California Style May 2006

Thoroughly Modern Milla

by Jen Wang, photographs by Brian Bowen Smith

From action hero to fashion designer, Milla Jovovich's talents know no bounds

Milla Jovovich is a patient woman. Sort of. For the last hour, inside an abandoned-looking loft building on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, Jovovich (pronounced "yovovitch"), California's model-actress-musician-designer nonpareil, has allowed two men to throw trash at her over and over. The sight of such a heavenly creature, dressed in a pristine, ivory nightie of her own design, fending off a shower of crumpled, greasy news pages, is a riveting juxtaposition. It is, of course, a staged spectacle. (Any stranger actually hurling garbage at the martial arts-trained performer might suffer a swift kick to the midsection.) The debris swirling about this mistress of the hyphenate is all part of a photo shoot and Jovovich, who has, in the immortal words of Madonna, "given good face" for over two decades, needs only the slightest direction from the photographer.

Once the shoot is over and the makeup is removed (exposing a faint and rarely-seen spray of freckles on her face), the blue-eyed beauty admits she'd always rather cut to the chase -- no matter that the job. "Dude, get a vision and follow it," says Jovovich in her unique, raspy California vernacular, revealing the no-nonsense work ethic that has guided her through a rich and unusual career. At age nine, she began out on auditions. At 11, when most of her peers were being fitted for braces and training bras, Jovovich became the youngest model ever to land the cover of a major fashion magazine. Within a year of this debut, the pre-teen darling would pose for Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts and sound this world-weary note in People magazine: "I don't even bother to count my covers." By 13, she had finished her first feature film.

Like Botticelli's Venus, the Ukrainian-born Jovovich arrived in the world fully formed (but minus the half-shell). People who observed her piercing gaze -- far less intense in person -- and her seemingly endless legs easily lost sight of just how young she was. To understand Jovovich's premature maturity, one has to look at her history. At the age of five, her family fled the Soviet Union and settled in Los Angeles. "My mom was a big movie star in Russia. But when we moved to America, everything changed," Jovovich explains of her family's fortunes. With the money she made in Russia, Galina Loginova, Jovovich's mother, invested in their new future: Milla.

"Classes," the dutiful daughter recalls, "piano, singing, acting and dance."

To get by, Loginova and her husband, Bogich Jovovich, a doctor, cooked and cleaned for Brian de Palma. "The closest thing that I can call home is Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland Drive," Jovovich says, referring to the general vicinity of the director's house, "because that's where we started from." Without a hint of self-pity, she recalls of those lean years that "everybody had to work."

And it would appear that her mother's investment has paid off. In spades. To date, Jovovich has appeared in ad campaigns for Chanel, Calvin Klein, DKNY and countless other global brands. Her album, "The Divine Comedy" (1994), drew the singer favorable comparisons to Tori Amos and Kate Bush. And unlike certain teen queens dabbling in pop careers today, Jovovich wrote all of her own material.

A lucrative ongoing deal with L'Oreal helped vault her to the top of Forbes magazine's "Richest Supermodels of the World" list in 2004, a year she earned a reported $10.5 million. Across 18 films, Jovovich has worked with respected auteurs like Wim Wenders, Spike Lee, and Michael Winterbottom. Wenders, who directed her in The Million Dollar Hotel, a whodunit set in a seedy L.A. flophouse, says, "Milla was simply brilliant in her part as Eloise," adding, "I admire how she handles all her talents, enough for many careers." And since her appearance as a "supreme being" battling evil in The Fifth Element, which was directed by Luc Besson (to whom the actress was briefly married), she has also quietly built a body of work in the typically impenetrable boys' club of action movies. The third installment of Resident Evil starring this accomplished butt-kicker is already in pre-production.

The fact that Jovovich is now the most bankable female action hero after Angelina Jolie doesn't surprise those who know her. "She's very brave. She's unafraid to dive into something difficult," says longtime friend and design partner Carmen Hawk. And while her work in smaller films like Winterbottom's The Claim and Lee's He Got Game has garnered more critical attention -- New Yorker critic David Denby wrote that the scenes between Denzel Washington and Jovovich, who plays a prostitute, were "about the most tender Lee has ever filmed" -- Jovovich seems more than happy to have ventured beyond the art house, adding "heroine" to her already staggering retinue of titles.

"It's awesome. I love martial arts. I always wanted to be a Ninja warrior when I was little, so I'm living out a fantasy," she says excitedly. "You won't see me sleepwalking through an action film, which is unfortunately what a lot of actors end up doing, because it's, like, 'not serious' or 'artistic.'"

One reason, perhaps, that Jovovich doesn't get hung up on coming across as a serious person is because she actually is one. A voracious reader and self-described "nerd" -- and not in the run-of-the-mill, "I was gawky and no one took me to the prom" kind of way -- Jovovich could have been a humanities major at U.C. Berkeley in another life. Instead, she is 100 percent self-taught. Writers like Zola, Dickens and Gabriel Garcia Marquez pepper our conversation the way talk of Balenciaga bags would another interview with many actresses her age. Science magazines spill out of her giant red Bottega Veneta tote.

"Did you see this month's New Scientist?" she asks, her eyes lighting up. She fishes the issue, which has something to do with neuroscans, out of her bag. Realizing how odd the question is, she puts on an heiress' airhead accent in self-mockery: "It. Is. So. Hot!"

Lately, Jovovich's polymathic tendencies have found another outlet. Last year, she and Hawk, also a model, launched a women's clothing line together. Jovovich-Hawk was born out of both women's love for vintage designs. Hawk sums up their shared style as "1950s party dresses, that Brigitte Bardot cute-sexy look, and Depression-era stuff." The two fledgling designers have no formal training, but they've had plenty of on-the-job experience. "We're learning how to those ropey Grecian necklines now," Hawk admits.

Their first collection, however, which amounted to eight pieces, was impressive enough to catch the eye of John Eshaya, women's creative director for Ron Herman at Fred Segal. "Jovovich-Hawk is for a cool, eclectic girl who doesn't really follow a trend," he says, "my favorite kind of customer." Eshaya, for one, was not taken by surprise when the first collection quickly sold out.

This spring, each piece in the Jovovich-Hawk collection has a name that pays homage to art, literature or film. The white dress worn for C's photo shoot is known ad the Carly, after Carly Simon. There's the Vivian, a white lace minidress inspired by illustrations of early 20th century outsider artist Henry Darger; the Anais (Nin), a gorgeous green column with lace; and a bolero called Remedios (after a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude). There is even a reference to de Palma in the form of a floral number named Sissy, which Jovovich devilishly dubs "a Carrie prom dress." One needn't be high-minded to wear the clothes, however. The spring collection is beautifully tailored and perfect for women who want to look feminine without seeming too cutesy or girly.

And now that Jovovich-Hawk is carried in 50 stores worldwide and she can add "designer" to her lengthy resume, what does this working girl want for her future? Having crammed several lifetimes into the brevity of 30 years, Jovovich, naturally, yearns for more time.

"Killing time is one of the most awful expressions. It really hits me," she says, tapping her chest lightly. "I don't ever want to kill my time. I want to save it." Spoken like a true heroine-model-designer-singer-superstar.