09/09/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
For a model who had just started acting, auditioning for an Al Pacino movie seemed too good to be true. Only later did Rachel Roberts discover the catch: "My character," she says, "didn't really exist."
Roberts, 24, didn't exactly have to dig deep to play the title role in the new comedy Simone, about a computer-generated actress created by a director (Pacino) who's tired of whiny stars. But she had everything else director Andrew Niccol was looking for. "I was thinking maybe I'll find a face in the Ukraine and a body in Brazil and a voice in England," he says. "But I was lucky enough to find this unknown from Canada who had it all."
The studio wanted to maintain the illusion that Simone was all-digital until after the movie's release, so for almost two years the single Manhattanite told no one. She even kept the truth from her family. "I told my brother Frank I was taking a break from modeling," she says. "I think he thought I was having a nervous breakdown."
Unlikely. Roberts began modeling at 16 at the suggestion of her mother, Lila, a hairdresser who died of breast cancer at 42, less than a year later. The loss "gave me a lot of strength," says Roberts, whose father, Ian, is a dentist. Now out of seclusion, she's eager to get back to friends and her twin passions: surfing and traveling. One plus to all that downtime: "You can't really get a big head," she says, "about something you can't talk about."