The Very Good Girl

Photo: Guy Aroch/WWD Beautybiz

If you don’t think I have a deep, dark past,” says Anne Hathaway sunnily at the end of our interview, “then I’ve done my job well.”

It’s a slick, charming sign-off: a wink and a smile from the thrice-crowned star of The Princess Diaries, The Princess Diaries 2, and Ella Enchanted, the girl-wonder who is now growing up into a beautiful leading woman. But with a comment like that, isn’t Hathaway, in fact, screwing up her job royally?

At a time when a magazine like Vanity Fair practically requires its cover girls to divulge (at least) an eating disorder, (preferably) a nasty divorce, or (if at all possible) a history of sexual abuse, Hathaway’s cheeky little joke could be read as a colossal misunderstanding of the whole entertainment complex: Starlets are supposed to be selling their darkest confessions—not to mention their babies—to the highest bidder. As her Devil Wears Prada co-star Meryl Streep recently observed of today’s young actresses, “There is so much money to be made off their personal lives.”

Hathaway gets that. “There’s a lot of pressure to point out the shocking and sordid details,” she says—yet she’s too diplomatic even to critique any actress who would do so. “If that’s your goal, good for you. And just because someone likes to go out a lot, I don’t think that’s revealing of a deeper truth about anyone.

“There are other ways to get there,” insists the actress. But in this overheated atmosphere, it’s tough to be smart and talented and relatively sober without coming off as something of a prig. (Nobody cared much about Angelina’s activism until she became “the other woman,” and speaking of Vanity Fair covers, Natalie Portman may have lost hers to Teri Hatcher because she was foolish or honest enough to give a nice, smart, I-couldn’t-believe-it-when-someone-offered-me-a-line-of-coke-in-Spain interview, instead of some low-rent confessional.)

Squeaky-clean as her image may be, Hathaway knows that “the last thing I’d want to do is present myself as a kind of classic, shiny, white-toothed girl.” The only problem is, she fits that bill pretty well.

Perhaps that’s why Hathaway decided to step into the juicy film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the roman-à-clef chick-lit hit by Lauren Weisberger, former assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour—here known as Miranda Priestly and played by Streep as Cruella de Vil with a migraine.Hathaway’s latte-fetching part was gossip fodder from the start. There were rumors that actresses cast in the film would be banned from the hallowed pages of Vogue forever and that stars shied away for just that reason. Director David Frankel says, “It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s true.” In any event, everyone has very carefully debunked any parallels between Wintour and Priestly. (Like in the book, the magazine is called Runway.)

Sure enough, Hathaway, on message, says the film is much more about “two generations of working women” than anyone at Condé Nast. But “I’m glad [Wintour] saw the movie and said it was entertaining, and I think that lent it a degree of authenticity.

“We’ve always said we’re not making a character assassination,” she adds. “That’s not who I am.”

The parallels between Prada and the Princess flicks are also tempting. After all, Hathaway once again clashes with an evil- stepmother type (Streep) and is transformed by a fairy-godmother type (Stanley Tucci as Runway’s fashion guru), only to find her true self. Hathaway would rather note the parallels between Prada and her career: Ambitious young woman gets sucked into a shamelessly superficial business, navigates pitfalls, and dresses up in couture, only to find her true self.

“To be completely over-the-top and obvious,” she says, “the movie is about how this woman finds a more realistic take on who she is and what’s going to make her happy in the end. Even if it’s going to be a slow climb, she finds that’s better than if you shoot up stratospherically and meteorically, just to be a copy of someone else.”

“We’re not making a character assassination. That’s not who I am.”

In Hathaway’s case, the climb has been steady and unimpeachable. She got her start in suburban New Jersey, playing soccer and eventually acting with New York’s Barrow Group theater. She played her first princess in 1998, in her high school’s production of Once Upon a Mattress, followed by a role on the short-lived TV show Get Real. She became a star when Princess Diaries—about a frizzy-haired klutz who cleaned up nicely—became an unexpected hit with young girls. Her three kids’ movies grossed more than $225 million before Hathaway finally decided to put “tiara flicks” behind her.

“The great thing about being in a G-movie that so epitomizes girl empowerment,” she says, “is that it makes anything else you do seem all subversive.” So, in lieu of divulging some dark secret, she scored mature buzz for going indie (and topless) as a rough-and-tumble L.A. teen in 2005’s Havoc. Then she surprised Hollywood as Lureen, the tamped-down horseback-riding wife of Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. And she’s just wrapped the lead role of Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, a Miramax period piece about the young Austen’s romance with the feckless law student Tom Lefroy, which has breakout potential.

Despite her serious turn, Frankel is convinced that Hathaway has something more than “startling Audrey Hepburn beauty” and “dramatic talent.” The Sex and the City vet says the “bottom line is that she can do comedy. It’s like when I first met Sarah Jessica Parker. Meryl, Goldie, Bette, Streisand: The ones who have comic flair keep going when the dramatic roles thin out.”

Streep is indeed one of Hathaway’s role models, along with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. But these days, there are a dozen young starlets who might say the same. “This generation is a bit light on young men, but it’s a crowded field for the women,” says Frankel, “and they’re all really trying to do good films: Scarlett working with Woody, Dunst with Sofia Coppola, Lindsay with Robert Altman. Nobody wants to get stuck playing girlfriends.”

Hence the desire to stand out by acting out. But Hathaway is unlikely to become a tabloid star. She can tease all she wants, yet her life seems entirely devoid of deep, dark secrets. She’s living in Manhattan (she won’t specify where), spending time with her boyfriend, real-estate developer Raffaello Follieri, and working with charities, content to maintain a low profile. A kind of gawky, Julia Roberts goodness clings to her. She is just the sort of person you’d trust as your assistant—certainly not the type who’d cash in with a tell-all after she left your employ.

Hathaway says she’s glad that audiences can go to her films and see “a character and not the tabloid story.” But don’t be astonished if she roughs up her good-girl rep, just a little. After all, “I’m already known in so specific a way, I don’t need to be typecast in my personal life.”

The Very Good Girl