Alba expressed interest in acting since the age of five. In 1992, the 11-year-old Alba persuaded her mother to take her to an acting competition in Beverly Hills, whose grand prize was free acting classes. Alba won the grand prize, and took her first acting lessons. An agent signed Alba nine months later. Her first appearance on film was a small role in the 1994 feature Camp Nowhere as Gail. She was originally hired for two weeks but her role turned into a two-month job in a leading role when one of the prominent actresses dropped out.
Alba appeared in two national television commercials for Nintendo and J.C. Penney as a child. She was later featured in several independent films. She branched out into television in 1994 with a recurring role as the vain Jessica in three episodes of the Nickelodeon comedy series The Secret World of Alex Mack. She then performed the role of Maya in the first two seasons of the television series Flipper. Under the tutelage of her lifeguard mother, Alba learned to swim before she could walk, and she was a PADI-certified scuba diver, skills which were put to use on the show, which was filmed in Australia.
In 1998, she appeared as Melissa Hauer in a first-season episode of the Steven Bochco crime-drama Brooklyn South, as Leanne in two episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210, and as Layla in an episode of The Love Boat: The Next Wave. In 1999, she appeared in the Randy Quaid comedy feature P.U.N.K.S.. After Alba graduated from high school, she studied acting with William H. Macy and his wife, Felicity Huffman, at the Atlantic Theater Company, which was developed by Macy and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and film director, David Mamet.
Alba rose to greater prominence in Hollywood in 1999 after appearing as a member of a snobby high school clique in the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy Never Been Kissed, and as the female lead in the 1999 comedy-horror film Idle Hands, opposite Devon Sawa.
Her big break came when writer/director James Cameron picked Alba from a pool of 1,200 candidates for the role of the genetically-engineered super-soldier, Max Guevara, on the Fox sci-fi television series Dark Angel. Co-created by Cameron, the series starred Alba, and ran for two seasons until 2002, earning her critical acclaim as well as a Golden Globe nomination. Alba later admitted to suffering from anorexia while in preparation for Dark Angel.
Alba has been well received in popular culture. She received the Teen Choice Award for Choice Actress and Saturn Award for Best Actress for her role in Dark Angel. In 2006, Alba received an MTV Movie Award for "Sexiest Performance" for Sin City. Her acting has also drawn criticism, however, as she was nominated for a 2007 Razzie Award for Worst Actress for her performances in Awake, Good Luck Chuck, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. She was also nominated for the same award in 2005 for her performances in Fantastic Four and Into the Blue.
Alba's most notable film roles have included an aspiring dancer-choreographer in Honey, exotic dancer Nancy Callahan in Sin City, and as the Marvel Comics character Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman in Fantastic Four. She then appeared in its sequel, in Into the Blue later that year, and Good Luck Chuck a few years later. Alba hosted the 2006 MTV Movie Awards and performed sketches spoofing the movies King Kong, Mission: Impossible 3, and The Da Vinci Code. In February 2008, she hosted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Science and Technical Awards. Alba has been represented by talent agents Patrick Whitesell and Brad Cafarelli.
In 2008, Alba made her acting transition to the horror-film genre in The Eye, a remake of the Hong Kong original. The film was released on February 1, 2008. Though the film was not well received by critics, Alba's performance was both positively and negatively received. Alba won a Teen Choice for Choice Movie Actress: Horror/Thriller and a Razzie Award for Worst Actress-nomination. Also in 2008, Alba starred alongside Mike Myers and Justin Timberlake in "box office bomb" The Love Guru. Alba was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress.
In late 2008, Alba signed on to star as the lead role in An Invisible Sign of My Own. The movie finished filming in November 2008. It premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival and was released to theaters in May 2011.
In 2010, Alba starred in five films. She played Joyce Lakeland, a prostitute in The Killer Inside Me, film adaption of the book of the same name which co-starred Kate Hudson and Casey Affleck. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Her second film of the year was the hit romantic comedy Valentine's Day, directed by Garry Marshall. She portrayed Ashton Kutcher's girlfriend, Morley Clarkson, in the ensemble film that included Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Garner, among others. It was released on February 12, 2010. Later in the year, she appeared in action film Machete, in An Invisible Sign of My Own and in Little Fockers, reuniting with Robert De Niro who was also in Machete.
In August 2010, it was announced that Alba would appear in Spy Kids 4. The film was released a year later.
In January 2012, Alba and business partner Chris Gavigan launched The Honest Company, a collection of toxin-free household goods, diapers, and body care products. In March 2012, Alba announced that she will be releasing a book, The Honest Life, based on her experiences creating a natural, non-toxic life for her family. The book, slated for release in early 2013, will be published by Rodale.
Her next projects include comedy A.C.O.D. and animated film Escape from Planet Earth. Alba will also reprise her role as Santana in Machete's sequel Machete Kills and as Nancy Callahan in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, sequel to 2005's Sin City. Filming for Sin City is expected to start in the summer of 2012 with a release set in October 2013.
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