October 11, 1998 |
An Interview by Dotson Rader
How 'Miss Bigbrain' Became A Star
Mira Sorvino studied at Harvard, lived in Beijing, made a documentary in Russia, campagined for literacy in the U.S. - and, finally, went to Hollywood and won an Oscar:
What I Love The Most
Her passions have included books, boys, democracy in China, exposing injustice in Russia, Quentin Tarantino and - almost religously- acting. But, at 31, Mira Sorvino says she has made a discovery:
AS A YOUTH, I HATED MYSELF FOR NOT being good enough," said Mira Sorvino, 31. "All my inadequacies and failures, not being kind enough, generous or understanding enough, would assail me at night. It became a habit to be guilt and self-castigating, not liking myself because I was unworthy. There was no exit." Since her movie debut in 1993's Amongst Friends, Mira Sorvino has appeared in more than 10 films, notably Barcelona, Sweet Nothing, Beautiful Girls, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. In 1996, she won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite and became a movie star, something she never expected. Her new film, At First Sight, a poignant love story costarring Val Kilmer, will be released early next year. I met with Mira Sorvino in Manhatten where she lives alone in an apartment near Central Park. I wanted to learn what influences formed her and brought her to acting, and what holds her there. "My dad didn't want me to be a professional actor, " she said, referring to her father, the character actor Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, Nixon). "He felt that acting was too full of pain and rejection. He said you should only act if it's the only thing you could do. Otherwise it isn't worth the cost." Sorvino was raised in Tenafly, N.J. Her father traveled often as an actor. Her mother, Lorrain, a former actress, set aside her career to raise her children, Mira, Amanda, 27, and Micheal, 21. "My mother's family was very white-bread, middle-class," she said."My father's was the scrapping immigrant side." "My mom was the day-to-day disciplinarian, and Dad was the big stick in her hand," Sorvino continued. "He was the final word. My mom was in charge of religious education. My father was sort of an agnostic. They were good parents, very protective, a little strict, and I was a goody-goody. "My first exposure to religion was very strict, airless, judgmental and ruthless in a way," she added. "There were strictures against associating with people who weren't really Christian. It left its impression permanently on me. I always had to be better, constantly never letting myself say "Mira, you're okay.' I really tortured myself. But there's a gift both my parents gave me. I felt that nothing was impossible in life as long as you worked hard and had a modicum of talent. They encouraged me to feel I could achieve whatever I wanted."
Although Sorvino seems much younger in person than her actual age, she is a serious woman who speaks rapidly, at times emotionally, as if through language she can quiet aspects of memory and heart that vex her. Her emotional openness, a sense of neediness behind a brave face, compels attention. She is conciously ladylike in her manner, like a child playing dress-up, a woman of high intelligence whose feelings are undisguised by her evident sophistication.
In the third grade, Sorvino acted in a school play, "a landmark for me," she recalled with a smile. "It was called 'The Mystery of Missing Capitalizations and Punctuations,' and I played a teacher named Miss Bigbrain. Actually having it happen live was this incredible feeling of transport I'd never experienced before. It was like you were living in this heightened, slightly alternative reality, like riding something in the ocean and a wave picks you up and puts you down some place else. It was thrilling!"
When Mira was 10, her family moved into a "more well-to-do neighborhood", and she transferred from a public school to a private one. Being a tall, shy girl from a conservative, sheltered upbringing, Sorvino was socially awkward. Bookish and a dreamer, she put her energy into her studies, excelling as an honor student, acting in school plays and taking ballet lessons. "I would pirouette around the halls, and people would think I was a freak," she laughed.
After graduating from high school in 1985, Sorvino entered Harvard. "Although I thought about acting, I had this great opprotunity to go to college, "she said. "My father wanted me to find something in college that I wanted more than acting, and that's what I went to do." She majored in East Asian Studies and learned Mandarin. She had been fascinated by China since she read Pearl Buck's The Good Earth as a child. In her junior year, she decided to live there. I asked why.
"My parents divorced, "she said, "and I went to China kind of in response to it. It was a total shock, emotionally incomprehensible that my parents, married 21 years, could think they didn't love each other anymore. It was very painful. I decided to go and make myself so busy I couldn't feel. At first I was lonely as hell, but after I had some friends, I had a great sense of happiness and positivity about myself in having started a new life."
She studied in Beijing, made close friends among the nascent pro-democracy student movement and became interested in photojournalism. After eight months, she returned to Harvard, fully expecting to go back to teach in China. Then the massacre in Tiananmen Square occurred. "It shut a door," she said. "If this terrible thing hadn't been done, my life might have happened in China."
After graduating with honors in 1989, Sorvino volunteered with a literacy project and then visited Russia to help document the anti-semitism there. Coming back, she settled in Manhatten, renting a fifth floor walk-up with a toilet down the outside hall. "I wanted to be independent," she said. "I didn't want people to say, 'Your father gave you handouts.'" She worked as a waitress, got occasional jobs as a model, freelanced reading scripts and sang at a jazz club. Gradually, in her uncertainty, her love of acting began to reassert its claim.
"I missed that feeling of being transported, " she recalled. "I had this sort of revelation that acting is what I love most. When I was about 16, I saw a movie about actress Frances Farmer that starred Jessica Lange. I cried for 20 minutes at the end. It made me want to be an actress. It was always in me. In the play Agnes of God, a person sees visions. I'm an actress because i want that to happen. I didn't want to be a movie star." Sorvino began taking acting lessons and auditioning. In 1992, she was hired on Swans Crossing, a TV series that was soon canceled. The following year, she was cast in the film Amongst Friends. The major turning point came in 1995, when she played in the BBC miniseries The Buccaneers and, for the first time, was able to support herself by acting alone. She portrayed the wife of a crack addict in Sweet Nothing and then won an Oscar for her role as a hooker/porn actress in Mighty Aphrodite, a beautifully observed performance, both comic and sad.
Since then, she has acted as Marilyn Monroe in HBO'S critically praised Norma Jean and Marilyn , in the thriller Mimic and in the hit comedy Romy and Michele's High School Reunion . Asked about her future, Sorvino replied, "I have a kind of long-term plan for my life which branches out from acting into, hopefully directing and getting more involved in the social causes I was more heavily involved with in my youth."
While Sorvino has never married, she has had romantic involvements over the years, most famously with the director Quentin Tarantino, which ended this Febuarary after nearly three tumultous years. I inquired about her love affairs with men and why they have not worked.
'I always liked boys," she replied, laughing. "I've always been this romantic girl given to huge crushes.
"I had someone special in my life for a long time, "she went on , speaking of Tarantino. " We broke up when I was shooting At First Sight. We were either going to get married or break up. There's no bitterness. We still care enormously about each other. But it's very important to find someone you love whom you don't fight with a lot, because that destroys everything. "I cautiously believe in marriage," she added, quietly. "I have hope that I can find someone I can spend the rest of my life with. I like the idea of growing old together. I'd like to have a family, a permanent emotional home base. If I had a husband or a child, I would change my career to fit them.
"This summer was the first time I've taken off from work in five years, and I was able to reevaluate my life," she continued. "I thought about my grandfather, Poppy, who died in 1995 while I was making a movie. I missed his wake and his funeral because I couldn't get out of work. My life was so stacked up that way that I kept missing events that were happening in my real life."
Sorvino hesitated a moment, and then said. "Ive learned that the people I love, my real life, have to be paramount. I learned that I missed my wonderful friends and family, and I want to have my real life. I'm lucky knowing that."