W May 1998
By Christopher Bagley
The Plump, no-nonsense waitress at the Cupping Room Cafe, a SoHo restaurant right around the corner from the Next modeling agency, is probably accustomed to getting strange requests from the reed-thin models who frequent the place. But she doesn't even try to hide her astonishment when Milla Jovovich sits down at a corner table and, in her soft, girlish voice, orders three entire breakfasts for herself.
"I'll have the oatmeal and coffee to start," Jovovich says politely. "And I'd like two eggs over, medium, with rye toast. And some sausage, please. And I'll also have the cornmeal pancakes."
Over the next hour or so, Jovovich will make an effort to eat everything on her various plates--and she'll offer, several times, to share. When her order proves way to big even for two people, she'll apologize for wasting so much food. But for Jovovich, 22, a bit of overreaching is understandable: The actress-model-singer-songwriter has made a career out of biting off more than people think she can chew.
At age 12, she was already posing for Richard Avedon as one of Revlon's "Most Unforgettable Women in the World." At 14 she was sashaying around in a frayed loincloth in 'Return to the Blue Lagoon'. At 16 she eloped and married a 21-year-old actor in Las Vegas (and split up with him a few weeks later), and at 18 she released her first record album. Last year, Jovovich became a spokesperson for L'Oreal--and headed off to Vegas once again, this time to marry Luc Besson, the Frenchman who directed her in 'The Fifth Element'. She's currently modeling in several high-profile ad campaigns (including Chanel Haute Couture and Versus), finishing her second record and talking up her role in Spike Lee's new film, 'He Got Game'.
But all that, Jovovich believes, was NOTHING--at least when compared to what lies ahead. "I'd be very upset if I had to die tomorrow, leaving what I have to leave behind," she says.
So this summer, she plans to undertake the ultimate challenge: playing Joan of Arc in Besson's upcoming biopic of the fabled French saint. And although Jovovich is understantably reluctant to compare herself to history's best-known girl wonder (not to mention Ingrid Bergman and Jean Seberg, the actresses who've played her in previous films) she does see plenty to admire in the character. "She has a very strong will to make things happen," says Jovovich, lighting the cigarette that she's just bummed from a busboy. "And she's very pure and focused, which is what I WANT to be."
Jovovich was born in Kiev, the daughter of a Yugoslavian doctor and a Russian actress. When she was five, her parents moved to California, where they worked as caretakers at Brian De Palma's Los Angeles home. (Even then, Milla showed a knack for attracting the attention of powerful lensmen; she appears in some of De Palma's old home movies, frolicking in the pool.) With her mother's encouragement, she started acting at age 11, appearing in Zalman King's raunchy 'Two-Moon Junction'. It was a crazy sex movie, but that had nothing to do with me," she says. "I played the little sister of the hot girl." A few years later, in 'Return to the Blue Lagoon', she was ready to play the hot girl herself.
Since those early films, Jovovich has had small parts in such movies as 'Kuffs', 'Chaplin' and 'Dazed and Confused', but her biggest role was in last year's sci-fi epic 'The Fifth Element', for which Besson chose her after interviewing 200 other actresses. She starred as the Gaultier-clad Leeloo, an orange-haired alien nymph who ends up literally saving the world. "That role changed my life and my outlook on myself as an actress," says Jovovich. "She's not human, but she has seen the light in a way--her mind is totally open."
Jovovich had to come back down to earth to play Dakota, her character in 'He Got Game'. The movie tells the story of Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), a young basketball star from the projects who's being recruited by all the top colleges; Dakota is the haggard prostitute who gets involved with Jesus' estranged father (Denzel Washington). "She is very young, confused and defensive, and she has no self-esteem," Jovovich says of the character.
But if the actress found Dakota difficult to relate to, that was part of the role's appeal. "With acting, you can get into a person's head and view your own life differently," Jovovich says. "Because suddenly you look at yourself as this character would. Dakota would probably look at someone like me and say, 'Stupid model bitch !' She just wouldn't relate to me at all. Acting has taught me a lot about being open and not judging people."
Jovovich doesn't pretend to have gained many similar insights from her modeling career, which she has pursued mainly because it pays so well, freeing her to follow all her other interests. She admits that her new gig as a L'Oreal spokesperson--which involved personal appearances as well as photo shoots--is "definitely a lot more than I bargained for. I thought, you know, 'Great, work a week out of the year and...' But they're not like that at all.
"But, you know," she adds, diplomatically, "It's alright, because I have a lot of great plans for L'Oreal and great ideas, and I'm lucky that they give me as much responsibility as they do."
Jovovich fell into modeling accidentally--after her acting head shots were spotted by a modeling agency--and she was an instant hit, appearing on the covers of magazines like 'Mademoiselle' while she was still reading 'Tiger Beat'. She eventually transferred from a Los Angeles public school to the private, arts-friendly Excelsior School. "Most of the kids were actors and/or weird psychotic kids," she says, smiling.
And she fit right in. During her wild teen years, Jovovich remembers, she did "a lot of stupid, crazy, ridiculous stuff that has no meaning for me anymore." Her most reckless act may have been the quickie Las Vegas marriage, which lasted all of three weeks. "My mom freaked out, and it was over: The party was done and I was ready to go home," Jovovich says, adding that the marriage was eventually annulled because "we weren't even together long enough for a divorce."
Around that time, Jovovich was learning to channel her teenage angst into her songwriting, which, of all her artistic endeavors, is still the one she values most. "Making music is really what I want to do," she says. "It's my own thing and it's where I really take over."
Her first record, 1994's 'The Divine Comedy', was a collection of darkly ponderous synch-pop and folk songs that elicited comparisons to Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Reviewers were surprised at how complex and accomplished the album was, but Jovovich believes she has already moved way beyond it. "It's not that I dislike my old stuff," she says, "but it doesn't hit me in that soft spot anymore, because I'm not soft there anymore. My new record will be more about what I'm going through now.
"Right now, a theme that's been coming up in my writing is this feeling of nostalgia," she continues. "Memories floating around, and time passing. You know, the way the paint peels off walls and you remember the memories behind that paint peeling ? That feeling of memories, ghosts--sitting in the same place where you might have sat with somebody before, and knowing that what you were feeling at that momemnt was right here, but it's not here anymore. It's something that's very thin, but I'm trying to capture it with everything I'm doing right now."
Jovovich's conversation is full of such pensive mini-soliloquies, which she sometimes interrupts to sing along to the music on the restaurant's sound system. Periodically, her bright blue eyes drift over to the window, and she gazes outsize in some sort of detached reverie. "There's this feeling of watching everything pass," she says. "And I have so many plans and so many things I want to do. I have a husband now, and we have so many dreams together."
One of those dreams is 'Joan of Arc', which will go into production this summer. Jovovich has a lot of fans in France, where 'The Fifth Element' was a major hit, but Besson's decision to cast his new wife as St. Joan has nevertheless raised a few Gallic eyebrows. "The joke is, 'Oh, from L'Oreal to Joan of Arc,'" says Jovovich. "Well, you know what ? I CAN do L'Oreal and then play Joan of Arc. That kind of stuff doesn't bother me. It bothers Luc more--he gets all freaked out, like 'Grrrr, I hate them !' I'm like, 'Dude, please !' I have no worries that I'm going to be good in this movie, and that I'm going to believe in it."
Jovovich says that confidence stems mainly from her complete trust in Besson. "I'm with a man that loves me so much--and it's not some young director where I have to worry that he's going to make me look stupid," she says. "It's the one time I know that I can relax and just let someone film me, and they're going to catch what I have to give. Because he knows me so well, he KNOWS what I have to give."
The couple had originally planned to wait until this summer to get married, but Jovovich suggested a quick wedding late last year. "He was a little bit scared that I was making one of my really hasty decisions," she says. "But if we're going to do it, let's just do it, right ?" And Jovovich, who has also dated fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti, says she has no concerns about the 16-year age difference between her and Besson. "Lu is himself--he wouldn't be himself without his age," she says. "The reasons that I love him are because of what he's learned throughout the years. He wouldn't be Luc if he was only 22.
"I'm really not attracted to serious conversation with guys my own age," she continues. "You know, they could be cuties or whatever, but I couldn't really count on them to be there for me, or to understand me or give me helpful advice. Luc inspires me and gets me good books to read, and he's got a lot of my sensibilities. And he cares about me so much that he doesn't forget me when I'm not there. A lot of young guys, young artists, are very selfish--and if you're not there, they kind of do their own thing. And then they come back and just show you what they did."
Jovovich doesn't have many platonic friends her own age, either. "I don't hang out with many people, period," she says. "I have my few close friends, and that's pretty much it. I've just been so into what I'm doing that I don't really have much time for entertaining my friends. They sort of float away one by one at this point." She has recently discovered yet another artistic passion--photography--which she is now studying on her own.
Spike Lee says he hopes Jovovich will continue to work in as many different creative fields as she pleases. "Milla's a great talent--I just hope that she'll do more films besides the ones with her husband," he says, laughing. "She has to tell Luc to let her go once in a while."
But Jovovich doesn't seem bound by any such constraints. In fact, she says it was much easier for her to commit to one person (Besson) that it would be to commit to one career. "I'm just scared to focus all my energy, because it's a lot of energy," she says.
"Right now I'm experimenting, and I'm learning," she adds. "By the time I'm ready to focus on something completely--if I ever get to that point--I'll have real knowlege about it. And I'll have the security to stop everything else, and just go for it.