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 ultra-ditz 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 FriendsBarcelona 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 enduring 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.

Sorvino with her 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.”

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.

“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 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