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Just one year ago, actress Paula Patton never would have slipped into a barely there outfit to straddle a pommel horse in front of a camera. The occasional innocent bra shot? Sure. But steamy sexual provocation, complete with come-hither eyes and generous amounts of skin? Not a chance.

Believe it or not, she was just too shy.

From the outside looking in, Patton’s insecurities seem ridiculous. For one thing, she’s gorgeous. She’s also a respected actress who has starred in romantic comedies (“Just Wright”, “Jumping the Broom)” and critical darlings (“Déjà Vu”, “Precious”) alike. Off screen, she and husband Robin Thicke, a Grammy Award–winning singer, keep on giving lovesick fools hope by maintaining one of Hollywood’s most functional celebrity marriages. (Their first child, Julian Fuego, was born April 2010.) Her unforgettable performance in Robin Thicke’s steamy video “Lost Without You”, shows she’s not exactly as shy as she claims to be.

Still, the Los Angeles native was never comfortable disrobing for anyone else’s visual pleasure. But she’s never had a lead role in a blockbuster like “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” either. Sharing screen time with Tom Cruise in the fourth installment of the mega-successful spy franchise, Paula Patton has found her confidence skyrocketing. She’s packing heat and beating down bad guys. It’s the kind of role that very few actresses get to tackle, and Patton knows it.

No wonder she’s feeling better than ever about herself. And when she feels good, we feel good, too.

Q: It’s safe to say that “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is the biggest film of your career so far.

A: Not every actress gets to be in a franchise that’s earned over $4 billion worldwide. Making “Mission: Impossible” was a dream come true. It challenged me as an actor because it’s so technical. Any time you’re challenged you get better. I learned so much from working with Tom Cruise—it was remarkable. Also, I got to do my own stunts, and that felt more freeing than anything I’ve ever done. To be able to be that physical was exciting.

Q: Was that first meeting with Tom Cruise intimidating?

A: No, actually. He made me feel comfortable; he was so kind. At first I felt like I shouldn’t waste my time, because I just didn’t see how they’d actually cast me. I didn’t think of myself being hired to be in this. Then they kept calling, so I figured, “OK, I have nothing to lose. It would be cool to be a spy. [Laughs.] And it’d be amazing to work with Tom. If they’re calling, there has to be a reason—you have to have more faith in yourself.” So they called and said that they wanted me to do a chemistry read with Tom, and it was like no screen test I’d ever done before. I had my trailer, and the test was on a big soundstage in Paramount. It felt very “old Hollywood.” It was very exciting. I had to learn how to disarm a gun a little bit—or at least be able to fake it—that same day!

Q: Had you ever used a gun before?

A: Yeah, I had, actually. Before I got married, back in 2005, I did this TV pilot that Antoine Fuqua directed and produced, starring Josh Brolin and myself as homicide detectives—but it didn’t get picked up. I got to learn how to use a gun then, so I wasn’t coming into “Mission: Impossible” as naïve and fresh as I would have otherwise.

Q: Was the weapons training difficult?

A: There was a lot of gun training that was far more intense than what I had done previously. The guns expert on set was nicknamed “Peter Guns.” I’m not somebody who really likes guns. I don’t like the idea of being violent in that way, and yet there’s something so powerful about holding a gun. It’s weird, but it’s the truth. It was fun to feel powerful enough to know that you could protect yourself in crazy situations. He taught me how to attack a man who’s nearly twice my size, and the training actually gave me the ability to do that, if need be.

Q: There’s a scene in the movie where you come to blows with another actress. Did you have any real-life fighting experience?

A: Not at all. I’d never physically hit anybody until I was doing the rehearsal. They had a stunt man, and we were getting ready, and the timing got screwed up and I really connected with this guy’s chin. And, I have to say, it was gnarly! [Laughs.] But, also, I’ve never felt worse. It’s a whole other thing to hit skin. It didn’t feel good at all, and yet it was like, “Wow, that worked! I can really hurt someone.” It just goes to show you that the smallest person can inflict the most damage if they know what they’re doing.

Q: Hollywood is definitely lacking in female action heroes. Is that something you’d be game for?

A: Hell yeah. I’d love to do more action films. I was always athletic as a child, so for me it’s fun to run and jump and get physical. I love all of that. It would be amazing to keep kicking ass in other films, or in more “Mission: Impossible” films—whatever comes my way. I’m just open to wherever life takes me. I try to put up light guardrails in my life, and leave room for things to come my way and surprise me. If you’re too rigid in your quest for something, you might not see the other amazing possibilities that are thrown at you.

Q: Didn’t you make documentaries before you started acting?

A: Well, since I was a little girl, I always wanted to be an actress. I would put on plays in my parents’ backyard and wear my mom’s dresses—playing dress-up was my favorite thing in the world. But in high school I became friends with this guy who was this Spike Lee wannabe, and he took me to see “Do the Right Thing,” and it just changed me. From that, the idea that I could create stories and characters for black women and men to play who weren’t just stereotypes, was incredible for me. I actually made a couple short films after that.

Q: Is that inner revolutionary still inside of you?

A: Absolutely, but maturity has let me know that there’s a way to deliver a message and still entertain the audience. Back then, I didn’t care about entertaining anyone— I had a point to make, dammit! [Laughs.] The most important thing for anyone who wants to make movies is to entertain people. If you find a way to layer it, give them more depth, and make them think about things, that’s the ultimate success. It’s sad, we now live in a place where commerce is more important than art, but you have to move with the times.

Q: And now you’re starring in a Mission: Impossible movie, which will no doubt kill at the box office.

A: That’s true, but this one is made by great filmmakers, and I know it’s going to be a great film—I can feel it. That’s one big thing I learned from Tom: the importance of pleasing the audience. The guy’s middle name is “Hard Work.” Just when you think you’re tired, he’s doing a second workout, and he’s got more money than God. [Laughs.] He doesn’t need to work so hard, but he does it. So who am I to complain that I’m back in the gym for the second time in one day? Tom goes hard!

Q: Well, as this photo shoot proves, all of that time in the gym has definitely paid off.

A: [Laughs.] And what’s crazy is that I haven’t always been this confident.

Q: Which I’d think a mirror would instantly change.

A: If only it were that easy.

Q: What brought about your new found sense of confidence?

A: Being honest with yourself as you get older, and after you live life longer. I’m more comfortable with my flaws now, and with that, you start to feel more confident. When you’re trying to hide all of your flaws, and you’re embarrassed by them, it can be so uncomfortable—very, very uncomfortable.

Q: Your confidence makes our world a much better place.

A: [Laughs.] Why, thank you. And you know what? Years ago, back when I was starting out in this business, I never would have done anything like this Complex cover. I wouldn’t have worn the skimpy clothes. I would have thought that I have to prove to the world what kind of girl I am, and blah blah blah. I just go with my instinct now. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to be sexy. I love to play dress-up in skimpy clothes.

Q: Why has it taken so long for you to get to this place?

A: You come to a certain place in your life where you don’t feel like people only look at you for your physicality anymore. And I don’t even know if that’s true or not for me. Some people might see a picture of me in a bikini and think, “Who is this chick? I don’t even know who this chick is,” and just look at my body. But I guess I just needed to know that I’m more than that.

Q: So you’re cool with men drooling over these pictures?

A: It only matters what I feel. I know that I’m smart, and I know that I’m about more than just putting on sexy clothes. It’d be a lie for me to say that I don’t enjoy putting on sexy clothes and showing myself off, and my husband would tell you the same. [Laughs.] He’d be like, “People don’t know who you really are!” Why should I have to hide it? That’s silly.

Q: How big of a factor is your husband in this new confidence?

A: He is my greatest supporter. He’s never stopped me from doing a single thing; he only encourages me to go for it. He tells me to do things before I even think I’m ready myself.

Q: The two of you have been together for half of your life. For a couple in the public eye, that’s unheard of. How does it continue to work amidst all the stress of fame?

A: There’s no recipe. There’s no other way to say it—it’s true desire. We’re crazy enough that we just keep wanting to be together. We just don’t not want to be with each other. [Laughs.] It doesn’t mean that we don’t have our ups and downs. We just don’t want to be with anyone else. That’s how we keep it together: desire.

Q: You two seem more comfortable than most celebrity couples discussing your relationship publicly. His very sexy “Lost Without You” video felt like a sneak peek into your bedroom.

A: [Laughs.] I guess it’s because we were in love way before either of us encountered any of this celebrity stuff. We knew each other and loved each other way before any of this. There’s never been a sense of, OK, we shouldn’t talk about it to the press, because we’re in each other’s lives. I don’t know how to keep that a secret.

Q: In one interview, he called you his “sex therapist.” Does it ever make you uncomfortable to read things like that in print?

A: I hope he’d say that! [Laughs.] Who else would I want it to be? Your wife should be your sex therapist, or if you’re not married, your girlfriend should be your sex therapist. If she’s not, then things aren’t going so well.

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