Cameron Diaz matures into matriarch role

'My Sister's Keeper' provides new challenges

Precisely 15 years after she startled filmgoers with her acting debut as a leggy, fresh-faced ingenue in the blockbuster “The Mask,” Cameron Diaz is once again shaking up movie audiences.

This month, for the first time in her admirably eclectic career, she’s playing a fierce mother of three in “My Sister’s Keeper,” Nick Cassavetes’ adaptation of the Jodi Picoult three-hanky bestseller.

That she hardly seems old enough (the actress will turn 37 later this summer) to have teenagers is part of the jolt, but it’s the fact that Diaz is headlining a mainstream family drama that might seem out of character.

“On paper, it might seem like a stretch to cast her as a mom,” acknowledges Cassavetes. “But I’ve known her for years, and this is how I see her.

“Here’s the thing,” he adds, addressing the actress’s penchant for defying expectations. “Cameron’s got that ‘joie de vivre’ — I can’t believe I just used those words, but they suit her — and people love her for it, but sometimes in Hollywood there’s resistance to seeing someone in a different light.

“It happens to everyone, not just actresses. Remember Tom Hanks’ early career? He was seen as the guy from ‘Bachelor Party’ or even ‘Joe Versus the Volcano.’ It took a long time to get to ‘Philadelphia.’ And Cameron can do other things, more substantial things. She has the skill, and once you have that, you own it forever.”

Most admired for her romantic-comedy chops, Diaz has actually been adding dramas to the mix all along. “I’ve always sprinkled them in there — I do a comedy, I do a couple of dramas, another comedy,” she says. “I like to keep things mixed up. I did ‘What Happens in Vegas’ last year, but before that I did ‘The Holiday’ and ‘In Her Shoes,’ and before that I did another ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and before that “Gangs of New York.'”

The actress is sanguine enough to realize that “dramas aren’t the big moneymakers that put you out in front of people.”

It’s a lesson she learned early on. Immediately following “The Mask,” Diaz appeared in a series of indie dramas (such as “Feeling Minnesota”), which, while they allowed Diaz to hone her newfound acting skills, flew under the radar. 1997’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding” changed all that.

Deftly holding her own against the star power of Julia Roberts, the actress suddenly emerged as a serious contender for a seat on the romantic comedy throne and sealed her image as a sunny, smiling but slightly edgy bombshell.

Still, for every movie that highlights her sex appeal, effervescent personality and even her ability to shake it (it’s true — she dances in a majority of her films), Diaz seems intent on throwing a curveball into the mix, box office be damned. Case in point: Long before the current semi-revival of musicals, she sang and danced in Danny Boyle’s odd 1997 misfire “A Life Less Ordinary.”

She also is the only leading lady of her generation who appears almost pathological in her quest to recede from centerstage, more often than not appearing as part of an ensemble (“The Sweetest Thing,” “The Holiday” or even the “Charlie’s Angels” series).

“That’s definitely true, and she’s very much a team player, very democratic on the set,” says “My Sister’s Keeper” producer Mark Johnson. “And I admire that. I think that the beauty of why Cameron is doing the movies and the roles she’s doing is that she really is following her own path — she’s doing what makes sense for her, she’s not ‘plotting’ a career. And in that sense, she’s quite adventuresome!”

Cassavetes is hoping to put that part of Diaz’s psyche on display again in his next project, “Peaceable Kingdom,” about real-life animal conservationist Daphne Sheldrick and her quest to prevent elephant extinction in Kenya. As he notes, “Cameron’s concern and interest in the environment is not b.s. — she is absolutely serious about it. She walks it like she talks it.”

As for the lady herself, is there a preference for garnering laughs or tears onscreen? “It’s not like I’m going, ‘Oh my God, I wish I were making a comedy’ when I’m making a drama,” she says. “I just appreciate being there. Whether it’s successful or not at the box office, for me it’s always a success because I learn so much that I get to take with me in life. It’s the best job in the world!”

Anna Stewart contributed to this report.

Tip Sheet

What: Cameron Diaz receives a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

When: Monday at 11 a.m.

Where: Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.