Leelee Sobieski: Leelee Land
She was the teen saint in the miniseries Joan of Arc and the teen vamp, in the big screen's Eyes Wide Shut, and now she's the teen Camille in Here on Earth. In real life, Hollywood's ethereal young million-dollar-a-movie darling Leelee Sobieski is the teen boho.
Contemporary Hollywood teems with temptresses who know how to make teenage sexual provocation look good. Seventeen-year-old Leelee Sobieski makes it look classy. The insolent aplomb she brought to her portrayal of an uninhibited teen expatriate in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries gave the first notice of that. Then in last year's Eyes Wide Shut there was that devastatingly sly, come-hither look she gave Tom Cruise as the half-clad nymphet being pimped by her papa. Even her Emmy Award-nominated performance in TV's Joan of Arc radiated healthy sensuality alongside the requisite religious fervor and valor. The offscreen Sobieski is a refreshing, delightful change-up from the odd, sometimes dispiriting Hollywood twinks, too. Like Jodie Foster in the '70s, she manages to radiate brainy sexuality, otherworldly beauty and playful humor. She recently lamented to one magazine journalist that, like Joan of Arc, she remains a virgin; to another writer, she described her ceaseless search for Mr. Right--or rather, Mr. Right Now. You've got to wonder where someone so young comes by this unflappability.
Sobieski hails from what she likes to call "a daring family." Born Liliane Rudabet Gloria Elsveta, she's a direct descendent of King Jan Sobieski, the Polish monarch who aided the Holy Roman Empire in defending Vienna against Turkish invaders in 1683 and was so illustrious in his own land that even today, Leelee could, if she chose to, dwell in the city of Sobieski, Poland, puff Sobieski cigarettes and quaff Sobieski vodka. And if she decided to nosh a bagel, it would be with the knowledge that the genre of breadstuff in question was invented in her ancestor's honor. Leelee herself was born in France to Jean Sobieski, an accomplished painter, and Elizabeth, a writer, and shows the pleasing effects of her background as she floats into the dining room at The Argyle on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Statuesque, hair flowing, she looks like a princess out of an illuminated manuscript, only she's dressed in a man's dress shirt and vintage tie. There's a lovely bohemian rebellion written into this fashion contradiction, I decide to find out right away how playful a spirit Leelee is. With that in mind I ask how she feels about Milla Jovovich, whose portrayal of Joan of Arc in The Messenger presented a big-screen alternative to her own mini-series saint. Sobieski's expression lightens and her eyes twinkle at the question.
"I danced with her at a premiere," the young actress recalls, speaking in precise, clipped tones that suggest the Upper East Side with a touch of Continental added in. "I was like, 'Would you like to dance?' and she said, I have to go get another drink,' She did, and then she came back and we started dancing. I felt like, 'I've got to dance with her like she's my bitch.' Which I did." Leelee shoots me a conspirational look. "This is Leelee the exhibitionist at work now, you understand. It was a merengue kind of tune and she was touching her face, rubbing her hair, like, 'Oh, I'm just a little androgynistic thing,' while I was just coldly watching her. She came up to me and I just pushed her away. Our mutual agent was there and going, like, 'Stop--don't do this!' Oh, I got a real kick out of it. Not only two Joan of Arcs dancing together, but also the whole Joan of Arc lesbian intonation. I mean, I think Joan must have been a lesbian, don't you? Milla is really nice, lovely and so gracious."
So I'd say we're off and running with our inquiries into the sensibilities of young Leelee Sobieski. It quickly becomes apparent she's been a singular, highly dramatic handful from the beginning. "A friend of my mom's told her that when she saw me as a newborn she knew who I was right away. Apparently, all the other babies were either serious or crying or sleeping, and I was the only one making faces and looking around at everybody else." When I ask Sobieski how she became an actress, she repeats the word "actress," skewing it with a dose of irony and says, "Do you know, I really hate it when friends introduce me as 'Leelee the actress? I'm not Leelee the actress. I'm Leelee the wacko. Leelee the really annoying girl Anything but, 'actress," How's that? "This wasn't supposed to happen at all," declares Sobieski, referring to being an actress. "I was determined I was going to be a writer and a painter, solid, from a very young age. You know, the other day I read a really funny, dorky paper I'd written in the seventh grade where it was-- chirp-chirp-chirp--'I want to be a painter and be married, though I really don't care what my husband does, and I want to do my pottery with my children doing it right next to me, and we'll live in New York half the time and somewhere else the rest and we'll travel a lot." She rolls her eyes and laughs at herself with dead-pan incredulity. "Imagine having it all mapped out like that. Geeky, or what?"
If she was indeed geeky, how did she become so early what so few are ever able to become--and what she was supposedly hell-bent on not becoming? "I was a pretty obnoxious child," she declares with a nonchalant shrug. "I made these silly lists of things I wanted to be. Acting ranked way down compared to being an artist and writer." According to press legend, though, Sobieski auditioned fiercely for the role Kirsten Dunst eventually landed in the 1994 film Interview With the Vampire. "I don't know how that rumor started," Sobieski says of this. "Actually, I was in my school cafeteria in New York and a casting director asked me to meet with one of her assistants. It turns out she was casting Interview With the Vampire, but I went in only for a general purpose meeting. The irony is that I constantly think how I would love to be a vampire--not for the blood-sucking part, but for the essence, the coolness, the magical quality. Anyway, I read some lines and I was just awful. I thought acting was making a lot of expressions. So, I still thought I'd be a writer and artist, but I also thought, 'Why not?' about this acting thing."
Sobieski's looks, poise and nonchalance landed her the 1994 TV movie Reunion, with Mario Thomas and Peter Strauss, and she got guest stints on series like "NewsRadio" and "Grace Under Fire." In 1995, she was cast in a short-lived TV series, "Charlie Grace." Then, in 1997, she made her feature debut with Tim Allen and Martin Short in Jungle2Jungle and hasn't stopped working since.
Did the precocious Sobieski indulge in acting classes at any point in her early trajectory? "I took lessons in New York with this wonderful woman, but it just felt like fun lessons for kids. As time went on, my father became my coach. He'd acted in Italian and French films to make ends meet when he was younger. He says he wasn't very good and he won't let me see any of his work, but he read some books on Stanislavski and he'd present me with little examples and exercises. We came up with our own sort of Stanislavski/Sobieski Method, and that's how I work today,"