SANDRA BULLOCK SAYS SHE WILL pick me up for lunch, which is the first sign that this is not going to be a normal celebrity interview. The second sign is that she’s on time: At eleven she pulls up to the front door of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel—exactly when she had promised to be there. “I thought movie stars were always late for appointments with reporters,” I say as I climb into her black Ford Expedition. Wearing a slightly wrinkled white T-shirt, tennis shoes without socks, green tie-up pants that look like pajama bottoms, and clunky brown glasses, Bullock flashes me a gleaming grin, her teeth as white as milk, and says, “Hey, I’m trying to be different.”

She’s not kidding. Since rocketing to fame four years ago with her frolicsome, daisy-fresh performances in such box-office hits as Speed and While You Were Sleeping, Bullock has been Hollywood’s number one “cute” girl, an actress who attracts legions of fans to her movies just because she’s adorable. But late last year, the 33-year-old rented out her glamorous 1936 Spanish-style stucco home in the Hollywood Hills and began the process of moving to Austin. Although she is still only a part-time resident—she flies in mostly on weekends and stays in a hotel or with friends—she has started building a three-bedroom stone house on a six-acre tract on the shores of a Texas lake (for privacy reasons, she’d rather not say which Texas lake). “A lot of people in the industry are baffled that I would just pick up and leave L.A.,” says Bullock, who spent her childhood shuttling between Europe (where her German-born mother performed as an opera singer) and Arlington, Virginia. “But I feel a lightness when I’m here. It’s the kind of place where I can feel normal again.”

Bullock has also gone to Texas, as the saying goes, to make a new mark professionally. Her latest film, Hope Floats, which opens this month, was shot in Smithville, a town of 3,500 outside Austin on the banks of the Colorado River. In the film—which is also set in Smithville—Bullock plays Birdee Calvert, a big-city photographer who learns by watching a TV talk show that her best friend is having an affair with her husband. Devastated, Birdee packs up her brilliant and sensitive young daughter (Mae Whitman) and moves back to her hometown to live with her eccentric mother (Gena Rowlands). Over time, she reexamines her relationship with both of them and also a childhood friend (Harry Connick, Jr.) who has carried a torch for her since their days together in high school.

Hope Floats is not going to be a blockbuster. There are no train crashes, no chase scenes, no buses speeding out of control. Yet it may have a blockbuster effect in terms of how moviegoers—and Hollywood moguls—view Bullock. “This film is a great step forward in Sandy’s acting career,” says Longview native Forest Whitaker, the director of Hope Floats and a respected actor in his own right. “You’re going to see her in very tense moments with her own child. You’re going to see her fall apart and be totally lost and then try to rebuild her life. You are going to see her display a depth of emotion that she’s never been allowed to show in her other roles.”

Which is another way of saying that Bullock is making a concerted effort to put “cute” behind her. “Sandy has gotten to the point where she feels that Hollywood has locked her into a sweet, bubbly image that represents only about a fifth of who she really is,” says Hope Floats producer Lynda Obst, who herself bought a home just outside Fredericksburg five years ago. “I know she wants to break out of that cocoon, to liberate herself, to reveal the depth and edge in her talent. And how does she do that? She gets out of the Hollywood maelstrom and comes to Texas.”

NOT THAT BULLOCK IS PLANNING TO DITCH the whole-wheat charm that made her famous. She couldn’t do that if she tried. As she presses on the accelerator and heads out of downtown Austin, she begins talking nonstop, barely taking a breath between sentences, her ponytail bouncing up and down with each nod of her head. She is, by turns, feisty, quirky, flirtatious, and always utterly disarming. At one point, while discussing the need to follow her instincts (“If you don’t, I think you get a sort of chemical imbalance in your body”), she suddenly exclaims, “Oh, my gosh, am I going right?” She quickly switches lanes, then starts giggling, then starts to put in a CD so that I can hear a certain song she likes, then interrupts herself again to talk more about following her instincts.

It’s rare to find an A-list actress who moves through life without an entourage or a publicist hovering nearby. But everyone who knows Bullock remarks on her complete lack of pretense. During shoots, she orders coffee for the crew and invites them to her parties (she briefly dated a grip she met while working on one film). She never attempts to look like a glamour puss and proudly vows never to get breast implants “because that’s not part of my personality.” Instead of the no-fat salads prepared by chefs on the set, she wolfs down peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. “What makes her so appealing is that she is so open to life,” says Whitaker. “She doesn’t ever close herself off to the world the way other celebrities at her level do.”

Of course, she’s not entirely open. Although she has survived nearly a decade in Hollywood without the slightest taint of scandal—“If she has any skeleton in her closet, she probably put it there,” Dennis Leary, her co-star from Two if by Sea, told Details—she does keep certain parts of her life private. Perhaps the biggest mystery about Bullock is whether she is or is not dating Texas native and fellow A-lister Matthew McConaughey. After meeting on the set of A Time to Kill in 1995, they have spent quite a bit of time together: People magazine has reported that they celebrated one New Year’s Eve together in New Orleans, vacationed in Miami, and held hands at the premiere of Bullock’s movie In Love and War. Show-biz insiders speculate that she is moving to Texas to be closer to the actor, but Bullock insists that isn’t true. “He doesn’t even keep a place here,” she says, repeating the party line that she and McConaughey are just friends. “He is an exceptional person who can do anything as an actor, and yet he remains, deep down, the exact same person he’s always been. He carries a dip cup, plays golf, and still takes his mom everywhere.”

The two now play it very cool in public. When McConaughey appeared at Austin’s Paramount Theatre in March for the world premiere of The Newton Boys, Bullock was also on hand, but she arrived at a different time with another man. As we ride around in her Expedition, she tells me she has come to Austin after months on a movie set in L.A. to relax for the weekend and visit her four dogs, which live with one of her Texas friends—but later I learn that she’d flown in with McConaughey the night before I met her for lunch and attended a wedding with him after our interview.

Regardless of the true nature of their relationship—and if they do have a romantic one, they should be applauded for keeping it secret for two years, an eternity by Hollywood standards—McConaughey gets credit for bringing Bullock to Texas. “He showed her the romance of the state,” says Obst, saying no more. Bullock will say only that she first set foot in Texas in the summer of 1996, when she was on a road trip with a “friend.” They stayed at the Austin Motel, the kitschy dive with the big red electric sign out front, and bar-hopped through downtown, ending up at an R&B club, where they danced until two in the morning.  When she returned to L.A., she stuck a postcard from the Austin Motel on her refrigerator door and stared at it every day.

During that period, Bullock was in a mini-slump. Her two most recent movies, In Love and War and Two if by Sea, were panned by critics and fans alike, and she sensed that her next film, Speed 2, was going to be a disaster. It was. “I was making decisions based on fear, based on other people telling me what I should be doing,” she says. “I was trying to please everybody. I was trying to be all those perky adjectives that people had been attaching to me. I was not trusting my own instincts. I needed to get away. I needed to find a place where I could go to the convenience store and get a Slurpee whenever I wanted and not have to talk about the film business.”

Then the script for Hope Floats hit her desk. “Talk about life imitating art,” Bullock says. “Everything that was happening to this character paralleled what was happening to me. Here was a woman who left one life behind and came to a small town to find out again who she was.” The only trouble was that the movie was set in Arkansas, but after Bullock signed on as the film’s star and co-executive producer, the first thing she and Obst did was move it to Texas. Serendipitously, they found in Smithville an antebellum house sitting at the end of a road, just as the script called for.

Then Bullock found her own house—or her realtor did. It was a little stone structure on a lake, a short distance from Austin. “I had always had this picture of where I wanted to live: a place by the water with lots of grass and, literally, a stone house,” Bullock says. “And here it was. It was the first time I had ever had heart palpitations over real estate.” In the past few months, she has been restoring the house and building another, larger home on the property, using old stone and weathered planks and beams from nearby farms “so that it will look like it’s been there for a hundred years.” On her travels around the country, she pops into flea markets and antiques stores and ships back to Austin whatever she finds that she thinks will look good in her house. “I’m never going to have to worry about getting dirt on a Louis XIV couch because there won’t be a Louis XIV couch,” she says. “I want this to be like a great huge farmhouse.” That means a few goofball Bullock touches, like a rolling beer cooler (“so at parties in the back yard, the beer can always come to you”) and a saddle that hangs from the living room ceiling and lights up like a disco ball. And she maybe wants to buy a pig, a real one, because, she says, “they have such a quiet grace.”

Only recently has she told her Hollywood acquaintances where she’s moving. “I didn’t want them to move here too,” she says. Although she is keeping one small production company in L.A., she’s started another in Austin, where she wants to be a vital part of the film community. “The people I have met here are incredible artists because they never bend,” she says. “They do what their vision tells them to do.” She has already funded and produced one short film that was shot in Austin, and she wants to do more: In fact, she says she is going to take a year off from acting to work on her own projects. “I’d like to find a movie that would cost about $1 million,” she says, “get all the actors and actresses I love working with, develop the story from beginning to end, and just go out and shoot a great guerrilla film.”

But that isn’t the most interesting idea she has for her new Texas life. She’d like to find a piece of land with a giant wall on the lake just up from her property. “I want to set up a movie projector, use the wall as big movie screen, and then let people pull up in their boats, drop anchor, and watch old films,” she says. Coming soon from Sandra Bullock: the nation’s first drive-in theater for boats.

WE FINALLY ARRIVE AT THE SALT LICK, a venerable barbecue joint southwest of Austin that is Bullock’s absolute favorite. She pets an orange cat sitting by the front door and then asks a waitress for a table in the back by the fireplace. It’s still early—the Saturday afternoon crowd hasn’t yet arrived—and no one seems to recognize her. She orders a turkey sandwich with beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. After taking a professional-wrestler-size bite out of the sandwich, she moans and then murmurs, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Other diners cast sidelong glances at her. Bullock is acting like Meg Ryan in the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally. “My God, this food!” she says, still chewing. “It’s the best. I mean, the best!”

A few minutes later, she orders peach cobbler with ice cream—her metabolism must be amazing—and she eats it like a horse, making smacking sounds and laughing so hard at jokes about her appetite that she snorts. Two tables away, an old man in a fishing cap turns to watch her. He stares at her glowing complexion, her absolutely liquid-brown eyes, her cleft chin, and her loopy grin. Perhaps he realizes he’s looking at a woman who can get $12 million to star in a single movie. Or perhaps he’s just appreciating someone he believes is another pretty Texas girl, her smile like an open door with the welcome mat out front.

“I’ve looked for a long time for a place I could call home,” Bullock says as we get up to leave. “I think I’ve found it.”