Mira Sorvino Reflects on Roles as Actress, Activist, Mother
by gigi levangie grazer
I first heard of Mira Sorvino years ago, when I met her father, the wonderful actor Paul Sorvino, at a film premiere. As proud parents do, he was regaling us with stories about his talented daughter. She was 5’ 10”, going to Harvard, and could speak Mandarin. Her name was Mira, “as in ‘look’,” he said with a big, warm smile on his familiar face.
Soon after, I was watching Robert Redford’s Quiz Show— and there was Mira, playing opposite Rob Morrow. Then there she was again in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona. Later, Woody Allen’s The Mighty Aphrodite showcased her talent, and she would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role.
I first met Mira herself at Ed Limato’s Oscar party. She wouldn’t remember, but I’ll never forget. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion had just come out, proving again that this stunner not only had world-class legs and a finely-tuned brain, but an abundance of comedic talent. Recently, Mira’s trajectory, both personally and professionally, continues to dazzle. She’s now a wife, the proud mother of four, a dedicated spokesperson for Amnesty International, and a UN Goodwill Ambassador who has testified before Congress to speak out against international human trafficking.
In her new movie, Nancy Savoca’s Union Square, Mira plays a wayward sister, the kind of complicated character whom we love—and yet, find impossible—mining not only the inherent comedy, but the intense drama that occurs in estranged family relationships.
I approached this interview with trepidation. I’m a writer; I have two kids, not four (though two seems like 20 at times). “How does she do it?,” I wanted to know. She’s such a powerful figure in her own life and in the way we view her. What is Mira’s secret? What I found is that she is a working mother, finding herself in the same quandaries we all experience.
GIGI LEVANGIE GRAZER: Tell me about your upcoming movie Union Square.
MIRA SORVINO: Personally speaking, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done in at least the past decade. It’s about family, resolving old hurts, and moving forward. But it’s also quite hilarious, and people totally relate to it just in the family sense, like, “Oh, it’s just like me and my brother” or “just like me and my dad.”
What attracted you to the role of Lucy, the unhinged sister? Because it looks both comedic and dramatic….
MS: Yes, it is both. Well, she’s bipolar! When I saw the script I thought it would be a great challenge, but really fun, and that’s what it was. She has to switch on a dime sometimes in terms of her mood swings, and that was probably the most challenging part of playing her. She’s also less filtered than other people; she just kind of bursts out with whatever she’s thinking.
Do you do that yourself?
MS: No, not usually. I’m really more introspective. I was the quiet one growing up; I was not the loud, boisterous one. It’s funny because I think it’s my alter ego coming out.
How do you deal with your own secrets?
MS: With me, usually the truth will come out eventually. I can’t sit on something that’s disturbing me for very long. I think we all have parts of our past that we’ve graduated from and that don’t really get trotted out every moment of the day. But if I’m really deeply bothered by something, I want to tell it and I eventually do because otherwise it festers.
Did you find your relationship with your own sister bubbling up in your relationship with your sister in the movie?
MS: My sister is quite different from my movie sister, so not so much; it was more general. No one can make you quite as mad as someone you’ve grown up with, but no one knows you quite as well either.
You spent much of your childhood visiting the Hamptons. What were those experiences like for you?
MS: They were sort of the quintessential beach vacations that you spend with your family. I remember waking up early to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic, kicking through sand dunes, playing Monopoly with my family late into the night, going Rollerblading, and getting some ice cream…just all of those great summer things. I just love the ocean in its raw form. I love body surfing, running on the beach, looking out at the great expanse of water, and feeling alive and peaceful. The Hamptons always afforded that in a very lovely way. I actually did a play by Joyce Carol Oates called Greensleeves at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton when I was a young adult with The Actors Studio. It was so neat to be able to work at night in the local, historic theater but have the daytime to appreciate the beauty of East Hampton, go to the beach, and soak in that idyllic summer feeling.
When was the last time you were in the Hamptons?
MS: I haven’t been back in a little while because the past few years we’ve spent most of our time away from the East Coast. I have friends who have homes out here and have been inviting me to come and stay with them, so maybe we’ll do that later this summer.
Amongst your many awards, including a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award, you won an Oscar in 1996 for The Mighty Aphrodite. Do you think it changed you or the way people approached you as an actress?
MS: Getting an Oscar early in my career established me in a way that I certainly hadn’t been before that. I don’t know that it changed me, except that I was extremely honored.
Do you feel there were any setbacks to such a huge honor at such a young age?
MS: I don’t really see it that way. It’s something that many actors dream of their entire life. My own dad hasn’t even been nominated, and he’s a great actor. I can only see [winning an Oscar] as a positive.
What is the most valuable piece of advice your father, Paul Sorvino, ever gave you?
MS: In life, it was basically to thy own self be true. You have to look at yourself in the mirror every day and be able to own every part of that person who you see looking back, so you can’t do things that diminish your humanity. On the acting side, [I learned] after I came home from my first day on Quiz Show. I thought that I had done terribly. I was coming from the world of independent films where they shoot maximum five takes. I thought there was something wrong with my performance because [director] Robert Redford was doing 12, 13 takes per angle. I was just beside myself. I called my dad, and he said, “You can’t beat yourself up like this. You have to go out there and just take your best shot at it, and what’s the worst that could happen?” His advice was just to allow yourself the courage to fail because if you’re always worried about failing, you’ll never soar. It’s great advice for any creative or personal endeavors; it doesn’t have to be just acting. It works for writing, singing, or dancing—you just go out there, take your big crack at it, and you put your whole self into it.
What life lessons do you hope to pass on to your own children—Mattea, 7; Johnny, 6; Holden, 3; and Lucia, 2 months?
MS: Pretty much the same concepts. To make sure that everything they do is always tempered by love. That they try to not only do well but also do good because I think our modern society can be so obsessed with success that it overlooks meaning, and contribution, and service. They are growing up with a bit of a silver spoon, just because of [my husband Christopher Backus and my] lifestyle as actors, and I’m always trying to keep them grounded and teach them to be good people who are actively helping others.
Do your kids want to follow in your footsteps?
MS: My son says that he wants to be a marine animal rescuer, which is very cute. I can see myself in retirement assisting with dolphin rescues. They’re wonderful little people, and I love them with all of my heart, so I look forward to seeing what they’re going to do.
Over the past several years you’ve been working with the United Nations in the effort to prevent human trafficking. Where did this involvement come from?
MS: It’s something that I’m very heavily involved in; in fact, I did another film called Trade of Innocents that is coming out this fall that’s about the trade of children in Cambodia. But trafficking is everywhere in the world, and the United States is one of the worst offenders. It’s tied with the illegal arms trade as the second largest criminal industry on the earth, just after drugs. It makes $32 billion a year worldwide. There are about 300,000 kids at risk in the US every year, and only one in 100 victims are ever rescued. Once you find out about it, you can’t look away, and once you’ve met someone who has been bought and sold as an object, been beaten and denied their basic human rights, you can’t ever forget that. You meet these survivors of human trafficking and they blow you away with their courage and the misery that they’ve lived through.
Do you think the situation will ever improve?
MS: It seems like we’re making advances, but it’s not really better yet because, I think, the business is expanding faster than our efforts to rescue victims and prosecute perpetrators. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is a strong federal law, but it doesn’t reach nearly enough of the victims. I have been working with the state legislators, the national attorney general, and also our state department as well as the UN and speaking at their annual conventions. A lot of people that I spoke to afterwards said, “I really learned a lot about the problem, and I’m going to go back and draft some legislation,” and then they did. It was very exciting to watch these laws go on the books. We need to train every sector of society to understand what human trafficking is and how to recognize a victim and how to identify a perpetrator. Once it’s something that police officers are all aware of, trained in, and looking for, then you’re going to rescue a lot more victims, who are going to be put through the judicial system in the proper way: as victims with rights.
You recently gave birth to your fourth child—how do you balance it all?
MS: You just improvise. Four is more, especially with them all seven years old and younger. There’s rarely a moment when one of them doesn’t need me intensely, so it’s a lot of pressure on me, which I’m trying to juggle with good humor, but I don’t always manage. I’ll be nursing the baby while pumping on the other side while typing a business e-mail while dealing with my toddler, who’s just getting through potty training. When I’m not working I try to be more of a stay-at-home mom, but I feel like recently I’ve been too hard on myself and that I need more help around the house than I currently have.
Do you think women, in general, are too hard on themselves, especially working women?
MS: You’re always feeling guilty about something. I think everybody is hard on themselves, yes, especially as mothers, we always worry about our children’s happiness. I want to prevent every unhappiness that I can and of course you realize that you can’t prevent all of them. I’m always worrying if I’m giving them my best, if I’m doing enough.
Has motherhood changed the way that you view roles or the roles that you take on?
MS: Before there were certain roles that might have been more provocative or risqué that I didn’t do, and sometimes I regretted not doing them. Now I don’t [regret it] because I feel like if my kids saw them, it might upset them.
Can you tell what roles those were?
MS: No, I never like to talk out of school; somebody else played them, so somebody else played them. There are certain decisions that at the time I would have really liked to do it, and now I’m like “eh”… but also now I’m a little bit more “eh” about everything because the most important part of my life is my family. The vagaries of the career, whether it’s up or down, are of a lot less importance now.
Isn’t that a great gift that your children give you?
MS: Yes, yes absolutely. And I sort of knew that would be the case because when I felt like I really wanted kids, I felt in my heart that I had lived for myself long enough. I wanted to take care of other people, and I wanted to give and love more. They’ve revolutionized my life in that perspective. You don’t really know how much you can love until you hold your children. It’s a remarkable, soul-expanding experience that once it’s there, it’s never gone. Your life is now different forever.
Photography by jason bell; Styling by Tanya Gill for Icon House; Hair by David Gardner at Solo Artists; Makeup by Mélanie Inglessis at The Magnet Agency; Manicure by Emi Kudo at Opus Beauty for Essie; Location courtesy of Image Locations, Inc.