JESSICA BIEL isn't an action-movie star, she insists. Sure, she's kicked butt in such films as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (2003), "Blade: Trinity" (2004) and "Stealth" (2005), but she wants to be seen as a serious actress.
"I do think people think I'm the action girl, they think I'm the tough one," she said. "I want to break out of that image. I want to do parts that scare me dramatically, because I like taking big steps. Baby steps are for another type of girl. I love when something is extremely nerve-wracking. If it's terrifying, then I know I should do it."
One such film, she said, is Lee Tamahori's "Next," which opens today. The 25-year-old Biel co-stars with Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore in a story about a man who can see into the future.
"Nick plays this man who has precognitive abilities," Biel said during a telephone interview, "and he can see into his own future - but only two minutes into it. He gets involved with the FBI, who are after him. Julianne Moore plays one of the FBI agents. Meanwhile there is a terrorist attack that's going to occur, but the government doesn't have any information. The FBI wants to basically use Nick as a guinea pig to save L.A."
As for Biel, for a change she isn't playing a one-woman fighting machine.
"I play a teacher who is just a normal person, wrapped up in this crazy world because Nick's character keeps seeing the face of this woman," the actress said. "Whenever he sees certain things, he can see way further into the future. At the same time, he doesn't understand who I am and he doesn't know why his powers are stronger when he's around me. It's these two people trying to be together and falling in love.
"They're being chased, too," she added. "It's really a wild ride."
The role is a good way to show another side of her, distinct from the sexy image that flashes from the pages of magazines that proclaim her the "Hottest Babe Alive." And that's welcome, as far as Biel is concerned.
"When I first started getting all of these 'sexiest women' things, like an Esquire cover, I was flattered and honored," she said. "I was also a little shocked at the whole thing.
"I also thought, 'Oh, this is going to be great. I'm going to get so many jobs from this,' " she said. "But that wasn't really the case. It wasn't a negative at all, but being called the sexiest woman is kind of an unattainable sort of label. The Sexiest Woman Alive - I mean, who can hang out with The Sexiest Woman Alive? You can't hang out with her. She's The Sexiest Woman Alive. You don't know her. You might not like her.
"I would love to play the girl next door," Biel said with a laugh. "I also want to be the funny girl on the big screen. I'd like to do Jennifer Aniston-type of stuff, or something serious where I don't have to be beautiful.
"I don't want people to put me on a pedestal," she said. "I've read articles about 'her luscious feet and toes.' I'll sit there and think, 'What!' It can be really embarrassing. My worst fear is that my brother reads this stuff and goes, 'Ewwwww, gross.' My friends also give me a lot of crap about those type of stories.
"My brother is 21, and he's like, 'Whatever. You're not hot.' "
Biel is trying to make people forget the magazine covers by proving her acting chops. She cited the critically acclaimed film "The Illusionist" (2006), which starred Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, as her favorite.
"It fulfilled a creative bug that I hadn't been able to fill before, in terms of my career," she said. "I really thought of it as a jumping-off point. After that film I felt like, 'OK, so you can do this! Check it out! Take me seriously and please respect me, because I'm not going to give up doing interesting things. I'm going to do this as long as I possibly can, and hopefully have longevity in this business.'
"I loved doing something that's completely different from the previous roles I've done," Biel said. "I feel like I've pretty much played someone close to me in many of my roles. It's time in my career to change it up a bit. I love a role where I feel like I'm stepping into an abyss and I don't really know what's going to happen. I'm excited to surprise people."
Biel grew up in Boulder, Colo., where as a child she was drawn to musical theater. By the time she was 9, she had appeared in such shows as "Annie," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Sound of Music."
"I felt different as a kid," she recalled. "I was the girl who thought, 'I don't fit here.' That's why I understand a rebellious spirit in a character. I've had that kind of attitude in the past."
Biel's big break came when she was cast as clergyman's daughter Mary Camden in the hit series "7th Heaven."
"I don't think I would be here without that show," she said. "It was a platform for me. It was sort of like my coming-out party. I was on TV at 14 years old. Maybe there weren't a lot of people in the business who watched '7th Heaven,' but I'm sure that there was an awareness of us. Then, when the show got to be more popular, there was enormous interest, even though we were never as popular as 'Dawson's Creek' [1998-2003].
"The funny thing is, we did better than them in the ratings," Biel said.
"Yet they were all over the place and much more popular, which is kind of ironic."
For her, the young actress said, "7th Heaven" was like a nonstop acting class.
"It's where I became comfortable with the camera," she said. "They even taught me how to gracefully stand up and sit back down on a bed. I had little lessons like that one. It's also where I became comfortable in front of lots and lots of people holding booms. I got comfortable being emotional in front of strangers."
As a result, she said, she no longer has to identify with a character in order to play her.
"I think that if you can relate to one element of the character, then you're ahead of the game," she said. "Let's say that I was offered a serial-killer role. That would be really cool and something that I would love to do, but I don't have that psyche at all. But I'm sure there would be some part of that person that I would be able to relate to, and that would be my starting point.
"You find that point, and then you build the layer upon layer," Biel said. "You create the mannerisms and you create this person's reality."
The next film for the actress, who made her movie debut in "Ulee's Gold" (1997), will be the comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," due out later this year. She will also be seen in "Home of the Brave," with Samuel L. Jackson, a drama released last year in a few markets but due for wider release this year.
"I play an American soldier coming back from Iraq who sustains a really serious injury and has to get back into normal life and live again with family and friends," she said. "I loved that people will see another side of me," Biel said. "I just want people to give me a chance to try everything." *