We’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I mean, collectively, we have. In the wake of what is sure to be one of the most media-scrutinized head-scratchers captured in real time by the modern conveniences of, well, Twitter for one, social media addicts have been transfixed by the curious rants of her former husband, Hollywood’s one-time golden child, Charlie Sheen. And as his questionable behaviour snowballed, all the while, our thoughts went out to her: Denise Richards, the gorgeous girl-next-door bombshell who appeared by his side in what—at first—felt like a love affair worthy of a chick flick rating. But even before their marriage ultimately took its final bow and their curtain went down, and before her ex’s admittedly odd #WINNING-related diatribes, we knew there was more to Richards than boy-toy eye-candy. The possessor of one of the most recognized faces in film and television over the last two decades, from her 1991 role in the pre-teen cult classic Saved by the Bell to her recent stint on Dancing with the Stars, Richards has been a part of the pop culture backdrop and forefront for a phenomenally lengthy ride by Hollywood’s easy-come easy-go standards.

Yes, this is a woman who can hold her own. The mother of Sheen’s two daughters, Sami and Lola, and the subject of an endless stream of interest in her personal life, she still manages to keep her head high and her finger on the pulse of that which really matters: a healthy balance between career time, family time, and a heckuva lot of animal rescue awareness. All told, this is a woman who is less eye-candy, and more, well, soul-candy. Sure, we’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. But as far as I’m concerned, she’s earned it.

MD: You are currently based in LA, but where are you from originally?

DR: Illinois. A suburb of Chicago, called Downers Grove.

MD: It’s been said you were the only girl on the baseball team and your family used to spend vacations in a tent. Do you still integrate some of that sense of fun into your life today?

DR: Oh yeah! I mean, I prefer hotels to tents today. But really, I like both. I love the outdoors. I grew up in the outdoors… river rafting and cross-country skiing. I definitely carry that love over into today with my daughters and our lifestyle.

MD: As a child, growing up, was a life in the entertainment industry the Plan A? Or was there another field that interested you as well?

DR: I always thought if I didn’t act, I’d be vet. But yes, from a young age, I wanted to be an actor. Except I lived in Illinois… So there wasn’t much opportunity for that. When my parents moved to California for my dad’s job, that changed. I probably would’ve eventually moved here as I got older, but we moved to California when I was 15 and I started modeling, and traveling. And things happened the way they did… and it worked out well.

MD: You’ve appeared in some classics when you were first getting started in the industry: Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and even Seinfeld. Now that you are a more experienced actor, when you look back, what do you think you learned about the craft from those early days, working with masters like Aaron Spelling and Jerry Seinfeld, for example?

DR: I learned a bit from each person. With Aaron Spelling, well, he was truly such a genius. Very hands on. Very proud of his shows. This was a huge lesson. He was involved in everything from fittings to hairstyles. Everything had to be cleared through him. Just being around these people, you learn different things. The most important thing I learned though is that there are some people who are very professional… and some who are not. There are some people who are respectful, and some who are not. Like, the ones who are really respectful of the crew too. It’s not just about the actors… it’s about the crew, too. I’ve worked with both types, and I learned from that.

MD: For as expansive an inventory of titles you have appeared in, my favourite Denise Richards moment is your appearance in the final airport scene in Love Actually. What was it like to work with Richard Curtis? And how does it feel to be permanently part of one of the most successful ensemble cast dynamics in film history?

DR: Richard Curtis actually sent me a letter asking if I’d be in his movie. And I am a huge, huge, huge fan. He’s written my all-time favourite films. So I was thrilled and wanted to be a part of it. He is lovely and delightful. The one day we were filming, I got to meet Hugh Grant, which was surreal for me. I was quite intimidated to be there, honestly, because they are all such a brilliant actors. The night before every job, I do not sleep… It’s like your first day of school. My mom came with me to London for the shoot, so it was a girls’ trip.

MD: It’s clear your mom, Joni, was a hugely positive influence on your life, and we are so sorry for your loss. How does the way you were raised by your mom affect the way you raise your daughters, Sami and Lola?

DR: My mom was a very strong woman, She was very fair. Any time we were going through a difficult time, she was there to say: “You’ll get through this. You’re stronger than you think.” And I will be faced with these things with my daughters, too. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. Dinner was always on the table at 6 pm. What that taught me is that family time is so important. That’s really impacted my life. You have to show up for your kids. She was very hands-on, and I’m very hands-on. Of course I need help—I’m a single, working mom. So my dad helps. He lives at the house with us. He makes the breakfast, and I braid their hair. He’s the strong male figure for the girls. He’s the best grandpa.

MD: Were your mom and dad role models to you when it came to your love of animals?

DR: My mom was especially. She wanted to open a sanctuary. That obviously rubbed off on me.

MD: On your site, DeniseRichards.com, you posted a list of “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” and #3 is that you have a three-legged dog, a blind dog, and one with terminal cancer. You also said that you have a soft spot for hard-to-place dogs. Why is that?

DR: I think it all started when I would see my mom rescue dogs. You know, they all need a home. If we don’t adopt the hard-to-place dogs, they will get euthanized. I will even go in and adopt the dogs who are extremely old. I have a dog I adopted a year ago, Josie. She’s 17 years old now. I didn’t know how long she’d make it, but I wanted her last days to be good ones.

MD: You’re an active supporter of Best Friends Animal Society. Tell us about your new segments on Access Hollywood Live.

DR: I love Best Friends and the work they do. They are amazing. What we are doing [on Access Hollywood Live] is on the last Friday of every month, we have someone high-profile bring out a dog that needs to be adopted. It’s so important because it increases awareness of the kinds of dogs available for rescue at a shelter. I mean, I was guilty of buying from a pet store. Once. Twelve years ago. I saw that puppy in the window, and, well, it was before I knew any better. So what we are doing now is all about awareness. There are so many dogs who need homes today, and… I even adopted my dog Sophie during one of these shoots, because she was so darn cute.

MD: You’ve also volunteered with Best Friends’ Pup My Ride program. Can you tell us about that program?

DR: Every other Monday, we go to a shelter in the LA area, one that is a “kill shelter.” We take 30 to 50 dogs who otherwise would be put down, and we transport them via vans to Utah where they will get adopted out. The program has saved over 2,000 dogs from being euthanized. I physically go and actually take the dogs out of the kennels. It’s a great program. I love being involved.

MD: You’ve been on numerous Most Beautiful People lists from Maxim to FHM, and you live in a city that values appearance, yet you’ve managed to stay grounded. What’s the secret to that?

DR: People can say different things about LA, but I love this city. We have access to so many things. It’s what you make it. The city doesn’t make you. I want to be a role model to my kids. It was the way I was raised. Yes, this is my job, but when I come home, I take the eyelashes off, throw on my shorts and flip-flops, and hang out with the kids and the dogs. It’s all about who you surround yourself with.

MD: What advice do you have for any woman who might be going through a complicated separation, in terms of staying strong?

DR: I’ve written a book actually. It’s called The Real Girl Next Door. And that’s the reason I wrote it. I got to a point where I hit rock bottom. Now that I’m on the other side, I wanted to inspire other people. To help get them through a difficult time.

MD: You said in one of your blog posts that your parents taught you during challenging times to pick yourself up and move forward. Is that how you got to the other side?

DR: I was one of those people going through a hard time. My mom died. I was going through a humiliating public divorce. My career suffered. My parents taught me that you can wallow in your misery or you can do something about it.

MD: How has their advice factored in to how you’ve handled the publicity around your ex-husband’s recent circumstances?

DR: I’ve been handling this for eight years…

MD: Right, so for us it’s recent. But for you, not so much. How are your girls doing?

DR: They are excellent. They are so good. I keep them very sheltered. It is the age-appropriate thing to do right now. They are very good, happy girls. You make a decision to be there for your kids. You have to.

MD: There’s no denying your former in-laws are a well-known Hollywood family. Do you believe being part of such a well-known family makes trauma tougher to handle?

DR: It’s not the high-profile family that makes it tough. It’s the divorce from the high-profile actor who was starring in the #1 sit-com… That was very difficult. The public loved him. America adored him. It was a really hard time.

MD: As far as your career goes, you’ve appeared on sit-coms, dramas, and even been a Bond Girl. In the Hollywood sense, you’ve done it all. What can we expect from you professionally in the years to come? Where do you see yourself going next?

DR: My dream is to do movies again. I would love a huge break in a Quentin Tarantino film.

MD: I’ll see what I can do for you. Let me make a call. I’m incredibly connected.

MD: What are you most proud of as a woman today?

DR: Being a mom. My girls are my biggest accomplishment.

MD: If someone’s in the market for a new pet, what do you say in order to encourage them to go the rescue route?

DR: Reach out to your local shelter or rescue groups. You’ll be saving a life. And you will find any breed at all in a shelter. There are so many animals that will be euthanized if you don’t.

Update: Just following our interview and photo shoot with her this past June, Denise became a mom again, adopting a baby girl domestically. The newest member of the Richards family has been christened Eloise Joni Richards, after Denise’s mom, Joni, while the name Eloise was chosen by Denise’s daughters Sami, 6, and Lola, 7.