machine jackpot together, and a judge orders them to live as man and wife for six months or forfeit the cash. They shack up in his filthy bachelor pad, undergo court-ordered couples counseling with Queen Latifah and, well, you can guess what happens in the end.
The movie is hardly Shakespeare—or even romantic comedy on the level of The Holiday, thanks to a few too many gags about leaving the toilet seat up—but Diaz and Kutcher have palpable chemistry and look great together, sort of like the homecoming king and queen of Hollywood. The costars were already attached to the project when director Tom Vaughan (Starter for 10) was approached about the film, and that, he says, was “the major reason to make the movie. I thought, Why has no one done this before? It’s so obvious.”
Diaz signed on because, she says, “I just really wanted to spend the summer having a good time and laughing and enjoying myself.” And, from the sound of it, she did. The early scenes are shot in Las Vegas, a city she’s grown quite fond of after 15 years of wild weekends at the craps and roulette tables. “I looooove Vegas. It’s such an easy trip from L.A., and there’s always a hotel room because there’s about a billion of them,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “but honestly, you don’t even really need one if you’re just going for the weekend!”
It was New York, however, where the film was shot for three months, that really made an impression on Diaz. She spent Sundays hanging out in Central Park and getting lost in the endless nooks and crannies of the city just like any other newcomer. “You can walk down the street and end up in a gallery or some wonderful ethnic-food restaurant, or you can stop in a shop that sells, I don’t know, staplers from all over the world!” she enthuses, sounding, endearingly, more like a tourist than a movie star. “You don’t get that in L.A.—that kind of, I don’t know, specialty.”
The cast and crew took to spending Saturday nights at Sing Sing, an East Village karaoke bar where, says Diaz, “there’d be 30 of us in this really tiny room screaming at the top of our lungs. All of a sudden it would be four in the morning and we’d have no idea what time it was, no idea how long we’d been there, and nobody would be ready to go home. It was awesome.”
Kutcher, for one, doesn’t think Diaz is ready for a recording contract. “It’s tough to beat me rocking out to ‘Sister Christian,’” he says. “But Cameron gets an A for effort.”
Diaz went so gaga for New York that, in the end, she decided to make the city her second home. Though the Southern California native insists she’ll never sell her house on the West Coast (“My family’s there, so I’d never just leave”), she recently purchased a place in Manhattan, reportedly a West Village two-bedroom with an asking price of just under $3 million. “You know, bicoasssstal,” she says, drawing out the word in a mock pretentious way. For Diaz, what’s most appealing about the city, aside from the exotic stapler shops, is the fact that, she says, “I can actually have a life.” While there’s no escaping the paparazzi—even atop the Andes, as she’s learned—she finds it easier on the East Coast, where, unlike in Los Angeles, a mob of photographers isn’t permanently stationed outside her door. “I’m done with L.A.,” she proclaims, sounding, for the first time, less like kooky Cameron and more like a woman who’s not afraid to piss a few people off. “Those guys [the paparazzi], you can’t get away from them. You have no options because everybody’s in a car. Here, I can walk down the street like everybody else.” In New York, she adds, “not everybody is there to be rich and famous or attach themselves to rich and famous people. People want nothing from you. They just want to say, like, ‘Hey, how’s it going, Cameron?’ I like that interaction. I like to be in a place where I can be open to people and not worry about the consequences.”
Diaz’s Los Angeles weariness pops up again when she’s asked whether, as a kid growing up in Long Beach, she ever dreamed of being a movie star. “Oh, no. I wanted to be a zoologist, to study the sociology of animals,” she says. “But that’s pretty much what I do now anyway. I thought I’d be on the plains of Africa watching lions, but instead I’m in Hollywood watching train wrecks.” And then she busts out laughing and adds hastily, “I’m just kidding.”
The decision to lay down roots in New York comes after a year of big changes for Diaz. In January 2007, she and Justin Timberlake announced that they were breaking off their relationship after nearly four years. Though both insisted publicly that the split was amicable, the tabloids reported that Diaz had a meltdown over Timberlake’s quick bounce into a romance with Jessica Biel and engaged in a series of rebound flings with everyone from surfer Kelly Slater and rainforest explorer David de Rothschild to musician John Mayer. Diaz won’t comment on any of it—“I’m in love with love. I’m in love with life,” she offers evasively when asked about the current state of her romantic life—but she will say that the past year has been a momentous one. “This year I just sort of decided, you know, there’s a lot of things that I’ve been wanting to do, and I’m going to do them,” she says.
On the list, in addition to spending more time in New York, are traveling—the Peru trip, in particular, she calls “amazing”—and developing charity projects, which, she says, “I’m not ready to talk about yet because they’re not totally up and running, and I don’t want to mess them up by talking about them too soon.” Another goal: “Just kind of taking more time getting to know myself. It sounds so corny that I can’t believe I even just said that, but, you know, there comes a time when you really have to get to know who you are.”
Though she’s not eager to explain exactly how she’s doing that—“I’ve just been figuring out what interests me and spending time with people who are important to me and being present in my own life,” she says—if her recent schedule is any indication, she’s approaching her career with newfound ambition. After finishing Vegas, Diaz, an actress not exactly known as a workaholic (“I usually do, like, a film every year or two,” she says with a laugh) went straight into The Box, the third film from Donnie Darko writer-director Richard Kelly. The thriller centers on a couple who receive a mysterious box containing a button that, if pushed, will grant them a million dollars. The twist: If they push the button, somewhere in the world someone they don’t know will die. “I think she’s a different actress than she was before we started this film,” says Kelly. “Her character goes through a really intense emotional experience, and she put everything she had into it. I don’t know if she’s ever worked as hard as she did on this movie.”
A month after wrapping The Box, Diaz was on the set of the even darker Nick Cassavetes drama My Sister’s Keeper, in which she plays the mother of a seriously ill child who conceives a second baby to serve as a donor match.
But despite the killjoy potential of both movies, Diaz, of course, managed to have a little fun. Says James Marsden, her costar in The Box: “There were scenes where we were meant to be very disturbed or pontificating, and I’d look over at Cameron, and she’d just be cracking up. It was like in second grade when you’d get the church giggles—you start laughing because it’s the exact time and place when you’re not supposed to, and then you can’t stop. There were a couple of hours of shooting lost to this kind of thing.”
“What do you mean? It wasn’t supposed to be funny?” jokes Diaz when asked about such incidents. “They sold it to me as a comedy! But seriously, just because there are heavy aspects to a movie doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re making it. Yes, there are going to be dark moments, but there are also going to be moments when we’re all laughing.”
Diaz, of all people, hardly needs to justify her right to a good giggle. At 35, she remains one of the most wanted women in Hollywood, with the body of a college coed, a résumé packed with hits and the freedom to choose her projects however she sees fit. After My Sister’s Keeper, she says, “I envision a full year off, just living life and having fun. It’s the best thing.” Still, the actress has lately realized that true bliss doesn’t come without effort. “I think sometimes people are afraid to say that they’re happy—they feel guilty about it,” she says, including herself in that conflicted group. “My life isn’t perfect. I have my struggles; everybody does. But I want to appreciate all of the amazing things in my life. People should have the right to be happy.” Even movie stars, apparently.