Jessica Alba on ‘Sin City,’ Typecasting, and How Homophobia Pushed Her Away From the Church

The actress, who’s reprising her role as the misanthropic stripper Nancy in the sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, opens up about women on film and falling in love with a teenage drag queen.

Jason Merritt/Getty

It’s been 20 years since Jessica Alba debuted with the teen-targeting one-two punch of Camp Nowhere and The Secret World of Alex Mack. After James Cameron handpicked her from thousands of women for the role of Max Guevara, a kickass genetically-engineered supersoldier, on the Fox series Dark Angel, she became an instant star.

But during the aughts, the stunning actress had to fight back against being typecast. “The scripts I get are always for the whore, or the motorcycle chick in leather, or the horny maid,” she told Page Six back in 2005 while promoting Sin City. “I get all those screenplays that start, ‘Tawnya is in the shower. The water streams down her naked, perky breasts.’ Somehow, I don’t think this is happening to Natalie Portman.”

Now, things are different. The 33-year-old actress runs her own business, The Honest Company, which specializes in toxin-free products, and published her first book, The Honest Life, last year. She has two daughters with her husband, Cash Warren, and while she’s still gracing the cover of Maxim, she now feels ownership over her image. In Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, in theaters Aug. 22, Alba returns as Nancy—a tortured stripper who transforms into a vengeful killer. Filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller claim that Alba was so in character on set she didn’t smile or talk to anyone.

“It was a different approach,” says Alba. “I worked with a new acting coach and she really helped me get in the headspace of Nancy, and I really found a connection to her. The role is so heavy, and she’s always in a state of being drunk and sad or angry and crazy.”

The Daily Beast spoke to Alba about her career, how her life’s changed in the nine years between Sin City films, and much more.

Did you have any apprehension as far as playing Nancy again?

No way! I was stoked. Nancy’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played, and Sin City is hands-down my favorite movie I’ve ever been in. If I wasn’t in that movie I would’ve wanted to be in that movie.

We’re treated to a different Nancy in this one. She turns into a scar-faced badass. Was it nice to play a badass again? It’s been quite some time since Dark Angel.

Absolutely. It’s the most fun thing, and so rare to see women do that onscreen. As a woman, to get the opportunity to do that is so cool. I just wish the experience lasted longer because I enjoyed it so much, and it’s such a departure from how I am in real life, so it’s great to get lost in this dark character and this dark world.

You with Dark Angel and Sarah Michelle Gellar with Buffy were really the OGs when it comes to women kicking ass onscreen. But now, we’re seeing at all over the place with The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. What’s changed?

Right?! Outside of Aliens or Terminator, which were both Jim Cameron movies, there weren’t many roles for kickass women. Jim really paved the way—on film and in television—for people to see young, rad chicks kick ass and take names. Nowadays, there’s more opportunity for people to consume media on different platforms and people are becoming savvier when it comes to what media they consume, so they don’t have to go see that handful of movie in theaters or watch the handful of stations on television. People have more choice today, and marketing people are seeing that women have the power of the household income, really. There are more young, professional women than ever who have disposable income and also 70 percent of the household income is being controlled by the woman, so to make movies and TV shows that don’t appeal to women is silly. And women want to see powerful women—we don’t want to see weak, meek women going through the motions.

In researching this piece, I read some interesting stuff about how you distanced yourself from the Church because of their treatment of women and sexuality—that you’d experienced criticism over playing a teen with an STD on Chicago Hope, and that the men in your church were very creepy towards you.

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Oh, yeah. That was actually my born-again Christian friends that didn’t approve of that one, and yeah, that was my born-again Christian youth group I was in. Very twisted. I fell in love when I was 16 and had this major crush on… I guess he was a drag queen? He was bisexual and a ballerina, and this was while I was at the Atlantic Theater Company in Vermont. We used to go to this gay club and I’d dance with him all night, four nights a week. I was so in love with him and thought, “There’s no way this guy’s going to hell,” because in my church, it was, “Anybody who’s gay is going to hell” and “Premarital sex is evil,” and I thought, “There’s no chance! This guy is amazing!” So that went right out the window.

Did all that dancing prepare you for your role in Honey?

[Laughs] That and raves.

Did you have to take dancing lessons for Nancy?

Yeah, for sure. I trained with this woman named Jennifer Johnson who’s done a lot of competitive dancing—jazz, tap—and went on tour with Beyoncé. Now, she gives lessons in L.A. Basically, I’d just map out where Nancy was emotionally, and really wanted the dancing to portray where she was emotionally, so when you get to the last dance, it’s very vulgar, raunchy, and scary.

Nancy is, of course, a stripper. What’s your take on strip clubs? Yay or nay?

I personally like burlesque better, and the way that Frank Miller drew the strippers is much more in line with burlesque than a traditional American strip club. You’ll never go into a standard strip club on Sunset, say, and see a girl with a lasso in chaps. His world of stripping is much more fantasy-driven, and much more in the vein of SuicideGirls or Dita Von Teese.

William H. Macy, who was a teacher at the Atlantic Theater Company where you trained, apparently got very liquored up to shoot his sex scenes with Maria Bello in The Cooler. Did you dabble in a bit of liquid courage before your Sin City dance scenes?

[Laughs] No. I have been super, super nervous and had to take a shot of something to get geared up for something I was uncomfortable with, but not in Sin City.

When did you have to take the shot?

Oh… I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs] But it was tequila. It’s the easiest for me.

Nancy has to project an image of confidence onstage, but she’s a mess on the inside. Have you ever had times in your life where you’ve had to put on a pretty strong face when you’re having a rough time?

All the time! I have a camera in my face every day. Whatever’s going on in my private life, you’re always in the public eye and have to put on a strong face. Now, I run a business and at my company I’m not talking to them about my inner turmoil or what I’m going through emotionally, I’m just focused in on what we’re doing and trying to get through the day.

You seem quite comfortable in your own skin today, and you’re now running a business and have two kids. Was that self-confidence something you were born with, or something you had to reach?

No. It took me a long time to get to this place, but it’s making mistakes and figuring it out and being paralyzingly insecure sometimes and being very unsure of myself and overthinking things constantly. I’m just so happy I’m not in that headspace anymore because it’s pretty much exhausting. It’s a lot to put on a young person, where you go from being anonymous to being completely exposed and in a fishbowl, and everything you say comes back to haunt you and everything you do is magnified, it’s hard to be human, make mistakes, and figure things out. You feel the magnitude of every little, tiny choice. That’s why pop culture and media swallow up a lot of people while they’re young.

If you Google your name, a lot of headlines come up like “Jessica Alba Sizzles in Bikini” and stuff of that nature. But you’re someone who’s been acting for 20 years and has worked with the likes of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. Is it frustrating that that’s the stuff that pops up when your name is Googled?

[Laughs] Oh, the headlines that get people to buy their magazines. Everything does their own thing for their own publication and they all have to market their business in their own way. It doesn’t bother me. I didn’t understand it before, but now I totally get it. You have to know who your audience is, and you have to know who you’re writing for. Your audience is more sophisticated and well-read, and they know who Jim Cameron and Robert Rodriguez are. But a 13-year-old boy may not know that off-hand, so they have to think of these “saucy” and “sizzling” one-liners and when you read the article you’re probably disappointed because I’m nothing like that headline.

You’re someone who’s had to battle a bit of typecasting in your 20s. Did that ever get frustrating for you?

Yeah. I always felt like I did a pretty good job of taking on different roles. Right after Dark Angel I did a dance movie for young girls, Honey, and I didn’t want to do an action movie because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. So I’ve done a bit of comedy, action… I don’t feel like I’ve been typecast too much. And certainly now, it’s much more fun because I have the stability of my company, so it allows me the freedom to work and do stuff on film that is exciting, and take more chances. It’s very liberating now as an actor.

There is a new Fantastic Four movie coming out, and there was a bit of controversy in the first films because they WASPed you up—transforming you into a blue-eyed, blond-haired white woman. In retrospect, did that bug you out a little bit?

[Laughs] I was playing a fantasy character! No one’s getting upset when they put a mask and a uniform or armor on Iron Man and saying, “That doesn’t look like Robert Downey Jr.” That’s how he’s drawn.

We are in 2014 and it’s been almost a decade since we’ve had a woman or a minority actor toplining a Marvel superhero film.

I know. It’s about damn time! It’s too bad. Maybe we have to rely on other big companies to try and do that.

I feel obligated to sneak in a Never Been Kissed question because I love that movie. What was it like shooting that? You and James Franco and a lot of those actors were very green.

It was so much fun at the time—like the high school experience I never had, because I was working and didn’t go to high school. I was around young people my age and we just messed around and ad-libbed. Drew Barrymore was my icon at the time and I was bowing down to her every day and didn’t know what to say, then when we got comfortable, she was the coolest person ever. People hung out and partied, but I was always a straitlaced girl who was living in a dingy apartment in Burbank, so I was just going to the 99-cent store and buying Cup Noodles and Froot Loops in bulk. I was a bit awkward and not really in “the scene.”

Do you still have the Malibu Barbie costume?

[Laughs] No, but that was really funny!