Dazed & Confused June 1999
The Real Life of Angels
Too real for L'Oreal, too sexy for the Mean Fiddler and too inquisitive for Hollywood, Milla Jovovich is scarily in danger of making contact with the magic of existence. Good job it's not the 15th century or we'd have burnt her at the stake.
By Roger Morton, Photography by Terry Richardson
Milla Natasha Jovovich, the glossy, tinsel-bound 23-year-old contemporary witch disentangles herself from her backdrop and moves closer. In the popular imagination, from December 17, 1975 up to March 30, 1999, Milla has been hanging out on a distant model/actress/singer set composed of Versaces, Kleins, L'Oreals, Vogues, Times, Newsweeks, movie updates, Fifth Elements, Cannes premiers, Kate Moss's exs, famous director marriages, alternative boho pop careers, Gary Oldmans, Mel Gibsons, Bonos, NewYorkParisLondons and newspaper articles in which "the Steppes beauty" lounges in sumptuous vine-clad villas overlooking the French Riviera and talks showbiz.
At approximately 10.30 pm on March 30, Russian born Milla, soon to be starring in husband Luc Besson's eye-bombing Joan of Arc, is still out there in the pseudo- real terrain of entertainment powerplay. She has just finished work on her other profile-raising movie, the Bono written, Wim Wenders directed Million Dollar Hotel, and she permits herself to attend the LA premier of this week's production-line flick. Except that the party is also attended by one Leelee Sobieski, who happens to be starring in the other Joan of Arc movie currently in production -- a more historically deferential version directed by Ronald Maxwell. The two Joan of Arcs face each other over the Hollywood social battlefield. Divine voices are silent, but Milla's agent can clearly be heard advising his charge not to get in any pictures with the other Joan. Milla's agent however is also Leelee's, and neither actress is exactly the cautious type, so they blow the PR advice and head for the dance floor, fully realizing that tomorrow there will be a punch up between rival Maids Of Orleans.
The night on the town with the other Joan is Milla Jovovich's last act before her celluloid backdrop recedes into the fictive and she walks into her LA publicist's conference room, reconstructed as a glam-urchin in tight blue jeans and a faded baseball shirt bearing a faded print of the Mona Lisa. She dumps cigarettes, mobile phone and Coca-Cola on the table, eyes her interrogator skeptically and scatterguns ten minutes with enough free-form information to let on that the artificiality of a formal interview is something she regards as absurd.
It's like this, see. She's been doing night shoots for the Million Dollar Hotel, so she's a bit tired and the noisy neighbours at her LA apartment have been keeping her awake shouting domestic nuisance stuff like "Honey! Where's my socks?" really loud, but it's not so bad in New York where her place is more warehouse style and she's got a drum kit there and no one minds. Moreover, interviews are weird and she's not sure why she's doing this one because the films don't come out yet and even with friends it's odd to go on about "Yeah my career durdurdurdooo...", and English magazines like to dig too much, but at least they're witty, and one of her best friends is the English writer Andrew Burkin who did the movie The Cement Garden and lives in Wales and self educates his kids which creates this "brilliant synergy of like, coolness and education, hahahrch!"
Milla was born in Kiev, the only child of a Russian actress and Yugoslav physician. The family moved to Sacramento when she was five. The Californian/Russian/ Yugoslavian confluence which produced her oddly emphasised West Coast accent (complete with dude/awesome/fun/coooool quotient) is perhaps less significant, however, than her citizenship of The Land Of Hyper-Analytical Lateral Thought And Vivacious Extroversion.
Dazed & Confused: Is it important that people now start to see you as an actress rather than a model?
Milla Jovovich: Not really. They have to see it and like it before they decide whether they want me to be an actress or not. I don't have that much work out there yet to back it up. It's going to be another ten years I think before people call me an actress, or a real actress. I've got a lot of work to do. It's pretty interesting to watch it come together, because I've been really waiting for good people to come and to meet intelligent people and stuff, and they don't come all the time. I figure as long as I do good work people will feel the quality in it and that will speak for itself in the end, and everything in between -- the moment -- that's not really important. [her blue eyes suddenly stare through the wall]... Until I'm 27 with no money and I think 'Oh shit!' Hahahah! TV series! Hurhurhur! Tampon commercials here I come [adopts tacky sales voice] 'Hi! When I have a yeast infection...' [screams] Ahahahhhhhaaaah!
Dazed & Confused: You get the part.
Milla Jovovich: Crazy! That's like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez time passage right there. The woman that does the yeast infection commercial looking back at her life and how she got to where she is now. I mean like phwowe! That came out of leftfield. How did I get here?
The most lateral L'Oreal spokesperson on the planet, and the only one given to reading 100 Years Of Solitude over and over, is showing few signs of an imminent descent into the world of ego-splattering tampon ads. Her roles in The Million Dollar Hotel and Joan Of Arc signify a sharp acceleration in a career which has appeared to idle in the "great potential" side streets since her teen actress parts. Jovovich has acted since the age of nine. She appeared in 1988's Two Moon Junction and took over from Brooke Shields in the snorkel-pornish Return To The Blue Lagoon. A meandering pop career with her band The Divine Comedy (not the tweedy Irish ones) and her cover model commitments slowed the pace but her part as Leeloo, the Gaultier sex-bandage-wearing superhuman in Besson's 1997 The Fifth Element pronged her into box office orbit. Besson and Jovovich were married after their "intense involvement" on The Fifth Element. They got hitched in Las Vegas and went skydiving instead of having a reception.
That French national hero Besson should now cast his wife (second wife after his split from his Nikita star Anne Parillaud) as the most incandescent of all French heroines, has raised a few eyebrows, not least because Besson was originally producing the film with Kathryn Bigelow directing, until they fell out over who should play Joan.
Saint Joan has proved a stumbling block for directors and actresses. Jean Seberg struggled to convince in Otto Preminger's 1957 Saint Joan. Despite her offscreen affair with the director, Ingrid Bergman failed to generate enough heat in Victor Fleming's 1948 Joan Of Arc. However, reports suggest Besson's version, with John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, and Dustin Hoffman as the inquisitor, is backing up the tale of God, armoured nymphs and witch burning with major action thrills.
"It's a fun piece for an actress to play," says Milla. "There's not many really amazing parts for women out there so it's fun to actually have one where she is the hero. It was... just the most incredible experience of my life probably. I wore like 50 pounds of armour every day and rode a horse with a sword. Haharch!"
Dazed & Confused: Did you feel warrior-like?
Milla Jovovich: Dude. Yeah man. I'm a fucking warrior bro. Right on dude. I'm a waaaarrrrior. Whooo! Hahaharch! It was fun, I had a good time, I got to fall off walls and ride around a lot. But we'll have to see. I've seen some amazing stuff -- just rushes and dailies -- but who knows what's going to happen when he puts it all together.
Dazed & Confused: What's it like being cast by your husband? Does that affect how you feel about a part?
Milla Jovovich: Well, yeah, definitely. Because it was something that we'd been thinking about for a long time and working on. It's sort of our baby, it took nine months to do. We work really amazingly together, so we just had a really wonderful time. I've never trusted any other filmmaker enough to do half of the stuff that I did on that shoot.
Dazed & Confused: Do you have to be religious to relate to Joan?
Milla Jovovich: I like to go to church sometimes but no, I'm not very religious. I could talk about what I believe in, but it's all a load of crap anyway. It was more about finding something that I believe enough in to die for it. And erm, I have a little brother, and I love him so much, you know and I [sighs] I... I... I could find things in my own life that I would die for. Not much, but there were moments when I could relate to her.
Dazed & Confused: How do you burn?
Milla Jovovich: He covered it from a lot of different angles. Huhuhuh!
Keeping Milla on the specifics of her recent movie career is not an easy task. The phone goes. Or she notices the journalist has put his glass next to the coaster on the table and not on it and wants to chat about, like, why? Momentarily she appears to drift out into space, run her fingers along the outer limits of the known universe and returns to the table with a desire to talk about intuition and the-need-to-let-people-act-according-to-whatever-their-own-vibe-is-since-that's-probably-what-makes-them-beautiful-anyway. She's working on that one.
In the space of a single arcing digression she moves from childlike whisper to an unhinged bellow to fits of fierce laughter. She pulls at her million dollar face. Fidgets. Then she sighs and fades to a wispy elfin ethereality. Come back Milla. Perhaps some personalities currently jostling within are the result of her recent immersion in her Million Dollar Hotel part. The film stars Mel Gibson as a detective investigating a murder in a derelict downtown hotel. Milla plays the part of Elouise Brookes, one of the misfit suspects living in the hotel and a former patient in a mental hospital. The Elouise character, she explains, required her to project internalised calm with a sudden violent temper underneath. She had to make herself "invisible" and the crack out of it. In discussions with Bono she told him that she'd used the feeling in the Nina Simone song "Where Does All The Time Go?" to find the character. Bono was happy to hear it. He'd been listening to Nina Simone when he wrote the character.
If kooky-clever but earnest, hypersentient 23-year-old Russo-Slavic Californian model/singer/actresses could be luvvies, then Milla would not be one. She says "sweetie" once, to someone on the phone, but then she has been a model most of her life. Milla is something else entirely. She is a self-searching experimental drifter. A flux of femininity winding through a landscape of auditions, contacts, sleep, love and cigarteets without much channeling. She could give up cigarettes she figures, if she got pregnant, because she has more discipline when it's for someone else. Milla is a space witch. She is ironic glamour generation.
On a recent shoot for L'Oreal she turned up with her feet caked in spray-on dirt from her day job as the barefoot Elouise. She wore socks, of course, but the point is she knew they were dirty. As you might expect from a former child model, she's interested in hidden selves. Her Russian joke of the day concerns a slovenly factory worker who looks exactly like Lenin. The party officials consider the worker a disgrace to the memory of their leader so they ask him to tone down the resemblance but the Lenin-alike says, "I can take off the hat, I can take off the tie. I can even shave the moustache... But what do I do with these thoughts?"
"I've always loved losing myself in a part," she says when she stops laughing. "But a lot of friends of mine that are actors really look for themselves in characters and I'm finding that I'm the opposite. I love having the separate reality. It's hard to go home sometimes. You create this other world with these other thoughts and this other way of looking at life, and then you get home to your phone calls and faxes."
When Luc Besson cast her in The Fifth Element, he helped her tap into the alien feline essence of Leeloo by putting Milla into classes for dancing, language, acting, health awareness and more. The expreience changed her forever. "The part in The Fifth Element made me bloom as an artist," she says. "The personal things in my life at the time were so pressing, and Luc took me out of my life and gave me so many beautiful things to educate myself with that when I see that movie I remember her... She's so beautiful to me. She's so pure and fascinated with reality and she helped me capture that fascination with reality again. After I shot that movie, I swear I haven't been bored, ever, in the last four and a half years. It's impossible for me to be bored because I'm alive, and I'm going to die. Something clicks in my head and it's like 'Wow, how can I be bored when that wall has all those little dots on it and that texture, and it's like very, very, very cool...'" We both look closely at the wall. It's a cool wall. It has a honeycomb texture.
"Yeah. I could just sit and stare at that just by itself and imagine a picture I could take of it or, you know..."
It would be easy to dismiss her identification with Leeloo as childish self-dramatising. Milla was, however, also something of an alien when she arrived in the US speaking only Russian. During her pre-Berlin-Wall-collapse school-days she was the subject of "a lot of jokes and fifth-grade communist humour". She goes back to Russia every few years and now she says: "Democracy didn't do anything for that country, that's for sure, except to expand the belts of a few big guys. It's sad."
As she free-forms across a range of subjects, the significance of her "immigrant family" background becomes more apparent. Her stamina, she reckons she got from her father's "Montenegrian Northern blood". From her mother she got the acting. Gallina Loginova was a renowned actress and beauty whose career was blocked by the tight controls of the state movie industry and by her eventual move to the US with husband Bogdanovitch [Bogie] Jovovich.
"My mom, and a lot of Eastern European families are very pushy with their kids," says Milla. "Sometimes it's good, sometimes bad, but the kids never lack attention. That's one thing I got a lot of as a child, I was an only child. So, whichever way it came through, I got a lot of love. Hahah! Yeah, my mum's pushy, she's a hard Russian woman, [slips into Russian accent] 'We must do things! We must escape! Move forward! We must make it!' The whole nine yards."
Although Milla was discovered by model agency Prima rather than courting the camera, her mother clearly gave her daughter serious encouragement and guidance.
"Yeah it's weird, I was really young," she reflects. "But I guess you just choose which life you want, and that's the life my mom sort of wanted for me. Being immigrants in a country, I guess it's harder for people to understand the pressure that families put on children, but it's a different life, it's a different philosophy, different country."
Milla was never a big-time child star, but she got close enough. She was on national magazine covers at the age of 12. Three years of taking her dolls and books to photo shoots and she's banked a million dollars at 15. Her Hollywood brat "wild child" days were over and done with before most kids have really got going.
"I mean I grew up in Hollywood so I definitely had that phase," she says. "But it was good because everything for me came quickly and ended quickly. It's better because now I'm a bit more serious that I was at 16, 17."
You mean your rock'n'roll days are now over?
"Not totally, but you know, I'm a little bit smarter and don't put myself in dangerous situations."
At 16, in an attempt to "establish her independence" and to help get a credit card, she married her then boyfriend. Mum annuled it later. The phase between 16 and 18 saw her living in London, signed to SBK and dating ex-Jamiroquai bassist and father to Melanie "All Saints" Blatt's child, Stuart Zender. ("Stu-ey was just sweeeeet") At the time a serious music career was looking likely. On her first teen album she wanted to go for the acoustic Joni Mitchell feel with just a guitar and voice. "It was just a little ahead of its time", she sighs. The record company stuck "adult contemporary orchestra" all over it and not much happened. She did, however, have minor chart success out of the UK, and her band The Divine Comedy played unnoticed gigs on the London circuit from The Mean Fiddler to Subterrania before touring America.
The Divine Comedy were signed to EMI and strange boho poetry and folk'n'beats albums have appeared under her own name (last year's Milla Jovovich -- The People Tree Sessions including songs co-written with photographer Kate Garner, is charmingly "out there"), but the commitment to The Fifth Element put a damper on her rock'n'rolling. There was some forced growing up, and her "proper" marriage after splitting with sometime Kate Moss paramour model/photographer Mario Sorrenti. Now she does the occasional gig in New York, but she's rarely there long enough to set shows up.
"But I love playing out," she says. "It's when I feel the most my age, when I'm hanging out with my friends playing music. It's so cool. Movies are great but its' just, I dunno, I'm not like... I wasn't born with like one thing where, 'I'm gonna be an actor!' Diane Arbus didn't figure out what she wanted to do until she was in her late 30s. You never know..."
Milla Jovovich definitely doesn't know. Today she is "a newly, freshly unemployed actress, so now it's the hustle and bistle of [ironic self promotion voice] 'Hey man! Hi! I'm Milla and I'm reallygreat! And you have to really, really love me because I'm very, very cool. I swear.'" Tomorrow it could be babies or balloon safaris. At 23, she is lucky enough to be able to fight against being defined. She's particularly sensitive to being located as Luc Besson's wife. Either that or she is currently super-pretective about her personal life. That's not a place today's conversation can visit. "Dude!" she remonstrates. "We're not going to get into my life with Luc, OK bro?"
Strangely, she is happier to talk gently about the family drama surrounding her father than her marriage. Bogich was given a 20-year jail sentence in 1994 after being found guilty of masterminding a health insueance scam. Milla visited her father in prison and is still firmly in touch now he's been released.
"He just got out the beginning of this year," she whispers. "But yeah, I mean he's good, he's good. He's getting his life back together and that's wonderful. He's a really amazing guy. So I'm glad that he's able to advance further in his life and not get stuck there.
"There's this really beautiful song by this band called Smog, and the song's about prisoners, and the chorus to the song is [sings] 'We are constantly on trial', it's beautiful, and it's about this warden who takes his convicts swimming. But I was watching Contact and for some reason I tried synchronising that song to the part where Jodie Foster comes into the pod and everything's spinning underneath her and it was so amazing and suddenly that line 'We are constantly on trial' became so meaningful."
"I realised that bring in prison and being in space is the same thing. Because you're alienated, you're completely shoved into a different reality, where the human spirit is tested. And it's funny that human beings, or any living things, are always testing their boundaries. I watched Jodie Foster up there and she's seeing the stars and how beautiful it is, so beautiful. Most of the time the pain people bring on themselves comes through that, and it suddenly became so meaningful and sweet and I couldn't believe it, that... my father was a spaceman."
A hush settles as Milla's lateral space cruise comes to an end. Los Angeles pauses. A shadow passes over the movie and modelling and rock'n'roll industries. In her tripped out, soul searching post-teen way, Milla has just said something very funny and very fundamental, and you realise that, yes, freedom is probably a prison, and yes, an interview about her acting career and relationship with Luc probably is missing the whole point of Milla Natasha Jovovich.
"I feel like A LOSER! I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHY I'M FUCKING DOING AN INTERVIEW NOW! I'M SUCH A LOSER! Nyayana! [Affects wielding voice] Sooo how's your relationship with Luc? 'Well my relationship with Luc is weeeealy great, weeeeealy weeeeealy great, weeeeeeeeealy great.' Hahaharch!"
She laughs, then she sighs, and then says "God" but pronounces it LaLaLand -- as an etiolated "Gaaaaahd" in a way which effectively suggests that far from being a model turned actress she is in fact someone thoroughly amazed at existence, with a lust for splendid phosphorescent experience, someone floating out there on the peripheries of revelations of the ineffable. And sometimes all of that, when she's washing her hair. L'Oreal: for real.
In the early stages of Brett Easton Ellis's satire on the beautiful people, Glamorama, a chapter begins, "Nobu before noon and I'm biting off half a Xanax while passing what's got to be Dad's limo parked out front, and inside: various executives from MTV, a new maitre d' being interviewed by The CBS Morning News, Helena Christiansen, Milla Jovovich and the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin..."
Dazed & Confused: Ever get the feeling you're fighting a battle to stop yourself lodging in culture as a celebrity?
Milla Jovovich: Yeah maybe. I don't know. It's hard for me to see myself like that. This is really the first interview I've done where I haven't really had a movie to promote. I usually kind of disappear between films. My life has been pretty private. I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping my personal life safe. I don't run after interviews, I really don't. I really admire people like Meryl Streep and Gena Rowlands when it comes to actors, people who don't do much but when they do it's really interesting and real, and I just want to make sure I work with people I relate to and that are intelligent, nice people. That's really my goal, to meet really amazing people and learn about life and psychology and human nature, and that's the most interesting thing because you change yourself. But yeah [affects dumb voice], I'm an actress and I model and I go and make photo shoots and interviews and stuff. You know, in effect it's a very limited life. So it helps to work because then you really get a chance to get paid to live life and study life and get into it and live somebody else's reality, which is like reading a book or a newspaper or anything... learning, stalking information through experience, but through firsthand experience, which is cool.
Dazed & Confused: So predict your future.
Milla Jovovich: Well, I know I'll be dead. That's for sure. I can tell already. And that's probably the most that I'll predict. You know, man, I don't know, maybe if I was a serious actor I could say, 'Well in five years I predict that I'll be working with Scorcese blurgh...'. Personally, hopefully I might be by myself trekking through the desert. You never know. Completely left everything behind and went to transmogrify my molecules. You never know. I want to leave it open. That's so Russian! [In a Russian accent] You never know!