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Mirabelle: Our Afternoon with Mira Sorvino

With parts ranging from a squeaky-voiced hooker in Mighty Aphrodite all the way to a cross-dresser in Triumph of Love, Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino knows a thing or two about the acting trade. We sat down with the underexposed starlet during her recent visit to San Francisco.

filmcritic.com: Talk about your character in Triumph of Love. Does the princess mimic any personal views you have about achieving your own desires?

Mira Sorvino: My character, the princess, is a person who believes in the possibility of things, and I have always shared that same sentiment. When I love something and believe in it, I know that with a will there’s a way, and that something can come true. That attitude has helped me so much in my life and helps combat the depression of adversity – it helps push you through those difficult times. It has given me the power to overcome great obstacles in my life that people never thought I could. It has taken me places all over the world and has provided a very fascinating life. But, I wouldn’t advocate the dating techniques that the princess employs in the film. (laughs)

What did you learn playing a man in Triumph of Love?

I learned that it is very difficult be a man. It’s difficult to carry all of the self-confidence necessary to assume masculinity. I had to never show fear, uncertainty, or introspection, and you must always display an active pursuit of a goal with strong convictions.

Tell us about your acting career. What motivates you for this line of work?

I never built my whole life upon the concept of becoming a famous person with big paychecks. I love acting and I do it because I love the craft. I could be very happy returning to school and becoming a professor. To be honest, I would actually enjoy that more than what I do now. (laughs) I love the sort of cloistered academic environment — a place where pure thought is honored and revered.

Even though a part of me is bookish and would like to hole up in a library — the other half really wants to express itself, which acting serves greatly.

Brando once said to me, ‘Some people act in order to escape what they are. That is not the case with you. You act to become more of what you are. You act because you cannot be all the things you are in life so you do it through acting.’ I felt that was an astute observation of why I have taken on this profession.

How do these motivations translate to the characters you have played in your career?

When I take on a role, it’s not to escape my own personality. Rather, I attempt to distill certain aspects of myself into pure, uncut forms, which then become the operating force for a character’s personality.

It’s like I’m a schizophrenic. I have all of these people living inside my head and I let them out to play in various roles. (laughs)

Tell us about doing nude scenes.

It’s horrible – I hate doing sexually charged scenes where I’m exposed. It’s not fun and very embarrassing. But I’ve actually never done a fully nude scene. There isn’t any film where I’m completely naked, and in most scenes, I’m actually covered in front and on the bottom.

What are the toughest challenges facing female actors in today’s Hollywood?

Scarcities of great parts, because of the way films are written today. Generally, it’s the ensemble comedy with seven decent guy roles and one female role or the big-star male action star role with an ingénue female role tacked on. If you’re an established female actress, you really can’t take those roles, because it’s considered going backwards with your career. Mostly, the female roles are greatly underwritten in comparison to the roles offered to men.

Talk about your first film – Amongst Friends. You served as associate producer and starred in that film. How did it come to fruition?

I was working at Tribeca Productions and Rob Weiss, the director of the film, sent me the script and asked for my help on it. We sent it around to a few places and tried to raise some money for it. I ended up coming on board for the project and helped them cast it.

I didn’t think I was going to star in the film because Rob wanted a cute, bubbly cheerleader type for the role of Laura, and he thought that I was too deep for the role.

I ended up being a reader for the men who auditioned for the film, and Rob started to enjoy the readings I was given in comparison to the girls who were auditioning for the role. I was serving as third Assistant Director on the film and then the duties were becoming weary. I felt I needed to get back to my own life and my own fledging acting career but Rob then offered me the role as Laura in the film but… I had to stay on as third A.D. for the rest of the production. (laughs)

As third A.D, I drove the van that picked up the extras and I bought the doughnuts. My biggest achievement with that film was filling a restaurant full of people on Halloween night when there was a gale warning in effect. I filled it with 75 extras that weren’t paid except with hot dogs and chips. I learned the guerilla aspects of making a low-budget independent film from hands-on experience.

Tell us about working with directors such as Woody Allen and Spike Lee.

With Woody Allen, it was very liberating, because he told me that I didn’t have to say any of the lines he had written if I didn’t want to. Here was this comedic genius telling me I didn’t have to say his dialogue – it was astonishing. He told to me to do whatever it took to make me more interesting and funny and real as possible.

He told me the script was only a blueprint — just take it and fill it full of life. Most directors are very stringent about what they write. They usually want you to say every ‘and’ and every comma in the script. That makes you a bit fearful and you’re always coloring within the lines.

Many of the things I did in Mighty Aphrodite were not in the script because we just went with everything. All of things just happened because Woody told me to just follow my instincts.

The same things happen with Spike Lee. During a scene in Summer of Sam during a fight in a car, I said something I shouldn’t have said, and I was nervous because I thought he would get mad because it wasn’t in the script. After the scene, Spike came up to me and said, ‘Mira, you know that thing you did – it was good. So do more of it.’

When a director has a firm and confident vision of his or her film, attitudes like that bring a strong artistic license to the actor. It provides the ability for actors to excel beyond the role and develop personal relations to the character rather than the director moving the actors around on a chess board concocted in his mind.

Where’s your Oscar?

It’s on my bedroom dresser; surrounded by my grandmother’s rosary and my grandfather’s reading glasses.

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