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The Bride’s Packing Heat

Steven Smith is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Cameron Diaz has unshakable faith in fate--which may explain why she’s unfazed one hot August afternoon when her two favorite neighborhood restaurants are closed for dinner, and a third, last-ditch choice doesn’t offer a table.

Diaz decisively grabs the keys to her black Mercedes-Benz, heads west on Beverly Boulevard--and glides confidently into the last open parking space, right in front of restaurant No. 4. Inside it’s calm, air-conditioned and completely empty. Perfect.

These days, all the right doors seem to be opening for the 25-year-old model-turned-actress. After bringing an unexpected sweetness to the role of Jim Carrey’s siren girlfriend in “The Mask” (her 1994 screen debut), Diaz did increasingly confident work in such small films as “The Last Supper,” “Feeling Minnesota” and “She’s the One.”

In 1996, she became Sho-West’s Star of Tomorrow--then scored a second mainstream movie KO this summer as the sunny fiancee Kimmy in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” This October brings her most demanding role so far: the female lead in “A Life Less Ordinary,” director Danny Boyle’s ambitious follow-up to “Trainspotting.”

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A hallucinogenic fantasy mixing fallen angels, road movie comedy and ‘90s bloodshed, it casts Diaz as a cynical heiress who falls in love with her latest kidnapper: a misfit janitor (Ewan McGregor) who’s just been sacked by her tycoon father.

Diaz admits she was thrilled to play such a strong-willed character--"the guy role"--to McGregor’s passive, almost feminine antihero. “Reversal of power!” she cries, as her ear-to-ear grin bursts into a long, loud guffaw.

“A girlfriend of mine, who’s this amazing actress--we’re both kind of fed up with not finding anything interesting. She’s like, ‘I want the guy roles!’ I said, ‘Well, just rewrite them!’ ” A decisive nod. “That’s what we should do: Start demanding that the good roles get rewritten for females!”

Despite her belief in destiny--and several superstitious raps on the restaurant table--it’s clear Diaz has had much say in her fate since age 16, when a meeting with a photographer led to her first career, as an Elite model. Within the year, she’d left her parents’ home in Long Beach to spend a summer in Tokyo; by 19, she was modeling in Paris.

Although Diaz insists she didn’t grow up as an aspiring actress--zoology was her passion--she got hooked on the “chemical” thrill of acting during 12 callbacks for “The Mask.”

Director Chuck Russell championed her work and encouraged her to play to her strengths, moving the part away from its Jessica Rabbit origins and toward Diaz’s gift for mixing toughness with vulnerability.

Her modeling career gave her security in front of the camera; as for acting, “I’ve been very fortunate--I’ve had on-the-job training,” says Diaz, who still works on roles with a coach. “Every actor I’ve worked with I’ve learned something from.

“Working with Harvey Keitel [on “Head Above Water,” released this year], the first thing he said to me was, ‘No question is a dumb question.’ He questioned everything, and where I would’ve thought, ‘I can’t ask that, that’s so dumb . . .’ coming from him, it just sounded like he knew what he was doing.”

But Diaz admits it’s taken her years to feel secure as an actress. On her second film, the dark comedy “The Last Supper,” she was surrounded by movie and stage veterans--"and I was terrified, because I didn’t know . . . anything! I was looking to see what they were doing with their scripts, because I had . . . no . . . idea.”

Diaz’s third project was even tougher: the grungy Keanu Reeves love story “Feeling Minnesota,” whose shoot began with Diaz doing a sex scene and a monologue.

Diaz squirms at the memory. “ ‘Feeling Minnesota’ was hard for me to watch--I watched it in parts. I think it was the experience of it. I was beat up, thrown around, my feet were really cold and it took a lot of hot water to get them back to normal. . . . Watching it brought back all that ugliness.”

Which explains why Diaz’s biggest film to date--"My Best Friend’s Wedding"--was such a lark. “I’d never played anybody who got to smile all the time,” she says, a Kimmy-like grin appearing on cue. “I don’t get tied up, I don’t get shot at or beaten--I smile!”

Bullets and beatings were part of the drill again in “A Life Less Ordinary"--but the filming itself was “very loving,” thanks to her chemistry with Ewan McGregor and directorDanny Boyle. It was Boyle who read with Diaz at her audition--although “read” may be too mild a term.

“I’m sitting in a room with Danny, there’s a camera going, and suddenly he starts yelling at me!” Diaz gasps, reliving the moment. “And I’m like, ‘What is this guy yelling at me for?!’

“Then I heard the words and realized he was reading the lines with me! No warning. Then I got really excited, because he was acting--and he was really good!”

“Life” producer Andrew Macdonald shared Boyle’s enthusiasm for Diaz’s playfulness and lack of pretension. “She understands the value of the real world,” Macdonald says. “In this business, you can get spoiled, which makes some people slightly unbearable.

“We were struck by her incredible beauty and talent, but we were [also] sure she’d fit into our team; not all West Coast Americans share our sense of humor. And she’s been very clever about her choices. She has the whole world ahead of her--there are many surprises to come.”

“Life” itself offered a few surprises, thanks to Diaz’s short prep time (she reported for duty four days after finishing “Wedding”). Then there were the conservative locals she and McGregor encountered while shooting in Utah.

“Oh, God, don’t even bring it up to Ewan! I’m always like, ‘Calm down, it’s OK!’ But they really gave him a hard time, because he looked different. Here he is, this liquid-y, libidoed guy with long hair, smoking a cigarette, funky clothes, with a baby on his hip! They really didn’t like that. They wouldn’t sell him cigarettes, they gave him a hard time. . . .”

Diaz senses she’s getting negative and changes course.

“But the location was beautiful--Utah is so gorgeous, Park City, the Sundance area . . . looking back on it, I really enjoyed it. Ultimately why I’m doing this is to have a good time.

“People can say, ‘Oh, it’s a great director or a great actor or a great story . . . ,’ but you’re never guaranteed you’re going to have a good time and enjoy what you’re doing.”

Diaz admits she doesn’t enjoy one price of stardom: the possessiveness of strangers.

“It’s amazing. Amazing. I could be sitting here and someone could come over . . ."--she mimes a pad and pen slamming onto her plate--". . . and they say, ‘Here, you can make it out to Mike.’ I would never do that. To anybody!

“Lately, with ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding,’ it’s been nice, with older women talking to me. Different actors have different fans. . . Jim Carrey’s fans try to prove how funny they are to him--'Watch me do this!’ ” She pulls her ample lips apart with her fingers, in a credible Carrey-ism. “Whereas Matt gets girls, shaking over him!”

“Matt” is Matt Dillon, Diaz’s steady since early 1996. They met while working on separate films in Minnesota; currently, Dillon lives on the East Coast, Diaz in L.A. Asked if distance is a problem, the actress smiles--for once a bit cryptically. “Nope! It’s OK. Works out fine!” A conspiratorial guffaw.

“I like him. I love him. But we’re both really independent people. So we get to enjoy our lives independently, then together when we’re together. You have a longer honeymoon.”

And since she used that word . . . any plans to . . .?

“Nope. I don’t even think about it right now.” (Last year, Dillon described himself as “happier than I’ve been in a long time” while admitting a lifelong “problem with commitment.”)

Diaz also says she has no plans to attain the superstardom of a Julia Roberts--claiming a life of second-billing would be just fine. Top billing “is a lot of responsibility. Even in a small-budget film. And it’s not so much about whether you have the lead--your name is put out there to make people come in.”

Which is one reason Diaz is following up “A Life Less Ordinary” with another supporting role, in yet another dark comedy: “Very Bad Things,” written and directed by actor Peter Berg.

“Christian Slater’s in it,” she volunteers--spotting too late the scandal-hungry glare of her listener. (Last month, Slater was arrested for allegedly biting a man at a party.)

“I don’t know anything about it!” she pleads, before springing to her co-star’s defense. “Apparently nothing happened. Not even near to what the tabloids reported it to be.” (The actress admits she’s no fan of mass media; she avoids TV except to watch films, and rarely reads a newspaper.)

By now, Diaz has finished her meal, served with an equal portion of admiring glances from the staff. As the slim, 5-foot-9 actress gets up from the table, she realizes her car meter time has long since expired. Resigned to destiny, she strolls to the car.

Despite the busy stretch of Beverly, there’s no ticket.

“I’m soooo fortunate,” Diaz says, beaming another ear-to-ear grin. “You don’t even know.”


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