Throughout the course of her movie career, Sandra Bullock has sparred with a psychotic bus bomber, a cryogenically defrosted supervillain, and murderous cyberterrorists. But nothing quite prepared her for coming face-to-face with the real-life woman she plays in “The Blind Side”: a feisty Southern spitfire named Leigh Anne Tuohy.
“Leigh Anne scared me from the minute she opened the door,” Bullock says. “I was sitting in a chair in her house with my little hands folded in my lap. I couldn't say anything.”
“The Blind Side” is a testament to Tuohy's bulldozer personality and the fervor of her motherly love. Adapted from a book by Michael Lewis, the film recounts how Tuohy and her husband, Sean (Tim McGraw) — a wealthy white Memphis couple with two kids of their own — took in a homeless black teenager named Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron). Despite the raised eyebrows, snickering, and worse from many around them, the Tuohys wound up adopting Oher as their son and helped him get into college and eventually join the NFL, where he now plays left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.
A cross-pollination of heart-warming family film and rousing sports movie, with a little Erin Brockovich-style social consciousness thrown in, it's a tale that, on its face, seems almost too good to be true. “These kinds of stories are like horses that want to run to the barn,” acknowledges the film's writer-director, John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”). “You have to pull on the reins. If you just let them tell themselves, they'll be sappy.”
For that reason, Bullock was initially reluctant to sign on. “I didn't trust it,” she says. “I thought it would be schmaltzy and soft.” Then she spent a day with the real Mrs. Tuohy, who'd been reared by a tough U.S. marshal father, and who was anything but schmaltzy or soft. “At the end of the day, Leigh Anne took a little hand pistol out of her glove compartment and said, ‘Y'all just need to carry one of these,’” Bullock remembers. “I kid you not. If you're her friend, she would stop at nothing to get done what she needed to get done for you. If you're her enemy, forget about it — you're going to wish you were dead.”
Tuohy, who says she derives her certitude about right and wrong from her faith as a born-again Christian, puts it this way: “I'm all about loving and giving, but I'm going to kick your ass if you do something you're not supposed to do.”
Having honed her own parenting skills with her husband Jesse James' three children, Bullock could certainly relate to Tuohy's protective instincts. “I'm a stepmother, which because of Disney always has a witch's hat attached to it,” says the star. “But wanting the best for someone — especially when they're a child — I think should be an innate part of all of us.”
With Bullock on board, Hancock had to find the right actor to play Oher, which was no easy feat. After a nationwide search, he settled on 6-foot-7, 360-pound Aaron, who had little acting experience but the necessary gentle-giant quality. “When Quinton walked in, your first instinct was to give him a hug,” Hancock says.
Aaron never met Oher, but he drew upon his own struggles for the role. “I didn't know my father. I was the biggest kid in school. I wasn't that popular,” says the 25-year-old, whose mother died just before he was cast. “I could relate to a lot of the stuff Michael went through.”
But the film's real showcase performance belongs to Bullock, and some have already speculated it could draw award nominations. The actress — who enjoyed the biggest hit of her career this summer with “The Proposal,” which grossed over $160 million — dismisses that idea.
“People who do what I do don't do award-winning films,” she says. “Which is kind of a relief because you don't have to go to that next step when it comes to that awards-season thing. I look at those people, especially the women, and I go, ‘I don't know how you do it.’ It's about what dress you pick, what designer you're wearing. I'd rather roll home, put on the jeans, go outside, pick up dog poop, or go for a run or something.”
Whatever happens, Bullock has already satisfied her potentially toughest critic. “She did a good job,” Tuohy says. “And if she'd done a bad job, I'd have told you in a second — I'm all about being honest.” She laughs a brassy laugh. “And she has nice ta-tas. I was elated about that.”