Mira Sorvino: The Mira Has Two Faces
Winning an Oscar is no guarantee of movie stardom. Just ask Mira Sorvino who won a Best Supporting Actress statue for her star-making role in Mighty Aphrodite. Sorvino seemed to have the makings of a movie star, but things didn’t work out that way. In a profile piece from the October 2002 issue of Movieline, Sorvino claimed she was happier being out of the spotlight. She frankly discusses the mistakes that she made in her career and her reputation for being “difficult”.
This magazine wants Mira Sorvino to spend $100. She decides to use it at a Santa Monica flea market one Sunday morning. She shows up for the spree looking like a knockout in a lacy white blouse and slacks accessorized by a turquoise bracelet and open-toe red shoes. Many of the dealers greet her with a familiar, friendly “How you doing, Mira?” She’s quiet and appears almost self-consciously reserved. But there’s no question this girl knows her way around a flea market. She ponders whether or not to spring for a $2,200 antique Parisian chaise, before ultimately deciding against it.
“I’ve always gone to ‘fleas,'” she says. “Even when I was a waitress, I used to blow whatever extra cash I had at them. But even now, as you just noticed, I don’t make big, crazy purchases. They worry me. When I do a movie, I usually reward myself with a little piece of antique jewelry found at a flea market to remind myself of the experience. See this ring?” She holds up her hand to display a delicate band with an opalescent stone. “I bought it in Bulgaria when I did The Grey Zone.”
In many ways, Mira Sorvino has been living in her own grey zone for the past few years. After winning an Oscar for her hilarious turn in Woody Allen’s 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite, the former Harvard student (she got her BA in East Asian studies and graduated magna cum laude) looked like she could write her own ticket in Hollywood. Though she was wise and winning in Beautiful Girls, she got upstaged by Natalie Portman. She shared the role of Marilyn Monroe with Ashley Judd in Norma Jean & Marilyn, but playing an icon is seldom a shrewd move. When she paired up with Lisa Kudrow to play a ditsy party girl in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the results were good, but the box-office numbers weren’t. A few oddball choices followed–that sci-fi big bug movie Mimic and the hit man revenge flick The Replacement Killers. Starring in the romance At First Sight with Val Kilmer didn’t help matters much. Living in Paris for an extended period of time seemed to have helped her realign her priorities. After all, she’s an adept actress–she was just working on the wrong material. Now, she’s focusing on doing more interesting work in a handful of indies: in addition to The Grey Zone, she’s made the Civil War epic Gods and Generals and the crime drama Wise Girls.
“I wasn’t really ready for fame when I had it,” she says during a break from shopping. “It was overwhelming to me. I was kind of reckless with it. I’m not a person who wants attention. There are some people who are ‘to the manor born,’ I am not one of them. Back then, I had to steel myself for the walk down the red carpet.”
Didn’t having a famous father, respected character actor Paul Sorvino, prepare her somewhat for the pitfalls of fame? “Yes, but he’s been a great, steadily-working character actor his whole life. The press never really got into his private life. He didn’t have paparazzi taking pictures of him when he was swimming at the beach. I learned it’s a lot different to be a young actress or a young actor than it is to be a great actor like my dad, who’s made a respectable career. My dad has no social fear and he was never overwhelmed.
“I don’t want to complain because fame has also given me enormous benefits,” she continues. “Let me explain it this way. I was too tall in high school. At 13, I was 5′ 9″–the tallest kid in my class. I’d walk down the halls feeling like a giraffe. Being famous is like being too tall in high school. Sometimes I feel that way even today. It’s not that big a problem. I’m not phobic or anything. But, if I look back, there were times when it was difficult for me to behave the right way.”
Sorvino stops at one of the flea market booths and considers a pair of black velvet Prada shoes. After a while, she rejects them. “Somehow, when I put them on,” she explains, “the velvet looked cheap.” She then looks at several pairs of vintage earrings. “Like a magpie, I’ll always swoop down on the brightest, shiniest things, but when I put them on, I realize I like pieces that are subtler.”
She is so polite when she shops I wonder if she’s that way on a set. “The first day on a movie,” she says, “I used to feel like I was the new kid in school. I was overwhelmed by shyness. I hoped the other people would introduce themselves. A fellow actor once took me aside to tell me the crew thinks the actors are stuck-up unless they introduce themselves. ‘You’ve got to get over your shyness,’ he said, ‘otherwise, it’s going to feel like an us/them situation.’ It turned out others were feeling as insecure as I was. Everybody’s shy in a certain way, except people who are naturally open, like my dad.”
Such shyness must have made performing extra challenging. “I was scared I wasn’t going to be good enough. That makes you defensive. When you’re defensive, you’re challenging things when they don’t need to be challenged. Nothing good comes from being scared.”
Which brings us to the question of the reputation she gained of being “difficult,” a charge that began to surface in the afterglow of her Oscar win and reared its head again when reports emerged that a catfight broke out between Sorvino and Mariah Carey on the set of Wise Girls. She looks bone-weary of the subject. “I don’t know what else I can say about this that I haven’t already said. I’ve issued statements. Words were said and it blew over. I think people have a gross misunderstanding of who I am. I am not a diva. I am not a bitch. And I say that without a shred of dishonesty.”
What about the reports that she displayed unfortunate behavior in her early days? “I think I was not the most professional of actresses when I started off. That has been rectified. I am not difficult. I am not argumentative. I am not late. But, given that, I wasn’t all that bad back then compared to the image that sometimes lingers. It’s getting a little tiresome because every article I’ve read about myself in the past four years has a quote from some director saying, ‘Yeah, I heard she was difficult, but I didn’t find her that way.’ When is that going to get retired? Happily, I’ve grown up a lot in the past five years. Today, I feel calm. I’m much more professional now. I’m just easy, easy, easy.”
That may be, but Sorvino is no easy shopper. She’s still holding tightly to her $100. She looks at a vintage Steiff stuffed leopard (“Did you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? Stuffed toys always get to me”) and several religious “santos” (“It sounds silly, but if you’re going to buy a santo, you have to love the face”). Then she stumbles upon something special–a charming Southwestern desert painting. She buys it for $50. Next she purchases a larger, framed, Victorian-style vintage print of a beatific angel looming protectively over a beautiful pair of children. Her $100 is gone. The Victorian painting, she says, will reside in the guest house of what she laughingly calls a “one-time Malibu beach shack-type house built in the 70s–thus, a classic.” She bought it less than two years ago and is now renovating it into a shingled Cape Cod influenced spread. She tells me that the print will be nice in a children’s room. “I will have children within the next five years, definitely,” she says. “A lot of my friends have children now and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I think I have that ‘baby fever’ thing.” And, if she chooses to have children with her boyfriend, Unfaithful star Olivier Martinez, those children will undoubtedly be as gorgeous as the kids in the old-time print she bought.
Now that the shopping is done, we head to breakfast at a packed cafe. Once we’ve settled in, I can’t help but notice a twentysomething man at a nearby table is staring at Sorvino. “You know who that is?” he tells his friend. “She got the Oscar for that Woody Allen thing.” I look at Sorvino to see if she’s listening, but I can’t tell–she’s reading her menu. “Oh, yeah, Mighty Aphrodite, she was great,” says the friend, “but what happened after that?” The twentysomething guy then acts like a one-man film encyclopedia, going over all her movies, mentioning how she dated Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino, then finishing with, “I think she went back and got her degree at Yale.” The self-appointed film maestro narrates this with such mock-authority, he’s practically begging for someone to deck him. As for Sorvino, I almost expect her to lean over and correct him. Either she hasn’t heard the boor or else she has and just lets it roll off her back. She smiles as enigmatically as Mona Lisa.
Sorvino has not made terrible film choices, just idiosyncratic ones. Was immaturity to blame for it? “When one is young, one doesn’t have a game plan,” says Sorvino. “I didn’t think about the larger picture at the time, which was a mistake. And one pays for mistakes. But I had fun doing those movies and gained something from them. What I got from Mimic was a great friendship with Guillermo Del Toro. I was just with him last night and he’s a wonderful guy. He has zeal for everything.”
Even if she doesn’t get first crack at plum opportunities, Sorvino sounds entirely convincing when she says she’s happier today. “When I was a more visible presence on magazine covers, I was probably more unhappy. It turns out that I’m more interested in acting than in being ‘a movie star,’ which is great because I didn’t become a big movie star. But see, America thinks that fame is the be all and end all. Watching a particular actor or singer negotiate the hurdles in their careers is almost like watching an athletic event. People tend to think your entire self-worth should be wrapped up in what your Hollywood ‘score’ is at any given moment. To them, it’s a spectator sport.”
Clearly, Sorvino has gained wisdom through some painful experiences. “You have to develop a life outside of your work,” she continues. “When you start a career, the momentum required to get it off the ground demands your whole focus. You become single-minded. But unless you have more than that, your life is a shell. No amount of successful work will ever make you a happy person.”
Did living in France help her learn that? “It affected my point of view. There’s a real hatred of America in certain places in Europe and we won’t go into the reasons. But I get super patriotic when someone says something against America.”
Speaking of hatred, is it true that women give her angry looks because she’s with Martinez, as she was quoted saying in a magazine article? “I think that was actually sort of a misquote,” she says. “I don’t feel that people hate me because of Olivier. I think the more people that like my boyfriend, that find him attractive, that’s great. I’m neither defensive nor possessive. Our relationship is good.”
So is her career. She talks animatedly about her upcoming movies. Gods and Generals is a sprawling epic about General “Stonewall” Jackson that is a prequel to the 1993 hit Gettysburg. “It’s not a big part,” she says of playing the wife of legendary Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, “but it’s nice being part of a sweeping canvas.” Then there’s the drama Wise Girls, which received a standing ovation at Sundance. She’s also in Between Strangers, which was written and directed by Edoardo Ponti, son of screen legend Sophia Loren and producer Carlo Ponti. Sorvino’s costars include Loren, Gerard Depardieu and Deborah Kara Unger. “It has a European sensibility,” she says, “and, again, I’m in really wonderful company.”
Sorvino is most proud of the fact-based concentration camp drama The Grey Zone, set among the Sonderkommando, Jews forced to work in the crematoria of Auschwitz. The movie was written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, perhaps best known for his acting in 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? and Minority Report. “This is a powerful portrait of a very black period of human behavior,” she says. “My character is based on a woman prisoner who smuggled gunpowder to Jewish men who worked in the crematoria and were planning a revolt. To prepare for the movie, Tim sent us a lot of historical, firsthand accounts by concentration camp survivors and there were times I couldn’t read it.”
This fall, Sorvino will be starring in and producing the indie The Beauty of Jane. “It’s very dark, but romantic and elevated– like old Hollywood movies. Not to sound preachy, but something that’s missing in life, and often in movies, is goodness. Goodness has lost its cool. It’s not a valued attribute anymore to live a decent life like my grandparents, who believed in kindness. I know it sounds naive, but it’s taken me a long time to learn that Hollywood is based on dollars and cents, rather than the dream of it. The ‘indies’ are still living that dream, though.”
Sorvino seems to have grown up a lot and her career is much the better for it, but she says she still has more to learn. “My father said to me the other day, ‘Mira, you have to stop looking at the world from the perspective that you imagined it as a child. You have to look at it as it is.’ It’s pretty crazy that an adult needs that advice, but it is true that I have a romantic vision. You don’t have to give up your own idealism, but you have to see the world just as it is.”