Sitting fireside on a leather couch at the St. Regis after some afternoon tea, Catalina Sandino Moreno looks out of place amid the New York hotel’s pin-striped clientele. The only one in the room not wearing a three-piece suit and an earpiece, she’s talking about the training required for her role as Che Guevara’s wife in two upcoming Steven Soderbergh—directed biopics about the Argentine revolutionary. “I can’t wait,” she says of the prospect of pumping bullets at a Puerto Rican boot camp. “I’ve always been curious about the power that comes with shooting a gun.”

The 26-year-old Colombian actress’s charm lies at a captivating intersection of grit and girliness. Her first-ever gig was the title role in Maria Full of Grace, the 2004 small-budget film that won over critics and transported Moreno Cinderella-style from an unglamorous career in advertising to the 2005 Academy Awards, as a nominee for Best Actress. “I played a drug mule, not Joe Smith’s pretty wife,” she says. “I saw the reactions of people when they saw it, and I told myself I could never be Joe Smith’s wife after that.”

Moreno, who has lived in New York for the last six years, has proved she has the patience to wait for the right roles to come along. It was three years after Maria before she accepted her next part, and she has since appeared mostly as a member of ensemble casts in independent films like Fast Food Nation and The Hottest State. This month, she can be seen opposite Javier Bardem in Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera. “It’s not the typical romance,” Moreno says. “It’s not your usual Hollywood, stupid love story.”

On the word stupid, she raises her voice slightly for emphasis, and one of the businessmen sitting nearby can no longer hide his interest. He’s finished his conference call and his teacup is drained, but he sticks around and pretends to flick through his BlackBerry. Maybe he’s picked up on the alluring contrast between Moreno’s delicate features and the palpable sense that as demure as she looks, you’d be a fool to cross her. She’s a self-assured actress, but she’s not self-obsessed. “When I spent time in L.A. for the Oscars, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” Moreno says. “All the attention and free stuff! But it was so strange. Finally I told myself I just have to relax and remind myself that I’m not the prettiest and most talented girl ever.” She tucks her hair behind her ear, crosses her legs, and offers a small grin. “But it’s not like I didn’t deserve to be there.”