Even as problems in her personal life played out on the covers of celebrity magazines across the country, Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock stayed focused on what she believed was most important: finalizing an adoption that made her a first-time mom and helping a New Orleans high school emerge from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina better than ever.
The 46-year-old actress sat down with Matt Lauer at Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans for a TODAY interview that aired Tuesday, talking about her new life as a single mom to 8-month-old son Louis and her efforts to help rebuild the school after it was nearly destroyed.
“No one understands the shift in priorities about having a child in your life … until you have a child in your life,” Bullock told TODAY. “It naturally shifts … he showed up and now, Louie's got the stage.”
While this year has been the best of times, the worst of times for Bullock, she’s proud of the fact that her close circle of friends did nothing to fuel the headlines that surrounded her June divorce from biker Jesse James — and that even with living in a time where virtually nothing is a secret, she managed to adopt a child without the world at large having a clue.
“It takes good people with integrity,” Bullock told Lauer. “Human beings exist that have integrity, that know how to keep their mouth shut; that know the bigger picture, that don’t sell out their friends.
“Those people are all over the place. We don’t like to talk about it, ’cause it doesn’t sell a magazine. But I was blessed with the same friends I’ve had since before things got really special for me and blessed in life. And when things get bad, they’re still the same friends.
“They know if they screw up they’re not coming on the next vacation, I’m not going to baby-sit their kids. I will cut them, I will take them down.”
Bullock and then-husband James began the “long process” toward becoming adoptive parents years ago, and in January, they were able to adopt Louis.
“I wanted to do everything exactly the same way everyone else did,” she said. “And it was …he was always mine, you know. It wasn’t like I felt someone was going to take him away.
“It was nice to have someone say, ‘I think you’re a fit parent,’ which is what I heard.”
Bullock said she had no preference toward the adoptive child’s gender or race. “We always said that; it didn’t matter where the child came from — it’s like the child that needed us in the home is the child that’s going to be placed.”
That she ended up being placed with a boy was a revelation for Bullock and her 85-year-old father John as well, because the Bullock family has long been decidedly female-centric.
“We don’t have any boys in our family,” she said. “Boy, is everyone happy about that. So he’s like the crown prince. You know, it’s nothing but girls in our family. Can you imagine how miserable our father is? I mean, every pet was female. So it was just the hierarchy that needed to be broken.”
While she makes her main residence in Austin, Texas, with son Louis, her heart still holds New Orleans — the place of Louis’ birth — near and dear.
“I spent so many summers and New Years and fun times in New Orleans,” she said. “It was always a place where I felt I could go and actually let go and enjoy the spirit of something.”
Arthur Hardy, a member of the Warren Easton school board, also talked to Lauer, telling him how Bullock called out of the blue one Sunday afternoon asking how she could help the school, which suffered some $4 million in damages from Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m in the Mardi Gras business and I deal with crazy people every day,” Hardy told Lauer. “So when [she called] and said, ‘This is Sandra Bullock ...’ [I said] ‘Yeah, I’m Clark Gable.’ I was about to hang up. You know, who knows?”
But once Hardy discerned he was indeed talking to the A-list star and not an impostor, he was taken aback by how much homework she had done on the school.
“She knew what we were all about,” Hardy said. “And I think [she] had done enough work to know we were the real deal. And then, once she came and met the kids, it was all over. I didn’t have to sell anybody.”
Bullock didn’t just donate money to the school and disappear; she told Lauer she’s made sure the money went for useful projects to get the school back on track.
“I’ve had some experiences where you give money, and there’s no accounting for it,” Bullock said. “If someone can’t tell you where every dime went — and every dime should go to the cause — that pisses me off. And I did my homework.
“Like, we’ll allot things, and [Hardy] will say, ‘Well, I know we allotted it for this, but we need new lockers. Can we take, you know, $12,286.75 and bring it over here?’ ”
Hardy said that Bullock believes, as the school does, that “public school education is the answer to crime, poverty, prejudice.”
And while the Big Easy was once a place for her to relax, it took on a new meaning after Hurricane Katrina, particularly when the poorest areas of the city were largely ignored during the rebuilding efforts.
“There are a lot of things that fell through the cracks during the storm, and it was embarrassing,” Bullock said. “It just opened up something that I don’t think people know about, or maybe didn’t want to see.
“But right here, under this roof, there are souls and spirits and young people who don’t come from any money, but carry this extraordinary spirit to override that. Let this school be an example of how we don’t need to leave anyone behind.”
While Bullock continues to be involved with the students at Warren Easton, she’s largely ignored Hollywood — her last appearance before the camera, in “The Blind Side,” was nearly two years ago. Bullock made it clear her life now revolves around raising Louis, and she revels in everyday life with the child she calls her “little Cajun cookie.”
“He likes to dance and celebrate,” Bullock told Lauer. “You know what? I got blessed. I got lucky. He’s extraordinary.”
For more information about Warren Easton Charter High School in New Orleans, La., click here.