Jessica Alba

Jessica Alba
Evan Agostini/Getty

10/07/2005 AT 06:00 AM EDT

Jessica Alba has staked a claim as having the year's best body, showing off her curves in Sin City, Fantastic Four and her new diving-themed movie, Into the Blue. But the actress, 24, is more than a fit physique – she's also a baby-clothes designer, an accomplished scuba diver (thanks to her part on the mid-'90s TV series Flipper) and a role model to her 14 younger cousins. She talked recently about body-image issues, her Latina heritage and swimming with sharks – literally.

When did you first realize you looked good in a bikini?
I never did, to be honest with you, and I still don't. I'm quite critical of my own appearance, but I had to just think the way the character did. She's not sitting there looking at her body. She's just working and she lives in the Bahamas, and if she didn't wear a bikini, it would be weird.

When you watch the movie, everyone's drooling over you, so it's shocking that you don't feel comfortable with your body.
I guess that's just the disconnect, you know. I'm not the audience member. I'm actually the person doing it, and it's not fun.

Was there one body part that you thought, "Please, can I not show it?"
All of it. (Costar Ashley Scott) is really comfortable with her body, so that helped me. She would just throw on a bikini and walk around, and meanwhile, every time the camera shut off, I was covering up in a towel and hating my life and calling my mom, and being like, "I can't do this! I hate this movie!"

But you felt comfortable in the water?
I've been swimming since before I knew how to walk, 'cause my mom was a lifeguard in Mississippi when I was a baby. She taught me how to swim because she was always nervous that I would fall in the pool. So I've always been really comfortable in the water, and at the end of the day, I just had to think, girls that aren't the skinniest things in the world are going to feel comfortable seeing me as the main character, so hopefully, I would help young girls with their body image.

You swam with real sharks while filming the movie. Did that freak you out?
Absolutely. One instance in particular, the shark's mouth was open and it was coming at me, and nobody was warning me – the camera operator was just filming it. And I saw in my peripheral vision, because of my mask, that a shark's mouth was coming toward me, so I just hit it away. After that happened I was really paranoid about sharks getting too close to me.

Were the kissing scenes hard to film? You make out pretty passionately with Paul Walker.
Yeah, but I mean we weren't really, like, tonguing each other or anything. I think what sold the relationship was (the characters') affection for each other and how in love they were.

Your father is Mexican. How did you feel when costar Scott Caan said the line, 'Let the Mexican do it'?
I was pretty irritated. I told him, "I can't believe you said that!" I called him a jerk and a couple other things. But growing up not really fitting into a Latin or a white (category), nobody ever accepted me, so I kind of get the brunt of all of those weird racial slurs.

You're very close to your family, including your younger cousins. What do they ask you for advice about?
Mostly school and work, and like, "Mom won't let me do this" or "Dad says this." A lot of 'em just want to stay at home and go to community college, and I'm like, "Get on with your life, make some decisions, get your butt to school and move out." That's when they find out who they are as people instead of, like, getting pregnant while they're at home in community college. (And) I tell them all they should not be actors!
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