Denise Richards: Drop Dead Delectable

Denise Richards claims she was brought up to be a nice girl, but on the evidence of Starship Troopers, Wild Things and this summer's Drop Dead Gorgeous, most of her fans remain blissfully ignorant of the possibility. Now that she's in front of cameras as the new Bond beauty, maybe it's time to set the record straight.

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Denise Richards may not yet have achieved the level of fame that makes for instant recognizability in households across the country. But to a growing corps of true believers, the mere mention of her name elicits passionate attention. Otherwise rational, sensible males go monosyllabic at the sight of her tawny skin, her lustrous hair, her pouty lips and her impossibly stacked physique. As for women, there are those who seem to grow claws and fangs at the sight of her, but lots of others applaud her implicit parody of the classic screen sex doll and would emulate her steamy moves if they thought they could get away with it.

What's got so many so hot and bothered about Denise Richards? No one who's actually seen her on-screen could possibly think the question needs asking. Hollywood at large picked up on her when she appeared as the Barbarella-worthy intergalactic pilot in director Paul Verhoeven's 1997 film Starship Troopers. But it was really her follow-up film, Wild Things, that supremely un-guilty pleasure of pleasures, that put her over with the people who matter. A wickedly entertaining sex thriller, Wild Things featured Richards as a double-dealing high school Lolita who did double-love with Neve Campbell and Matt Dillon. A number of beauties in the movie business might have cut an impressive figure in a self-aware cheeseball offering like Wild Things, but Richards was so convincing, and so extreme in her presence in the film, you suspected she'd had a she-wolf for a mama.

Radiating rich-bitch, all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips insolence and a take-on-all-comers sensuality, she earned instant icon status with every Joe Sixpack and with a good number of less predictable types, too--like thinking men, including a number of movie critics, who were gratefully relieved of the burden of any coherent thought when Richards was on-screen.

Wild Things was moderately successful in theaters, but as a renter it was killer, and it turned Richards into one of the Internet's most downloaded knockouts. Those of us who can't get enough of her in movies will be heartened to know that she's starring this month as a small-town barracuda in the black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous. Later this year, she'll fulfill a destiny most of her fan base would have voted her into if they'd been asked to render an opinion--she'll be the newest Bond girl, Christmas Jones, in The World Is Not Enough.

When Richards walks in to meet me for breakfast at one of Santa Monica's posh beachfront hotels, she's so fresh-faced, ripe and elegantly groomed that a couple of waiters practically slam into each other trying not to stare at her. What's more, the closer she gets the clearer it becomes that she's every bit as spectacular-looking in real life as she is onscreen--and that none of this lush beauty is artificially induced. Even though she's just off an arduous flight from London, where she's been shooting the Bond film, she greets me with a chipper, soft-spoken, wholesomely unassuming politeness that wouldn't be in the average young Hollywood actress's repertoire of behaviors on her best day.

With all this encouragement, I can't resist starting the interview with some go-for-it fun. Let's get right to that persistent rumor about Richards--that she got so far so fast by being fast and loose in Hollywood. Any truth to the notion she may have gone on a few dates to achieve her current spotlight status?

Having just downed her first sip of coffee, Richards lets out a great, quintessential guy's-girl laugh at this opening question. "I've never had anyone ask me that straight to my face," she nearly chokes. Then she lets another giggle rip through the quiet dining room and tells me, "I've dated very few people since being here. But I can see how that happens to some girls, because I was very naive when I began to get into the business. Not so naive as to think that's how you get ahead, though." I remind Richards that when a beautiful young thing seems to emerge out of the ether and goes on to play the sort of nubile babes she has, suspicious minds are bound to work overtime. "In Hollywood," she replies, "if you're brought up to be a nice person, which I definitely was, and that's what you are, people think: what does she want? I've had people say, 'You're so nice' like they were suspicious of me. It's sad and strange."

It's also inevitable. I mean, the least some people can hope for is that anyone who looks like Denise Richards will turn out to be a stark, raving bitch. "Do people think or hope that I'm a bitch?" she asks, laughing and shaking her head. "Personally, I would not want to even work with a diva, let alone be one. And, I'm really happy to say, I've never been around that kind of behavior on a movie set. I'm a nice person and., sorry, but I enjoy working with nice people, too. I'm not going to be the actress who's the last one out of her trailer. Life is too short for that. People who've seen me play 'the sexy girl' in films assume that's how I must be in real life, but if I ever got to be a diva, believe me, my family would be the first ones to slap my face."

OK, then, let's put some perspective on a little tale that Hollywood insiders have passed around about Richards and the notoriously ferocious director Paul Verhoeven. As I heard it, Richards, like no other unknown actress who'd just been cast in a big-budget sci-fi epic like Starship Troopers might have thought to do, locked horns with Verhoeven over a nude scene that audiences never ended up seeing. Was there any such difference of creative opinion?

Richards appears pleased to settle accounts on this one. "I had first met Paul for Showgirls, the part that Elizabeth Berkley finally took," she explains. "I don't think I actually could have done that movie when it came right down to it--it was about sex.. But I was thrilled when Paul remembered me, and I was so thankful when he cast me in Starship. After I was cast, though, he asked me to do nudity. He wanted to show my breasts in a scene with Casper Van Dien. I felt it wasn't necessary for my character--for that scene or for that film, for that matter."

So how loud did things get? Richards laughs, italicizing her mile-wide grin with a wink, and says, "Like, did he scream? Well, there may have been a...discussion between him and my agent. After that, I talked to Paul about a way we could shoot the scene, and we shot it. It wasn't the way he had wanted and it ended up not being in the movie at all. Everyone has their vision, right? When Starship came out the critics gave us all hell, anyhow. But...I mean, it was my first movie."

First movie? Hold on. Surely, Richards can't be intentionally omitting from her resume the little straight-to-video treasure Tammy and the T-Rex about a high school student who turns into a dinosaur. She turns crimson at the mention of the thing, lowers her face and starts explaining, "I'm not going to tell you what that movie was except to say it's something you should not watch. Let's not talk about it, OK?" I tell her I caught Tammy on cable by accident and that, if nothing else, she looked swell in it. "That's fine, we can move on," she says, cracking up. "You're completely embarrassing me, knowing about that movie. That's why I say Starship was my first movie--it's my first real movie that made it into a theater. Everybody's got to start somewhere, right? Maybe even Susan Sarandon has a movie like that in her past. I'll tell you what--if I become a Susan Sarandon, then I'll tell you about making Tammy." Deal. But then will she also discuss the 1995 film P.C.H. she made with Casper Van Dien and Elliott Gould? And the 1994 number called Lookin' Italian? And what about 1993's spoof National Lampoons Loaded Weapon I in which she's billed below William Shatner and Dr. Joyce Brothers?

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