Nice Girls Finish First, Mira Sorvino

You’ve got to figure that Woody
Allen knew something about Mira Sorvino before he asked
her to read for the part of world-class ultraditz Linda, the lead
role in his new film, Mighty Aphrodite. You’ve got to assume
that even if he wasn’t aware of the Harvard degree or the multilingual
proficiency, he had to have at least caught wind of her brainy
reputation at some point before he put the call out. After
all, she hails from his home town, she’s not exactly from obscure
lineage (actor Paul Sorvino is, of course, her dad), and
her work (in movies like Amongst Friends, Barcelona and Quiz
Show,
to name three) has been far from invisible. So oy, what
a sense of humor on that Woody Allen! Casting against type is one
thing, but Mira as Linda is the rough equivalent of Olivier as
Gump, Niven as Norton, or Hepburn (pick one) as Roseanne. I would’ve
given a lot to have been at the casting session, with its endless
comedic possibilities. The first minute alone would’ve been worth
the price of admission: Diminutive, disheveled director rises to
greet statuesque, self-restrained actress with a quick hello and
an "Okay, okay, there it is on page three–she’s cheap, she’s
stupid and she has this voice, okay? Let’s go."

The thing is, of course, Woody knew just what he
was doing. Advance word is that Mira, who enjoys a good stretch
and doesn’t mind playing a dizzy blonde if it’s the right dizzy
blonde, steals the show. She invests the character with enough
reality and depth that you care about her, as opposed to,
say, the archetypical bimbo, Olive, in Allen’s previous
effort, Bullets Over Broadway. Yes, Linda is cheap and stupid,
Mira says, but she also has a big, soft, heart. And although she’s
ridiculous, she’s so serious about her own dreams that you can’t
write her off.

Linda is Mira’s favorite role so far in a brief but
notable career, and although her already legendary work habits
eventually paid off, nailing the character wasn’t a cakewalk. And
then there was the Woody factor. She had already worked closely
with Robert Redford in Quiz Show, but this was different.
This was New York, and this was Woody Allen.

"I wasn’t intimidated by Woody, but I was over-awed
by the situation. I kept thinking ‘I’ve always wanted to be in
a Woody Allen movie. Now here I am. Boy, I’d better be funny, and
boy, I’d better be good. I felt such pressure to be good.
I’d go home at night and work so hard. Every night, for hours and
hours I’d work on the scenes, walking around in character. I’d
wake up in the middle of the night speaking as Linda. I was so
obsessed it was scary. I felt a major responsibility to be good
because of the respect I have for his films."

Respect is one of those words you can bet Mira and
her younger brother and sister learned early growing up in Paul
Sorvino’s house, where Italian-American tradition is alive and
well. I told Mira that when I think of her father, one of the the
enduring issues/15/images is the scene in Goodfellas where he demonstrates
his method for preparing the garlic with a razor and slicing it
up so thin that it liquifies in the pan with just a little oil. "It’s
a very good system," Ray Liotta says, approvingly.

With Dad, 6 months old.

It would hardly be surprising if that system is
used by Paul himself, whose exacting culinary standards needed to
be satisfied before the family could eat, Mira recalls. "It
became this thing where we would wait, and he would taste the sauce,
give his little comments to my mother–who became an excellent Italian
cook–and then we’d eat. I find that obsession with food is a common
denominator in Italian families. It’s one of the reasons I wanted
to do Tarantella. It’s a real ritual and it’s unfortunate
that I’m an actress, because I cannot eat the food anymore. I came
back to New York after college and asked my manager, ‘Should I lose
a little weight?’ ‘Yeah, maybe five pounds.’ I lost 15 and then I
started working. I didn’t even realize–I was just a normal American
kid, small-boned but tall so I really can’t carry the weight. So
now I freak out about food and weight, and that’s a big pain. I can’t
even work out because I bulk up so fast."

WITH PEP MUNNE IN WHIT STILLMAN’S "BARCELONA"

Whatever Mira’s doing to keep up appearances, she
should keep it up. A sublimely svelte six feet in heels, she has
that nagging problem of appearing almost disproportionately leggy.
Given her other unfortunate attributes like the doe eyes, impish
smile and agreeable disposition, you can hardly blame Paul for
employing the intimidation method of boyfriend control during Mira’s
high school days.

Top to bottom: With Pep Munne in Whit
Stillman’s Barcelona, As Monica in Gary Winick’s Sweet
Nothing,
As Linda in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.

"Even now, guys I date are nervous about
meeting him. In high school he would sit there watching TV and, if
I wasn’t on a date, all the shades would be drawn. But if I went
on a date, somehow when I got home and we were in the driveway in
the car, the shades would be up and you could see him very clearly
in his armchair watching TV. He’d sit there like a stone until I
got inside. There was no sort of leaving me to my own devices. He’s
liberal in his own way. But he likes that fright aspect."

Not that Paul ever really had much to worry about.
Mira, who says she is "not anybody’s girlfriend" at present,
was "never too wild. If my parents had a video camera on me
everywhere I went, they would’ve been okay. I was so good.
Now there’s a side of me that wants to be bad."

By all accounts, the "baddest" Mira has
gotten in public is in a photo session for Allure magazine,
when she allowed what she considers to be a few fairly revealing
shots to be taken.

"They were just on the boundary of not great
taste. I was lying belly-down on a couch with fishnet stockings
on, and one leg was propped way up behind me. I really trusted
the photographer."

The truth is, Mira has a quaint preference for leaving
her clothes on when in front of cameras. In an era when "starlets" come
from the ranks of the men’s magazines more often than the ivy leagues,
she’s in a league of her own. She’s an accomplished self-censor,
and her basic instinct is still to take that imaginary video camera
along when she’s in public. But it’s difficult to say what the
future will reveal.

"There’s a side of my personality that goes
completely against the East Coast, educated person and wants to
be a pinup girl in garages across America. I don’t know where that
comes from, but there’s a side that wants to wear the pink angora
bikini; a part that wants to be crazy. I’ve never been one of those
actors who goes out and lives the dangerous life, and I think there’s
a part of me that really wants to do that. I don’t want to be self-destructive,
but I’d like to be wild. But the sensible part won’t allow it.
I don’t know if it will ever happen outside the confines of a role."

Within a role she does allow herself to cut loose,
and the result is often cathartic. When learning to become Linda
in Mighty Aphrodite, she spent a week in Philadelphia by
herself, getting the mannerisms down, practicing the nasally voice, becoming the
character. She had a grand time masquerading as Linda, and was
surprised to see that in many cases strangers responded better
to her than they would have to Mira Sorvino. Linda was comfortable
with herself and it put people at ease. Wacky as she was, people
let their guard down with Linda; she made it easy for people to
like her.

Letting her guard down is one of the more difficult
lessons Mira has had to learn. She’s aware of it, the armor of
good-natured reserve she wears without apology, and to the paparazzi
it must seem charmingly out of step with her times and profession.

AS LINDA IN WOODY ALLEN’S "MIGHTY APHRODITE."

"I don’t consider myself repressed, but I probably
have a certain kind of formality that I was raised with that I
don’t often transgress with people I don’t know well. It’s certainly
not out of my being snobbish or anything. I’m just trying to be
the well-brought-up, attentive, good girl.

"I’m wary. I hate it when people air their dirty
laundry in public, or use the press as a soapbox for wagging a
finger at someone they’ve had a problem with. I think there’s a
certain amount of reserve that’s respectable."

There’s that word again. But respectable or not,
Mira knows that there’s something to be said for removing the self-censoring
device, for not being as concerned with how she’s coming across,
and just letting her personality take over.

"I’d kinda like to get to that place. I’d enjoy
feeling that comfortable and confident. Right now I’m not yet there.
But I think I’m getting more like that. Two years ago I was a lot more
shy and studied. I would just listen and only proffer very well
thought-out responses. It comes, I think, from being a student
and being with professors and feeling like you should only speak
when you have something very cogent to say. Otherwise you listen,
you take it in, you learn. That was how I was acting when I first
got on the Woody set. Then I realized I could actually have the
confidence to be friendly and outgoing. People surprise me when
they say ‘Wow, we thought you were cold and aloof, but you’re really
fun.’ It’s like, I’m cold and aloof? Really?

"I’m always a little afraid of people. It comes
from being a kid, feeling secure and having all these friends.
And then we moved, and I was the new kid. And that new kid feeling
never really left me. I always feel like, ‘Oh, God, that person’s
not going to like me. So I’m very careful about not being unlikable,
which actually leaves them with nothing. But I think recently that
has begun breaking down some and I’m getting to be more open. I
have more fun, I think. I’m still very serious about the work,
though, and that’s something people confuse with a lack of fun
feeling. Actually, I think very few people know who I am."

If moviegoers don’t know who Mira Sorvino is now,
with Mighty Aphrodite and several other features about to
be released, they will know soon enough. If she’s had a harder
time than some gifted young actresses in developing an "image" in
the public mind, it may be because, like a Jennifer Jason Leigh,
she is so chameleon-like that she actually looks like a different
person in each role. Her press kit photographs seem like a collection
of Mira and various comely cousins. With dark hair, she is the
exotic latin beauty (as in Barcelona). With lighter hair,
she is all middle-class America (as in Amongst Friends,
or Quiz Show). Lighter still and she is the ideal fatale
bimbo/mistress (Parallel Lives).

"I like having blonde hair because it feels
like playing dress-up to me. It’s like going out there in this
light-hearted disguise, in a way. I like to explore different looks
and different presentations."

I asked Mira how much she thinks about her "public
image," and if her publicists have suggested she do anything
to mold or manipulate it. Her image is a more of a non-image, she
maintains. "Other than that, I’m just trying to figure out
what my image is–I’m just letting it evolve. As long as I don’t
become invisible; as long as people don’t start to say, ‘Well,
she’s not really this and she’s not really that. As long as it
maintains a level of classiness."

In a past life, long before she was reincarnated
as an actress and began thinking about things like a public image,
Mira was an East Asian studies major who spent eight months in
China immersing herself in the culture and the language, (invaluable
training ground for Barcelona, where her flawless
Spanish convinced even native audiences), eventually graduating cum
laude
from one of the world’s foremost learning institutions.
If there’s a part of her that wants to wear the pink angora bikini,
there’s also a librarian lurking somewhere inside who for years
has fought a losing battle for Mira’s soul.

"She’s so bright," says Jean Fox,
Mira’s manager for the past 10 years. "And it’s very important
to her that her brain is exercised. She makes acting a challenge
because she picks things that aren’t easy."

These days picking the right roles is getting harder,
simply because her stock is rising, and the stakes are getting
higher. When we first met in June, she told me she sees her status
in Hollywood changing every few months. When we talked again in
August, she confirmed that. "I don’t have to prove myself
as much, and there’s a niceness I’m afforded by people in the industry
now. But don’t worry," she laughs, "I’m not Sandy Bullock
getting 10 million dollar offers." Still, she acknowledges
that the money can be seductive to a young actress who recently
got a new apartment so she "wouldn’t have to have one foot
in the tub while I stood at the stove."

She finds herself sometimes needing to put things
in perspective. "I was never one of those people who wanted
to be famous. All I really care about is the role. I just want
to be turned on by the project, and if the script is wonderful
and the director is wonderful, that’s all that matters. But all
of a sudden I see there are things that can woo you. Like, should
I take a certain part because it will give me the leverage to get
this other part that I really want. And people are saying ‘Hey,
if you do this part we’ll give you X amount of dollars.’ It’s so
weird. I don’t ever want to have the feeling ‘Jeez, what am I doing
here? Am I doing this just for the payday, just for the career
move?’ I think you could come into very great danger of forgetting
why you’re doing it and losing your heart along the way."

Maybe. But in Mira Sorvino’s case, that’s hardly
a likely scenario. Much more likely is that this fall, thanks to
a brilliant Woody Allen casting decision, audiences across America
will be losing their hearts somewhere along the way. MM

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