Elle December 1999

Wild At Heart
by David A. Keeps, Photographed by Gilles Bensimon

Is Milla Jovovich a model, a movie star, or an up-and-coming singer? Joan of Arc or a California girl? David A. Keeps tries to find out.
(cover without text)

Milla Jovovich was eleven the first time she stepped through the looking glass. An aspiring actress, she was having photographs taken for her résumé, when the makeup artist decided it would be fun to give her the works. When Milla saw the pictures, which made her look twice her age, she burst into tears. Fashion editors had quite the opposite reaction, and Milla's exquisite features made her a top model before she was even a teenager.

Today she has a lucrative contract with L'Oréal, and is simultaneously pursuing careers as a singer-songwriter and an actress. She wrote, recorded, and released a debut collection of proto-Lilith folk, The Divine Comedy at seventeen. And just a few short years ago, she imprinted herself onto the pop-cultural landscape as the most beautiful alien in the history of film, playing Leeloo, the fleshy incarnation of the fifth element, in Luc Besson's sci-fi hit of the same name.

In a world of Hollywood hyphenates, Milla Jovovich has succeeded in three demanding professions, winning critical approval in each without ever achieving critical mass. Whether by accident or design, she is not a household name. And barring her involvement with Return to the Blue Lagoon, her cheese factor is nil.

There is fire, water, earth, and air. And then there is Milla, who is an amalgam of all these elements - steamy, slippery, even occasionally muddy - and more. She is possessed of a screen charisma that is otherworldly and has attracted such directors as Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, and Besson, now her estranged husband, who cast her in the starring role of his epic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Next year, she will appear in Wim Wenders' Million Dollar Hotel, based on a story by U2's Bono, in which she plays an eccentric young woman who wanders downtown L.A. barefoot.

But it is the role of Joan, a mixture of "love, anger, and pride" that occupies her mind these days. Leading battles on horseback in forty pounds of armor, Milla's Joan is a sweating, screaming, bloddies-but-unbowed heroine. It is difficult to say whether Milla is a truly great actress or one who has simply deleted the word embarrassment from her emotional spell-check. It doesn't matter: On-screen, she is as fascinating as Greta Garbo or David Bowie. And event hough her marriage with Besson was heading south, and she had to hold her own with scenery-chewers like Faye Dunaway and John Malkovich, Milla, like Joan, persevered with a fearsome single-mindedness. "When I do a movie, it is everything in my life," she says. "It was the most important thing in the world to me to make that girl come alive."

Milla nurses a Coke and a pack of American Spirits at an outdoor table at La Scala in Beverly Hills. She wears a tiny pink tank top of thrift-store origin, with a cashmere skirt by Joan Bartlett, her favorite designer at the moment (though she's mad for John Galliano's dresses). Between cigarettes, I catch a faint whiff of Shiseido, her favorite fragrance. On a chair next to her is a cashmere Gucci hoodie and a bag. Prada? "Of course," she replies.

Even sitting down, she is statuesque: five feet, eight inches of coiled lissomeness, with architectural jaw and cheekbnes and glistening sea-green eyes. Her exercise regimen is, annoyingly, "Nothing. I've got an electric guitar strapped to me six months out of the year; the other six, I'm wearing forty pounds of armor." Her beauty secrets? "Soap, water, moisturizer, and cigarettes," she says, laughing. "I hydrate, that's probably the best thing. I don't need to do the makeup every morning and always be, like, on pointe."

Picking at a chopped salad, Milla Jovovich is neither the stern Russian émigré her background suggests, nor the fiery saint she plays on-screen, nor the woman who fell to Eart. She is something else entirely. Anastasia from Anaheim.

"Dude," she says, "I just saw this monster come out of the restaurant. Her white hair is ready to fall out, her hands are all spotted, and her neck is all hanging, but the face is" - she stretches her luminous skin back - "so tight it's insane! It's so sad to see insecurity butchered and mutilated into somebody's face like that."

A multilinguist (English, Russian, French), Milla has a gift for conversation and a heretofore unacknowledged comedic brilliance at accents and impersonations. In just a few sentences she can reference European history, Carlos Castaneda, and hip-hop lingo. "I'm very into the chaos theory," she says by way of explanation. "And fractals."

Another Beverly Hills grande dame wearing a pink turban wait by, and Milla smiles. "You're so beautiul," Milla coos.

Milla has been hearing that all her life. Born in Kiev to an actress and a physician, her earliest recollections are of visiting her mother, Galina, on film sets. "I remember, always, my mom looking glamorous and beautiful, putting on perfume and getting ready." Soon, it would be Milla's turn.

When Milla was five, the family emigrated to California from London, where her father, Bogich, was studying to be a doctor. Suddenly, her mother, who had been a movie star in the Soviet Union, was just another immigrant who had to take work as a housekeeper. As her marriage began to founder, Galim lavished attention on her only child, paying for Milla's acting, dance, and piano lessons, filling her head with history, literature, and art.

Meanwhile, Milla was, at twelve, literally a cover girl, with a string of modeling assignments. "I worked just like my parents," she recalls. "It was natural. It's just the immigrant life." By the age of fifteen, she had done her first nude scene in a film, Return to the Blue Lagoon, signed a record deal, and saved a million dollars.

This did not guarantee her happiness. In Beverly Hills, Milla did not quite fit in with the "mall-rat bitches and wannabe gangsters whose parents dropped them off at school in BMWs." She was a tomboy -- skateboarding, riding bikes, biting her nails, playing electric guitar, hanging out in underground clubs, and smoking pot with the guys -- the kind of girl that drives protective mothers to distraction. When she was sixteen, she eloped in Las Vegas with a fellow actor in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (Milla played a spliff-slinging folksinger). Her mother stepped in; the marriage was quickly annulled.

"She was, she is, obsessed with me", Milla says. "Definitely. I think every Russian is a stage mother." But Milla has come to accept it. "My mom has this awful habit of getting my apartment ready for me. I'll come back from a film, and she will show me where every single thing is. When she leaves, I tear down the curtains and change the plates, even if they are better where she put them."

In spite of her efforts to rebel, Milla admits she has been on the journey her mother began but could not finish. "And it causes problems. But you know what? Everybody has problems, and I don't wanna get into mine. Always there are family dramas or business dramas. If your career's going well, of course your personal life is a mess."

At the moment, she is sharing the LA home her mother found and decorated for her with her father, who was recently released from prison after serving time for his part in a multimillion-dollar health-insurance fraud. It is not something she cares to address. Neither is her parents' separation. Though she has earned a reputation for being a wild child, her vulnerability becomes evident when she discusses her personal life. When she acknowledges that "when people love each other with a sort of possessive, obsessional love, it's a constant battle, and sometimes it's better that people split up," she could be talking about her parents or herself.

She is even more guarded about her estrangement from director Luc Besson, whom she fell in love with during the filming of The Fifth Element and married in Vegas two years ago. "I'm a very, very passionate and impulsive person," she says. "The one thing that I've retained in my life is good, strong friendships, whether it's boyfriends or husbands or whatever. I'm not into this sort of break-up-and-never-talk-to-people-again. It's not only unhealthy but just so sad. I feel like I'm walking in a Gabriel García Márquez novel or something, this nostalgia and these memories haunting you forever. I can't deal with unfinished business. And I guess it's important that people see that I'm honest. I'm not like some bitch who's looking to get a dollar here."

Right now, most of her discussions with lawyers concern the second act of her musical career. She is taking a year off from films to concentrate on working with her new band.

Milla invites me to swing by her rehearsal studio. As the band jams, she puffs on a Parliament and swigs a beer. She shows me pictures from a recent gig; even with her face screwed up in rock 'n' roll catharsis, she is a raving beauty. Her band played at Luna Park last night, and she has a tape she wants me to hear. We go outside and hop into a 2000 Cadillac Elantra, a hefty black SUV with a camel interior that she drove right off the lot the minute she saw it. She pops her cassette in the deck. Above the din of the crowd and the tuning of instruments, her voice announces as plain as day - "This next song is about a very well-endowed young man."

The car door opens. It's Solon, her tall-dark-handsome guitarist. They light up Marlboros and hold each other's free hands, bobbing their heads the way musicians do when they're caught up in a groove. Milla plays another song, her current favorite ("On the Hill") in which she wails all bluesy like Siouxsie & the Banshees channeling Nina Simone. This comparison is a Milla thriller. 'Dude!" she cries, "It's totally inspired by Nina Simone's ""Who Knows Where All The Time Goes."

The answer, for Milla, may be a metaphysical one. During her first quarter-century, she has hurtled through life and made miscalculations - some, the fancies of youth; others, the demands of being the glue that holds her family together - but never about herself. "I love to take care of people, and it's not like the people I'm taking care of are a burden, but I never, ever want to be a burden on anybody. That's my biggest fear."

Now, she reflects, is the time to chart her own course. It is something she faces squarely with a great sense of humor. "If I don't have the career where I'm making great films with great people in three years, I'm gonna have a Fox sitcom. You know?" She smiles. "Right now, I'm young enough to say no a lot because I'm modeling and I still have my looks. I don't need to make money off the film side and the music. We'll see how strong I am when money gets difficult and my modeling career starts dwindling."

"As if," say I.

"Whatever," Milla Jovovich replies.