Relaxing on a patio in Santa Monica, wearing heels, slim jeans, and a clingy orange tank top, Jessica Alba hardly looks like a no-nonsense entrepreneur, let alone a mother of two. On the contrary, she looks like the woman who has been seducing audiences for over a decade as one of the sexiest actresses in the world. The truth, though, is that she’s all three. Which makes her even more amazing.
Alba, taking some time off at her corporate headquarters, is shouting to a woman who has just emerged from a metal door. “It’s a mess,” Ash says, quickly picking up on the source of her boss’ concern.
We’re sitting at a picnic table, eating lunch from a vegan buffet. But what’s got Alba’s attention aren’t the organic greens on her plate. It’s the renegade foliage exploding outside the entrance to the offices. The workers who were supposed to service it didn’t, and now each plot has morphed into its own 10-foot-high little shop of horrors.
“Take a photo of it and say, ‘This is craziness,’” Alba instructs Ash. “And then, any of the greens that have holes, just pull them out.” Alba tilts her head back, lets her brown hair tumble off her shoulders, and takes a long chug of bottled iced tea.
“Too bad nobody has goats,” she shrugs.
You probably don’t know this Jessica Alba: the cofounder of the Honest Company—a packaged-goods empire with more than 80 nontoxic, eco-friendly, sustainably produced products—and a mother of two who idly wishes for vegetation-munching barnyard animals. You remember the supersexy Jessica Alba who played the Invisible Woman in two installments of the Fantastic Four franchise, and the impossible-to-miss erotic dancer Nancy Callahan in 2005’s Sin City.
And this month, at long last, you’ll have that Jessica Alba back: After a nine-year hiatus, she’s returning to Frank Miller’s monochromatic dystopia with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. But only because the new Jessica Alba decided to let her out. The new Alba’s been very, very busy. In the past decade, she married movie producer Cash Warren and gave birth to two daughters (Honor and Haven, 6 and 3).
And if you’re wondering why she’s offering feedback on overgrown topiary in Santa Monica, that’s because it decorates the property of her hugely successful business, which she runs with as much seriousness as anything she’s ever done, from “building out teams” to deciding “what markets we should enter based on data.”
“That’s what I do,” Alba tells me, her little gold horseshoe earring glinting in the sunshine. “I hustle.”
The word hustle sums up Alba’s entire career—life, really. She signed with her first agent at the age of 12 and made her film debut the same year. By 14, she had a starring role on television and since then has accrued enough IMDb credits to sprain your scrolling finger. But none of it was handed to her. Alba grew up in a proud family of modest means—“not even middle class,” she says—and was sick “all the time.” That isn’t just Hollywood-style overstatement. Alba grew up battling pneumonia and suffered from asthma and a ruptured appendix. That made her a lonely, isolated kid who spent a lot of time in hospitals. Even in her 20s, when she soared to the top of virtually every list involving some superlative variation of hot, sexy, smokin’, and slammin’—including achieving number-one status in Maxim’s Top 100 in 2001—Alba still felt lost.
“I was figuring shit out,” she says, biting the manicured nail on her index finger.
“I wasn’t totally happy. I wasn’t sure how to be. I was also really hungry, but so much of this business is fickle and such a crapshoot. You hope and pray that it all works out, and so little of it does. It chews you up and spits you out; it spits out a lot of people.”
Running the Honest Company allows her to hustle outside show business, so she can focus on being creative when she’s in it. Alba started the company two and a half years ago because there weren’t enough chemical-free household products that she’d trust using on herself, much less her newborn daughter.
“I saw a system that was broken—still is broken,” she tells me. “It shouldn’t be a luxury to have a safe home. It should be accessible to everyone.” Shoppers agree. Since 2011, she and her partners have grown her idea into a company with distribution in more than 2,500 stores. Her light-filled, high-ceilinged office in a former toy factory is now home to more than 200 employees. That means Alba has had to learn a new role: executive. I broach this gently, but having seen her oversight of the gardens, I wonder whether anyone might accuse her of being a micromanager.
“All the time!” she says, laughing. “I remember at my board meeting, they were like, ‘So...maybe you should start thinking about how to best use your time because you’re doing so many things that you could probably just get somebody else to do.’ And I was like, ‘But I don’t trust them, and it’s too expensive, and our CFO is going to bitch about every single dime that we spend!’ And I want to be cost-effective and efficient, so I just do it.”
But well into year three of her 30s, she says, it’s the relationships she’s cultivated with family and friends, not the business, that have brought her some peace.
“After I had my daughter, it was all so clear that unless you have a personal life, in your eulogy they’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Fantastic Four made this at the box office,’ ” she says. “It’s going to be, ‘She was there for me in the middle of the night when I was throwing up and couldn’t get out of bed.’ ”
And to hear Sin City director Frank Miller tell it, those epiphanies made her a much better actress. When Alba arrived in Austin, Texas for the sequel nine years later, she was a changed woman. “She had eight times what she had before,” says Miller. “I’ve rarely seen anything like that in terms of a transformation of talent. She’s become a mother, so part of it is her natural organic maturation into an actor of greater power and greater range.”
She also credits her new acting coach with escorting her to a deeper place inside herself than she’d ever gone to before—which was key in a role (as an exotic dancer abandoned by the love of her life) that Alba describes as “gritty and dark and grimy.”
“She’s rad,” Alba says of her coach. “She really believes that actors are here to tell stories and to heal people through healing themselves. And she believes every character is about you healing something in your life.”
Exactly what Alba was healing is a subject she keeps to herself.
“It’s so personal,” she says. And then she goes silent for a very long time, gazing off to a place several dimensions beyond the patio.
“I don’t want to talk about my issues,” she says with an I’m-changing-the-subject wink. “But I definitely feel like I tackled something and came out the other side.” I wonder what it was she battled, but for now Jessica Alba’s old demons will remain unknown to everyone but the new Jessica Alba. “Everything that led up to all this was worth it,” she says.
“I’m really comfortable in my own skin, and I’m not apologizing for myself.” And there’s no sin in that.
Photos by Cliff Watts