Moynahan sounds amused as she describes how she looked at that stage. “I started when ‘doughy’ was in. If you go back— and I hope you don’t—to my Glamour and Self covers, I have a completely round face, and the hair was bigger.” Her first year as a model was a revelation to her. “I had the most wild experiences,” she recalls, “from being dirt poor and living with a bunch of other people and eating chili four days in a row to making what at that age was a lot of money and seeing the world.”
While she admits to partying back then, Moynahan expresses astonishment at the antics of such current reality-show stars as Kim Kardashian, whose fame was launched by a sex tape, and Snooki of Jersey Shore, arrested for disorderly conduct. “They’re putting forward material that you’re never going to live down,” she says. “Really poor behavior is going on, but now it’s considered OK. There’s a lack of self-respect that I don’t understand, and I find it kind of sad. Kim has made an incredible career out of whatever she did, and the same with Snooki. They are icons of this generation. That kind of fame—do you get satisfaction out of it long term? Is it worth it? I don’t know.”
By the time she reached her late twenties, Moynahan had started to question her place in the fashion and beauty business. “Nobody’s asking your opinion, you don’t have any say, sometimes your humor isn’t appreciated,” she says. “I got a little tired of just being there as the face or the body.” She thought she might go back to school but “decided to pursue the acting while I still had the opportunity.”
Her commitment to the new field crystallized one day while she was working on a commercial with Ellen Pompeo, who now stars in Grey’s Anatomy. Moynahan says she asked her, “How do you go in there and say ‘I love cat food’ with such conviction?” She recalls Pompeo responding, “This is how I pay my bills.” The conversation led Moynahan to decide to take acting lessons. “It was a turning point for me,” she says. “I was going in for commercials based on the fact that I was a model who had the [right] look. Acting is not just based on the way you look. I needed to be a better actress.” That didn’t happen overnight. “I didn’t go out on auditions until I felt I was ready,” she says. “I gave myself three years.”
Sam Harris met Moynahan in 1998 when they both worked on an independent movie, In the Weeds. “She had a tiny little part,” he says. “She was definitely nervous.”
Some fledgling actors spend years honing their craft in small roles, but Moynahan quickly won two splashy parts. In 1999 she was cast as Sarah Jessica Parker’s nemesis, Natasha, who married Mr. Big in Sex and the City. “It was scary,” she recalls. “I was a young actress and hadn’t done anything. I’m just happy I didn’t fall apart.” She also won the role of a sexy bartender in the commercially successful movie Coyote Ugly. Those screen triumphs led to starring parts in such big-budget action-adventure movies as The Sum of All Fears and I, Robot, plus a long list of other credits.
Critics have been so consistently dazzled by her appearance (she was dubbed “sexy” by the New York Times in the TV series Six Degrees, “lovely” by USA Today in the movie Noise and “ridiculously beautiful” by Esquire) that they scarcely ever discuss her onscreen performances. “She’s so talented, but I think it’s almost taken for granted,” says Selleck. Acting teacher Iris Klein, who has been working with Moynahan for many years, says, “She’s very hardworking, dedicated. Some people would say, ‘I’m really pretty, I can get in on my looks,’ but that’s not what she’s about at all.”