Us December 1999

A Perfect Saint
by Chris Smith, Photographs by Mark Seliger

Table of contents: The steamy Russian-born model-actress has a lot at stake in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

At 24, she has been a model, actress, singer, and, most recently, the survivor of a broken heart. Now, with her role as Joan of Arc, she's about to become a star.

Milla Jovovich darts through honking cabs in the middle of New York's Lexington Avenue, then takes a long-legged leap over a three-foot-wide rainwater river and up onto the sidewalk. "That was fun!" she squeals girlishly.

There's plenty of endearing little kid in the 24-year-old supermodel-turned-actress-turned-pop-singer-turned-actress. Yet there's just as much stone-cold toughness in Jovovich's makeup; she isn't joking when she calls herself a "survivalist." Jovovich felt at home playing the title role in this month's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. This Joan is no mere saint; she's a raging French teen from the 15th century who leads an uprising so gory that The Messenger makes Braveheart look tame. Did any of the Brit-kicking violence make her queasy? "No," says Jovovich. "I like a bit of impaling now and then."

The Messenger is directed by Luc Besson, the 40-year-old burly Frenchman who gave Jovovich her big break as a nearly naked alien in the sci-fi thriller The Fifth Element in 1997 and married her that same year. But that union officially came to an end when Jovovich announced last April they were separating, a subject she refuses to discuss, saying only that Besson is a "beautiful, beautiful man," her enormous, wide-set blue eyes welling up with tears.

Those eyes, plus her dagger brows and pillowy lips, made Jovovich a millionaire long before she was old enough to drive. She was born in Kiev to a Russian mother, Galina Loginova, and a Yugoslav father, Bogich Jovovich, who was a medical doctor, and emigrated with her parents to the United States when she was 5. But the family's dreams of an easier life in sunny Los Angeles were quickly dashed. Her mother, a successful Soviet film actress, could find work only cleaning houses, and her parents' marriage collapsed under the strain of their new life. But Galina didn't give up, instead channeling her own career ambitions through her daughter. "I was pretty much forced to do a lot of things," says Jovovich. "Piano lessons, acting lessons, English classes - and every Russian girl goes to ballet."

But not every girl gets a modeling gig. By age 11, her Lolita looks had won Jovovich a contract with the Prima agency, and one year later, Richard Avedon was photographing her for Revlon's "Most Unforgettable Women in the World" ad campaign.

"My mom was always very clear that the only place modeling can take you is a good financial place," Jovovich says. "I was always an actress. That's what my mom told me."

The only problem - besides appearing in bombs like 1992's Kuffs - was that "I sucked," Jovovich admits in her Slavic-meets-SoCal nasal twang. After starring in 1991's Return to the Blue Lagoon, she continued to follow in Brooke Shields' bare footprints by rebelling against her mother, who had by then become her manager. She smoked dope during high school in Los Angeles, and in 1994 appeared on the cover of High Times clutching a fat joint. "I was like, 'Yeah! My friends are gonna see me on the cover of High Times' " Jovovich says, laughing. " 'This is the peak of my career!' ". Perhaps her most defiant act came at age 16, when she eloped with her Dazed and Confused co-star, Shawn Andrews, to Las Vegas. A furious Galina flew to Las Vegas and had the marriage annulled. But Jovovich got in the final blow, announcing she was quitting acting - albeit temporarily - to make music instead.

Her songwriting, not to mention the novelty of a singing supermodel, landed her a recording contract with EMI, and her 1994 nouveau-folk debut, The Divine Comedy, earned respectful reviews. Lately, while writing songs for a second album, she has been playing small L.A. clubs with her new band, Plastic Has Memory. "I guess I should pay more attention to the audience than I do, but I feel like so many other parts of my life are spent catering to other people," says Jovovich, firing up the third of many Marlboro Lights. "But the music is me. That's what's sacred about it."

Early in The Messenger, a French soldier says, "You're beautiful. Let's see if you're powerful as well." While he was talking to a newly stolen catapult at the time, he easily could have been addressing Jovovich. Her Joan is a muscular, borderline-crazy martyr, a woman-child so fierce she attacks an entire castle by herself. "Milla has so much energy, we were obliged to change the horse she was riding," Besson says. "She kept wearing them out. By the end of shooting, she was full of bruises from head to foot. She was a blue girl."

But even sealed in tons of armor, Jovovich was a relative acting lightweight compared with her Messenger co-stars, Faye Dunaway, John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman - although she says she managed to hold her own. "I didn't have time to be intimidated," Jovovich says. "I needed to take advantage of what I had in front of me. Every day on the set with Dustin, Faye and John was more like a screaming opportunity: 'Teach me something! I need to learn from you!' "

Hoffman has since turned her on to an acting coach, and next year she'll put the result of her lessons on display in Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel, in which she plays a reclusive, down-and-out punker living in a run-down Los Angeles hotel, opposite Mel Gibson and her new friend, Jeremy Davies (the pacifist soldier in Saving Private Ryan). "It's just an accident waiting to happen, when you ask a supermodel to go to downtown L.A. and look believable," said U2's Bono, who co-wrote the film. "But Milla got it so right. I kept asking myself, where did she get that from?" Her only other immediate plans are to launch a Web site that will feature her band playing live shows from her West Hollywood home.

Although Besson says he has encouraged her to focus only on acting, Jovovich, like Joan of Arc, is intent on listening to the voices inside her head. "I've never been a natural-born talent," she says. "But I've got the guts to go out and try anything. David Blaine, the magician, he's a big friend of mine. He says there's signs all around us, every day. It's whether you choose to listen to them. And now I am."