From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Sandra Bullock has font memories of her colonoscopy. She and her kid sister Gesine made a sort of double date out of the event a few months ago. Neither one was exactly looking forward to it, but after the 2000 death of their mother, Helga, from colon cancer at age 63, it seemed like a good idea. So the night before the procedure they took their purgatives—or, as Bullock, 40, puts it, "that heinous stuff you're supposed to drink." And the next day they got down to business at the L.A. doctor's office. Afterward the doctor said. 'You don't have to come back for another 10 years," Bullock recalls. "We were like, 'How great is that?' " So great they celebrated afterward with a little shopping—and a lingering Demerol buzz. "I was stoned out of my head," she says with a laugh. "I bought a camera because it matched my hair color—and the most interesting clothes." Bullock admits they were both "so scared" of the procedure, "but it was so simple, easier than going to the dentist. And now I have this insane Picasso-looking beach shirt and a great camera that matches my hair."

And something more: a new attitude about life. Some after Bullock took a hiatus from acting because she no longer knew "who I was or what I wanted from life," the star and producer of Miss Congeniality 2 says she's feeling 'more balanced than ever." And generous. In January she helped kick off U.S. tsunami-relief efforts by donating $1 million to the Red Cross. "I was able to," says Bullock. "You do it when you can." Sitting in the home office of her condo in L.A., Bullock switches between candor and what her Congeniality costar Diedrich Bader calls her "very bawdy sense of humor" as she tells PEOPLE that her time off helped her figure out what she does want from life. Marriage? Maybe. The never-married actress has said she's now open to the idea—though turning 40 last July has not put her in any hurry. "I couldn't care less," she says. "I don't have an age issue." Children? Sure, after she's done "living out all the selfish things I want to live out," she says. "If I did [have kids], my entire life would shift. I would no longer [act] or be in magazines." She has also emerged victorious from a lawsuit against an Austin, Texas, builder (see box).

And what of the tattooed guy she was snuggling with at Le Soleil pancake house in Amsterdam on March 12, when they were in town for the Congeniality premiere? That would be Jesse James, 35, the tough-guy star of Discovery Channel's Monster Garage (see box). In between cleaning their plates, says Soleil owner Petronella ten Hoonte, "they were chatting and laughing while holding each other's hands. They looked very much in love."

If, at first glance, oddly paired. Since Bullock met James when she took her 10-year-old godson on a tour of his Monster set in Long Beach, Calif., last year, the romance has seemed a classic case of opposites attracting. She is famously friendly and "relentlessly optimistic," says Congeniality producer Marc Lawrence, and has a penchant for bubble baths and dark chocolate peanut butter ice cream. He likes guns, choppers and the cars he fixes up on Monster—cars he has been known to get mad and shoot at on the set. Though based in different cities—she in Austin, he in Long Beach—they have seen a lot of each other, attending a drag race together during the Vegas filming of Miss Congeniality 2, shopping in Beverly Hills last May, riding a motorcycle in Hawaii in July, taking a late-summer trip to a favorite Austin flea market.

While filming Congeniality 2, costar Bader noticed that the always on-her-game Bullock "was kind of thrown off a little one day," he recalls. Turns out she had just heard that James had been injured in a car crash. She was visibly relieved to discover he was okay—and happy when he visited the Vegas set. While Bullock was working, he worked on her Porsche. "He was constantly changing the wheels on her car, sometimes without notifying her," says director John Pasquin. Otherwise, he adds, "they would just hang out together. Jesse is very low-key, very quiet, almost shy."

Bullock, in fact, would prefer that he keep quiet about their romance. "There's a reason they call it private life," says the actress, who has signed on to portray the equally reticent author Harper Lee in the Truman Capote biopic Every Word Is True. "I think it's irresponsible to use it in conjunction with my work. When it's done, it's done to bolster the image or work. But if the work is crappy, it's going to be crappy no matter what I say about my private life. And if the work is good, then it'll speak for itself." Still, Bullock does say that James is a lot more lovable than his public image: "No one knows what someone is like based on appearance. There are people who look very innocent, loving and churchgoing who cheat on their spouses, don't take care of their children and are horrible to humanity."

Meanwhile, Bullock is finally learning to take care of herself and to not "worry 24-7 about things that have not happened yet." She's learned to minimize stress by taking weekends off—though she also jokes that "women should do a lot more fighting. I don't think it's fair that we can't get into a good bar fight once in a while. We'd get out a lot of stuff we're supposed to repress." As the child of Helga, a German-born opera singer, and John, 69, a voice coach from Alabama who remains close to his daughters, Bullock learned to be scrappy as a child moving from country to country and cousin's to aunt's as her parents' careers demanded. As a kid she was picked on, and as a teen she had a "tough" relationship with her strict mother, who didn't smoke or drink and followed a macrobiotic diet. But the tension, along with Helga's authoritative role, changed with her cancer diagnosis in 1995. A star after 1994's Speed, Bullock contributed both financial and hands-on care. By the end, she says, she saw her mother less as a tough-love parent than a disciplined and accomplished woman. "When someone as stubborn as she is, and I am, allows you to become the caretaker, we ceased to be mother and daughter," she says. "It was about a human being helping a human being."

Making peace with her mother was just the beginning of Bullock's transformation. Some seven years ago, sensing she was starting to care too much about driving the latest It-mobile in L.A., she happened upon Austin on a road trip. Though in previous years Bullock had bought and often fixed up places in New York, California, Georgia and Wyoming, she craved a place to call home. She fell in love with Austin when "I went to this great dance club," she recalls. "I just remember the dancing and the vibe and the energy." She relocated, setting up house with dogs Kernie and Bob and intentions to savor simple pleasures—including taking road trips with pit stops in small towns to buy, she says, "some great trucker's hat."

But after several years—and a dozen or so films she acted in or produced—she realized that taking the girl out of Hollywood wasn't enough. "I'm a workaholic [and] control freak," she says of her passion for organizing, number-crunching and sending out, oh, 150 e-mails on her beloved Sidekick "on a very slow day," she says, only half in jest. That tendency has made her a respected producer (in addition to Congeniality she produces the hit ABC sitcom George Lopez) but not necessarily a happy person. "In Austin there is a cut-off time where people say, 'It's Friday. We're going out,' " says Bullock. "I didn't know what that was like, to stop whatever [you're doing] and tackle it on Monday. I worked straight through." A couple of years ago, she says, "I realized everybody else had good life stories to tell, and I had good work stories to tell." She also realized she no longer knew what her favorite kind of ice cream was or, for that matter, what time she liked to get up in the morning. "So I just made myself stop," she says.

With her screen career on hold, Bullock focused on other things—in L.A., playing with her dogs, strolling to Starbucks, reading home construction magazines ("like erotica to me," she says), cleaning her purposely small closet and giving to pals and colleagues at her Fortis Films production company what she calls "Sand-me-downs." Explains the woman who would rather, well, read a home-construction magazine than shop: "I pay gobs of money for one tiny shirt that I'll never wear again and look at it and go, 'Who do I give this to now?' "In Austin she had the additional pleasure of hitting favorite nightspots to relax over a drink and a bluegrass band. She has also become close to a 13-year-old Texas girl who was battling cancer until she went into remission in January.

At work, Bullock often seems more jazzed by producing than acting these days. She says she has definitely put romantic comedies behind her. In fact her next film, coming in May, is Crash, a low-budget drama about race relations cowritten and directed by Million Dollar Baby scribe Paul Haggis. Bullock's small role as a bitter socialite "gave me so much pride," she says. "It was re-inspiring." She will also be reteaming with Speed costar Keanu Reeves in the romantic drama Il Mare. "Keanu wants to make out with me again," she says, laughing. For the moment, though, Mare is the only big romantic event on her horizon. "I have my own schedule," she says, "and there's no wedding date penciled in." What is penciled in is the date she gives up her Porsche—as soon as the lease is up. "My dogs are not too happy with the backseat," she says. "I'm going to get something that makes a little more sense." Of course if she needs advice on cars, the man with all the answers is always close by.

Karen S. Schneider. Tom Cunneff and Oliver Jones in Los Angeles, Alicia Dennis in Austin, Pete Norman in London and Brechje de Koning in Amsterdam

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Oliver Jones,
  • Alicia Dennis,
  • Pete Norman,
  • Brechje de Koning.