''How do I look?'' Jessica Alba asks, and the question may as well be rhetorical. Clad in a figment of a bikini, she stands on top of an apple box at the edge of a cliff in Malibu, overlooking the cerulean Pacific as a fan blows her hair into a golden tornado and a chirpy chorus assures her she looks ''ah-mazing.'' It's sexy in a way that's less about sex than it is about some platonic pop culture ideal of sexiness, an abstraction of sultriness and suntan oil straight off a poster decorating the inside walls of a 14-year-old boy's mind. She's a locker-room reverie made real.
For the rest of us at this May 8 EW photo shoot, there's a different question: ''Where do I look?'' No one quite seems to know where to rest his gaze for longer than 1.3 seconds. Seven people huddle around a covered laptop to look at the photos, examining Alba's image in the black-draped interior like it's a camera obscura and they're trying to avoid looking directly at an eclipse. Alba, meanwhile, isn't fazed in the least. She adjusts the fan to compensate for the ocean breeze that has picked up at her back, asks someone to hit play on her iPod playlist, and then returns to posing. This ain't her first rodeo.
Indeed, in Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For the long-anticipated sequel to Robert Rodriguez and Miller's 2005 noir live-action comic book that hits theaters on Aug. 22 Alba straps on the cowboy boots and twirls the lariat one more time as Nancy Callahan, a gun-toting stripper with a heart of gold and bullets of lead. In the first film, Nancy was known for the havoc wreaked upon her. But the sequel is more concerned with what she wreaks upon others, as she seeks to punish those responsible for the death of her protector (Bruce Willis). What's more, hers is the first story in the hyper-masculine Sin City movieverse narrated by a woman. ''She was more naive in the first film. Ignorance was bliss,'' Alba says. ''In this one there's no bliss and no ignorance. I wanted her to transition from being a victim to being someone who's in control of her own story.''
In the nine years since the first film, Alba too has taken a pen to her own narrative, writing the second act of her choosing. At 33, and after two decades in showbiz, she has two other full-time jobs: mother of two and president of a multimillion-dollar company. So when she breaks out the swimsuit for a magazine cover, it's the decision of a woman who not only knows that sex sells but can also calculate its exact market value. In Hollywood, sex and commerce form less an intersection than an elevated freeway, with one running parallel directly beneath the other. What's interesting about Alba is that at some point between the two Sin City films, she appears to have slid into the driver's seat.