Mira Sorvino: The Mira Has Two Faces

After winning an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, Mira Sorvino looked bound for stardom. But something else happened--she gained a prickly rep and made head-scratching film choices. Now that she's back with a few good indies, is she readier for the spotlight? Our writer finds out during a $100 shopping spree.

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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.

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