The Unique Agony of the Model/Actress

Amanda De Cadenet

Despite a public reflexively rooting against her, SI cover girl Brooklyn Decker hopes to follow the path of Halle Berry and Cameron Diaz (and not Cindy Crawford) with her new movie.

Brooklyn Decker may be one of the more famous models in the world, but she makes a point of not acting like one. She speaks quickly and straightforwardly in a voice filled with enthusiasm and calls herself out when she says something cheesy or cliched (like how she’s learning to “peel back the layers” of a character). She dresses in a way that hides her figure — today it’s a draping flannel sweater over a plain white shirt and blue jeans — and makes the jarring claim that she’s “not a sexy person at all.” She doesn’t hesitate to talk through a mouthful of food at a table in front of Charlie’s at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles on a recent morning. Her self-deprecation has the whiff of the real.

After today’s late breakfast, Decker is heading to Warner Bros. for a general meeting, where she knows what she’s up against. She did these studio rounds about 18 months ago, and they didn’t amount to much, but now she’s got two roles in the can and is slightly more hopeful. “I think people are like: ‘OK, we saw her coming out of the water, now who is she? Can she carry on a conversation?’ ” she says and laughs. “You never know.”

The 23-year-old model, most famous for baring almost everything on the cover of the 2010 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (we’ll find out Feb. 14 if she reprises that role on the 2011 edition), is in the midst of an attempted leap that, for many before her, has launched a thousand punch lines: the model-to-actress career move. On Feb. 11, she’ll appear as Adam Sandler’s lust object in Sony’s Just Go With It, and she recently wrapped a role in the 2012 Universal tentpole Battleship. “Look, I may never work again once [Just Go With It] comes out,” she admits. “But I don’t see myself doing catalog shoots in Madrid anymore like I was doing two years ago. I hope that the acting side of things grows.”

Of course, since the 1980s, ambitious models have become goodwill ambassadors, business moguls, designers, talk-show hosts and reality TV stars who have generated millions beyond their modeling income. But very few have found a way to do that as actresses. There are the trailblazing predecessors such as Cameron Diaz, Rene Russo and Milla Jovovich — and, on the flip side, Estella Warren, Cindy Crawford (Fair Game, anyone?) and plenty others whose names don’t even register in anyone’s memory.

Aside from the X-Men movies, in which her mostly naked body was covered in blue paint, Victoria’s Secret and SI model Rebecca Romijn has had a difficult time finding a solid foothold. Andie MacDowell, who went on to build a healthy film career, famously had all her lines redubbed in her 1984 debut, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The pitfalls in the film world are more vicious and plentiful than simply making sure you don’t slip off a catwalk or get sand in your lady parts on a beach in the Seychelles. The battlefield is littered with false starts and embarrassing flameouts that show how often a pretty face is as deep as it goes.

As with well-known actors who try to paint or record music, the public often reflexively roots against models trying to break in as if they have the gall to win the lottery and then gild the lily by doubling down on fame and fortune in another field. Not helping ambitious models with genuine acting talent is that the cliche about their peers’ lack of substance often is true. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Pity me; I came from modeling,’ ” says Decker, who’s repped by Jason Gutman at Gersh and Chris Kiely at Marilyn Talent (he also reps her modeling work). “It’s opened a lot of doors. People will take meetings because they’ve heard the name before. That’s an advantage that I have. But at the same time, I will have to work really hard to show that I’m worthy of being in these films.”

Decker knows her physical attributes are likely to be played up until she proves her acting chops. For Just Go With It, the trailers and billboards unsurprisingly zero in on her bikini-clad body, in one shot rising up from the ocean dripping and undulating in slow motion. Those who have seen the film note that the role itself — that of the love interest whom Sandler’s character wants badly enough to create a fake family just to dump for her — entails quite a bit of comedy. And whether she can pull that off is the key to any kind of longevity.


“Usually you go for the actors, but when it calls for a beautiful, stunning woman, then you jump into the model world and see if there’s somebody who can step up,” says Roger Mussenden, the casting director on Just Go With It who also put Halle Berry, Famke Janssen and Romijn in X-Men. Mussenden claims that Decker “hit all the marks and wasn’t thrown off by the comedy.”

That she trains with acting coaches Joan Rosenfels in New York and Cameron Thor in Los Angeles and has refrained from lining up new modeling gigs signals the seriousness of Decker’s approach. After growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Decker moved to New York in 2005 at age 18 after high school and eventually signed with the Paris-based Marilyn Agency, which has an office in New York. She quickly secured magazine spreads in Glamour, FHM and Cosmopolitan, as well as campaigns for the Gap and Victoria’s Secret, but her annual appearance in the SI swimsuit issue beginning in 2006 led to the coveted cover spot last year. By then, Decker had spent regular time co-hosting a CNN/SI Web sports show and a few years auditioning for TV and film roles, mostly without success. Acting wasn’t an early passion for Decker and only became an interest as a way to compensate for not going to college — she says she felt dumb and wanted to use her brain to study something while traveling the world for shoots. “It was stimulating my mind in a different way than modeling was,” she says.

Parts in Bedtime Stories, Hall Pass and Transformers: Dark of the Moon went to other actresses (fellow Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley ultimately got the latter after Megan Fox was jettisoned). A few TV series guest spots in 2009 on Chuck, Ugly Betty and Royal Pains finally led to a string of auditions on two coasts, plus a table read that won her the part in Just Go With It.

“There might have been a few extra hoops, but not that many,” Mussenden says. “It is a very sensitive area with a lot of gorgeous faces that are sometimes just that. We have to look a little deeper at them and get them out of their comfort zone. Brooklyn has other qualities, and she knows how to handle herself; she was pretty confident. This was a big deal for her.”

“There’s a likability when a woman is beautiful and can make fun of herself — it disarms people; they become accessible,” says an agent who has worked with model-actresses. As an example, the agent cites the scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding when Diaz makes fun of her inability to sing in a karaoke bar. “Men and women started to really want to hang out with her,” the agent says. “If you had a beautiful girl, and you could put her in a situation that wasn’t too far away from who she might be as a human being and she could make people laugh, then men and women would like her, and she’d get away with murder in the beginning and accelerate faster.”

Decker has her own version of this appeal. On The Dan Patrick Show during pre-Super Bowl coverage in Dallas — she followed NFL Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Joe Montana and identified herself as “a wannabe actress”— Decker displayed her everywoman nature with her sports chatter and ability to banter with a bunch of professional macho meatheads. (Sports are in her blood: She’s a Carolina Panthers and UNC Tar Heels fan who’s married to tennis star Andy Roddick.)

“A woman that can be beautiful and funny — there ain’t a lot of them,” says casting director Fern Champion, who waded through an entire sea of Victoria’s Secret models before she put Diaz, then mainly a magazine model in Europe, in The Mask in 1994. Champion also saw Angelina Jolie in 1995 for Mortal Kombat and had a producer nix MacDowell when Champion tried to cast her in the 1988 ABC miniseries War and Remembrance. “Very similar to what I saw in Cameron, Brooklyn has got a great attitude,” she says. “She can talk, she’s funny, she’s humble, she’s got a great sense of humor. Women fell in love with Cameron, and men were totally involved. When you look at Brooklyn, same thing — I like her as a broad! You go to the personality.”

Relentlessly going over lines and scenes with director Dennis Dugan between setups, Decker wrestled with the counterintuitive nature of film comedy that required her to be funny by not being funny. As research, Dugan suggested that she watch a lot of Goldie Hawn movies (for her Battleship role, director Peter Berg handed her Alien and The Blair Witch Project, presumably to figure out how to look petrified by the unknown). “I was really just trying to learn the whole time,” Decker says. “And keep up with Adam and Jen — they’re so good at what they do. It was incredibly intimidating. It was really nerve-wracking.”

While her childhood favorite was Forrest Gump, Decker says her current taste runs to such “smart” movies as Thank You for Smoking, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network. Actresses who draw sex appeal from their strength and intelligence — Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Diaz, who “could have easily gone down that bombshell route but ended up working with Cameron Crowe, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese,” Decker says — strike her as suitable role models. Decker admits that timewise — for the moment, anyway — modeling actually pays better. According to Forbes, Gisele Bundchen is the highest-paid model, grossing $25 million in 2009, but someone of Decker’s stature can make something in the range of fellow Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr, who pulled in about $4 million in 2009. Decker probably made a tenth of that for the two films she shot last year. Despite this, her plans are to focus solely on film auditions.

Decker, who lives in Austin with Roddick, claims she’s committed to acting, though as of now, her schedule is not just empty of modeling gigs but acting gigs as well. That might change after opening weekend, but Decker attests that her ambitions are not going to change. “With me and the world I come from — and how people might perceive me — I definitely need to start thinking seriously about what path I want to take,” Decker says. “If I want to do work that is high-quality, and if I want to start growing and getting better, then I need to start working on being good at this. Quite frankly, I was really lucky to get these two roles. And I worked very hard once I got them.”