New York City — Every good action film needs a babe. This isn't conjecture. It's cold, hard, movie studio fact. Look at the recent slate of action movies: Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, Van Helsing and the Kill Bill chronicles. Every one of them has a men's magazine pin-up at its center, holding a sword or sawed off shotgun, ready to dispense baddies and look good doing it.
The action babe trend suits actress Jessica Biel just fine. This week she debuts in Blade: Trinity, the third film in the successful Blade franchise, featuring Wesley Snipes' titular vampire hero (Blade: Trinity opens nationwide Wednesday).
Biel spends most of the film wearing a tight pair of leather pants and sporting a wicked compound bow, making another bold step away from Mary Camden, the sweet character she played for five seasons on the TV family drama, 7th Heaven.
Only if she can break free from that sugary perception, Biel is convinced, can she then conquer Hollywood.
"When people see you every week in their homes, they think they know you," she says, speaking at a New York City hotel to promote Blade: Trinity.
"Producers or studio execs see that and think you can't do anything else. Look, I can do more. I can be a vampire slayer. I can be a damsel in distress in Texas. Look what I can do. Give me a chance. That's all you're trying to do when you leave television."
Biel makes it clear: She is fighting typecasting, convinced that a small role in an upcoming Cameron Crowe film might be the final push she needs to break completely from her TV persona.
Wearing a big, warm sweater and an easy smile, Biel comes off less like a Maxim action babe and more like the wide-eyed 22-year-old she is. Everything about her is peaceful, right down to the simple tattoo of a dove she shows off on her waistline.
Therein lies the contradiction. In the film, Biel's character — Abigail Whistler, daughter to Blade's mentor and a capable assassin herself — throws high kicks to vampires' heads and silver daggers to their hearts. In person, Biel looks like someone more at home with a cappuccino than a crossbow. Stepping out of her comfort zone, she admits, is the only way she'll ever get to play the variety of characters she seeks. That's why doing movies — not a long-running television drama — appeals to her.
"I just really like being someone for three months, then being someone else, then someone else," Biel says. "That's what I've wanted to do for such a long time. I had a great time in TV. Would I go back to it? Absolutely. Right now? I don't think so. I'm really enjoying traveling, trying different stuff all the time."
To achieve that — and Biel understands this will disappoint her newfound comic-book fans — she is intentionally shying away from genre films for a while. After a reasonably successful star turn in last year's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Biel jumped right into shooting the new Blade installment. That's enough fighting and bloodshed for one actress, she says. She's looking for a comedy, a costume drama, even a movie musical. Anything, she says, that shows off her range.
"I would love to do everything I haven't done," she says. "But I don't know what's going to happen next, because every time I try to figure out what I should do, I do the complete opposite. I just try to wait until I read something exciting, but I would love to do something totally different from the action/horror genre."
If Biel sounds like many 22-year-olds coming out of college and entering adulthood — excited but not overwhelmed by the wide landscape of choices and career paths in front of her — it's because she is. But she's also the first person to admit she didn't have a normal maturation. She enrolled at Tufts University in Boston after 7th Heaven made her a recognizable celebrity, and her fame complicated her social life while there, although not in the way you'd expect. Instead of constantly being bugged by college boys on campus, Biel says she was virtually ignored.
"They didn't know what to think of me and I didn't know what to think of them," she says. "So I just didn't talk to anybody for a while. It was an interesting experience. Guys didn't bother me. Guys didn't talk to me! That was more of an issue than being bothered all the time."
Asked if her new image as a karate-chopping vampire-slayer is going to help or hurt the dating situation, Biel laughs. She can feel stares when she goes out, but is almost never approached by a guy. So Jessica Biel as an ass-kicker isn't likely to change anything.
Her next role maight make her more approachable. Biel went directly from filming Blade: Trinity to a high-tech fighter pilot drama, Stealth, where she plays one of cinema's first female fighter jet pilots. After that, she dove headfirst into director Cameron Crowe's next project, Elizabethtown, jumping at the chance to play a small role for someone she admires so much. As a supporting player, Biel had only six days "to be brilliant," as she puts it. That made the time on set with Crowe very brief — but very memorable.
"He's (Crowe) unlike anybody I've ever worked with," she says. "When you're working, it's all-encompassing with him. You come off the day so excited and energized, because you've had such an amazing creative experience all day long."
Biel says every film she's done has been an opportunity to grow a bit. Learn something new. Try something different. She confidently feels she is a far cry from where she started her career, a long way from that sensitive character on 7th Heaven. And she's pretty sure that if Abigail Whistler ever met Mary Camden, her TV character would get her butt kicked.
"Oh, she wouldn't last very long," Biel says. "Not with these new skills I have."