feels strongly about many things: the decor of her new Austin restaurant Bess; the renovation of a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged high school she's helping to fund; her new thriller, Premonition
; and even her favorite herbal sweetener. But all those pregnancy rumors? Not so much. "In one tabloid I was two months pregnant," she says with a laugh, "and in another I was four months pregnant."
So, for the record, the correct answer is... "Not pregnant!" declares Bullock as she munches on Cobb salad during a March 4 interview with PEOPLE. Looking radiant in a clingy gray top and black jeans, she explains that she's already experiencing parenthood—and loving it. "I have children, amazing children," she says about the three kids who were part of the package when she wed motorcycle tycoon Jesse James nearly two years ago. "My love and my want for their future and their happiness, for their homework to be done and for them to know how smart and beautiful they are is no less than if I'd had a child on my own."
Stepmom is just one of the roles Bullock is relishing these days. At 42, "Sandy," as she's known to pals, is finding fulfillment not in paychecks or blockbusters but in her work as real-life philanthropist, restaurateur, producer and wife. "I'm comfortable in my own skin," she says. "I have my family, and it's the family that some higher power put in my path. I feel really lucky." Adds her pal, comedian George Lopez: "Sandy is in the best place I've ever seen her: completely whole, inside and out."
How she got there has much to do with the low-key life she has created with James, 37. The pair live not far from where he grew up in working-class Long Beach, Calif., in an unassuming beachfront home where four beloved pooches—some of them handicapped canines from a local shelter—run amok and occasionally deposit unwelcome surprises on the floor. Who cleans up? "Whoever sees it first," quips Bullock, who admits that sometimes she lets James do the dirty work. "I've walked by one that's hidden behind something, and then the guilt later that day [hits] and I need to pick it up. Remember, we're not pigs! We just have a dog that has two legs who can't get down the stairs."
In Long Beach—and Austin, Texas, which Bullock has also called home for years—the movie star who pulled down $17.5 million for Miss Congeniality 2
prides herself on being the Anti-Diva. Although she is executive producer of her pal Lopez's ABC sitcom, she's been known to go on Starbucks runs for the show's staff when she's on the set. And when she drops by Cisco Burger, the organic fast-food joint James owns in his hometown, Bullock happily shoots the breeze with the folks who work there. "She's the real deal," says Arthur Hardy of the Warren Easton Charter Foundation, with whom Bullock is working to rebuild a New Orleans school devastated by Katrina. "She is so ordinary."
For Bullock—who loves nothing more than tearing up the trail on her Honda off-road dirtbike and swearing a blue streak with the boys—there's no higher compliment. "I want to be a broad," she says during her interview in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, where she flops down on the floor, poaches a bite of her guest's lunch from across the coffee table and pours green tea for two. But despite a warm and fun-loving exterior, she has never been shy about expressing a pessimistic streak. She says she prefers the herbal sweetener stevia to the chemical-based options, but quickly adds, "Everything in large doses is gonna kill you. Even happiness." Keeping her expectations low is an old habit. "I think everything is going to be devastatingly sad—when the phone rings I know somebody in my family's been hurt, somebody's going to die. I'm sure a therapist would go, 'That's not a good way to live,' but every time it's not that bad thing, I'm so thankful and appreciative."
The road to happiness has had its share of bumps. The daughter of John, a Pentagon contractor and voice coach, and Helga, a German opera singer, the actress lived in Germany as a child but spent her adolescence in Arlington, Va. "I landed back in the United States hitting puberty, not looking like an American kid," she says. "And everything in junior high's about how you look. It was hell." Years later, Bullock, then 30, found stardom in 1994's Speed
. But a high-octane career led to burnout. By 2002, she was so exhausted "my body began shutting down" while filming Two Weeks Notice
with Hugh Grant. Still reeling from her mother's death from cancer in 2000, Bullock decided to take a "detox" break from Hollywood that became a two-year hiatus. She also found herself in a legal battle with a Texas contractor over shoddy work on her Austin home (Bullock won in '04). "It was an exhausting time for her," says George Lopez. But along the way, says Bullock, she rediscovered herself: "I got to know who Sandy was, and she wasn't the same person I had met when I started in the business."
The new Bullock, it turned out, was less interested in making another Speed
sequel than in acting challenges, as in 2005's Crash
(which won a Best Picture Oscar) and last year's Infamous
, in which she played author Harper Lee. Premonition
—in which she stars as a wife who foresees her husband's death—is a mainstream thriller. But its theme—"how we take life and the people around us for granted... until a tragedy happens," says Bullock, "really hit home for me."
Another unexpected choice came in '05, when she wed James. "The greatest thing for me was how everything else just fell away, and I knew," she says of the romance, which began in '03 when she brought her godson into James's West Coast Choppers custom bike shop. Although she "never was raised with the dream of walking down the aisle," Bullock did just that, accompanied by a recording of an aria sung by her late mother. "He takes care of her, which was really hard for her at first," says Ann Lopez, George's wife. "She's so independent. Then here comes Mr. Macho: strong and yet sensitive, artistic, a businessman and all around a cool dude. I have never seen her so happy."
Not that Bullock has mellowed totally. A Type-A who admits to battling BlackBerry addiction, she talks at warp speed and makes to-do lists with a vengeance. "I will never stop multitasking," she says. "But the priorities have shifted." At the top of the list are the kids. Bullock and James live a stone's throw from his ex-wife, Karla, and their children, Chandler, 12, and Jesse Jr., 9; he also has a daughter, Sunny, 3, with his second wife, Janine Lindemulder. "Everyone teases everyone," Bullock says. "So you better have your game on or you're in big trouble, because if you're taken down by a 9-year-old, that's a really humbling experience." James says his children "totally love and adore" Bullock. And though she can be a disciplinarian (Bullock impounds Pokemon cards as a punishment), "I'm excited to show them off. I'm going, 'Look at how smart he is! Look at what they did!' and they're like, 'Ugh, stop!'"
In addition to running herd over the James gang, Bullock has quietly worked for causes close to her heart: the Warren Easton school and helping to create a leadership academy for economically disadvantaged young women in Austin named for one of her heroes, the late Texas governor Ann Richards. Another labor of love is Bess, the Austin bistro Bullock opened in November, overseeing every aspect of its design herself. "She wanted to open a restaurant, and she happens to be a high-profile actress," says executive chef Brenton Childs. "But I imagine that if she wasn't a high profile actress she would have built a restaurant anyhow. She just loves to eat and drink and have a good time with friends and family."
Whether that family will grow is not something that worries Bullock. "If that's gonna happen, that's exactly the way things are supposed to be, and it would be amazing," she says. "And if it didn't happen, then I'd know that I was supposed to be right here"—a sly grin begins to form—"with these three amazing, blond Aryan children. Everyone looks at me and goes, 'I know you ain't the mama!' I'm like, 'That's okay, I can put in some blond highlights!'"
But as her interview draws to a close, Bullock's mind is on something else: heading back to Austin to celebrate her kid sister Gesine's 37th birthday and mentally prepping for the event—of course—in list form. "I want this to be the best birthday she's ever had. I want the weather to be exactly what I want, I want to see my dogs, I want to go on a boat ride, I want to go for a swim, I want to eat some great steak and have a glass of wine," Bullock says as she absentmindedly clears the dirty lunch dishes from the table. "That's where I'm at."