"When you're blonde, you go out for all the cheerleader and hot girl roles," says actress Ahna O'Reilly. But, she says, "I wasn't getting those and probably never will." Yes, O'Reilly is undeniably hot and blonde, but also, she says, "kookier than you'd expect." So for the last five years, she has (save for a bit part in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and a handful of Vampire Diaries episodes) honed her craft in indies like Herpes Boy, where she brought new meaning to "viral video" as the actress-slash-model-slash-dancer cousin of the titular character.

Now the actress, who was once most recognizable as James Franco's better half (the two recently broke up), is emerging as a presence in her own right. She's currently starring opposite Emma Stone and Viola Davis in The Help, writer-director Tate Taylor's pitch-perfect adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 best-selling novel about white families and black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. As a housewife more invested in her Junior League than motherhood, O'Reilly brought an empathy to an otherwise unlikable character. "She's such a mean mom -- but that drew me to her," O'Reilly explains. "She's kind of a wannabe that wants to do everything right, but she's what most women at that time were like -- not heroic, or bitchy like the other characters, but kind of stuck in the middle just wanting to get it right. I could identify with that feeling of 'wanting to get it right.'"

O'Reilly, 26, went to high school in Northern California, but spent her formative years on the road; her dad, James O'Reilly, publisher of the Travelers' Tales series, drove the family around France in a VW van for the better part of her childhood. "It made me feel confident that I'd be supported to take alternative routes in life," she says. "I didn't feel limited."

These days, home for O'Reilly is West Hollywood, and we'll see her next as Gaelan Connell's (Bandslam) imaginary girlfriend in the oddball comedy I Am Ben. In the meantime, she says, "I'm dying to do theater, but it's not the easiest thing to do from L.A.," she smiles, because as she well knows, nothing ever is.

The Help is in theaters now.

Hair: Jonathan Hanousek for Exclusive Artists/ Redken
Makeup: KC Fee for Exclusive Artists/ Dior
Ahna wears a tank by Corso, skirt by Nicole Miller and earrings by Kimberly McDonald.