"The City of Los Angeles should give me a kickback,'' Sandra Bullock decides, cooling herself with an iced coffee in a West Hollywood bistro during one of L.A.'s recent heat waves. ''Have you seen the lines at bus stops lately? They're bigger than at The Lion King. I made riding the bus hip.''
Well, not quite but her role as Keanu Reeves' pedal-to-the-metal pal in Speed, this summer's runaway action flick, certainly has jumped her career into the fast lane. In the past two weeks, the 28-year-old actress has been topping lists for some of the choicest roles in town, including the Caped Crusader's new girlfriend in Batman Forever (she would replace Rene Russo, 40, who was apparently deemed too mature for newly anointed bat-dude Val Kilmer, 34). She's also signed a $1.2 million deal with high-octane producer Joe Roth (The Three Musketeers, I Love Trouble) to star as a woman who gets mixed up with a comatose man and his brother in the romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping. Not bad for an actress whose only previous star turn had been playing the Melanie Griffith role in the short-lived NBC version of Working Girl.
''Sandra is no more or less talented than she was two months ago,'' offers While You Were Sleeping director Jon Turteltaub. ''But she's certainly a lot more wanted. If she isn't already, she's going to be a big star.''
In Speed, Bullock plays Annie, a hapless commuter who gets stuck in the driver's seat of a bus that's been rigged to explode if it dips below 50 miles per hour. The part wasn't exactly a stretch for the classically trained actress (she spent her early 20s studying with Method guru Sanford Meisner at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse), but the film's bumpy action sequences did require nerves of steel not to mention buns of concrete. ''After two weeks I was like, 'I can't take it anymore!''' she says. ''I mean, I'm sitting in a bus for the entire movie. But it was the best acting lesson I've ever had. How do you make sitting in a bus interesting?''
Bullock's first lessons began early. ''I started as a kid,'' she says. ''My mom [Helga] was a German opera singer and in every opera there's always some disheveled Gypsy kid in the background. That was me. I already had the matted hair and dirty face, so all they had to do was throw me on stage.'' She spent her teen years shuttling with her parents between Germany and Arlington, Va. (where her dad, John, was a voice coach), majored in drama at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., then ended up in New York tending bar and going on casting calls.
One of those auditions landed her a role in 1993's The Vanishing playing a vacationer who gets buried alive by Jeff Bridges in the film's first 20 minutes. ''The main thing I remember about that movie,'' she says, ''was a scene in which my head drops into Jeff Bridges' lap. I was like, 'Is this a great job, or what?''' There were also small but notable parts in last year's Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (as a waitress who dances with Robert Duvall) and The Thing Called Love (as a lousy country crooner who sings with River Phoenix), as well as a sizable role in the sci-fi action flick Demolition Man, playing a future cop who has virtual-reality sex with Sylvester Stallone. ''I was thrown into the movie at the last minute [after Lori Petty was dropped two days into production],'' she says. ''It was basically a read-the-script-and-come-up-with-a-character-in-20-minutes situation.''
These days, Bullock is renovating a house in the Hollywood Hills, where she lives with her younger sister, Gesine, 24, a law student at UCLA, and hangs out with her boyfriend, actor Tate Donovan, 30 but she still has to endure the auditions.
''I had to read for Speed,'' she says. ''Just to make sure the chemistry was okay between me and Keanu. We had to do all these really physical scenes together, rolling around on the floor and stuff. At one point Keanu stumbled into me and sort of grabbed my butt. I asked him, 'Are you copping a feel?' He got all panicky and was like, 'Nooooo! I wasn't!' I was like, 'Relax, Keanu. Just kidding.'''
As for making bus trips hip at least one Speed freak appreciates the gesture: ''I'm not sure we've garnered any new patronage,'' says Bob Ayer, assistant director of the Santa Monica Municipal Bus Lines. ''But it is emotional support.''