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VENICE, Italy When Mira Sorvino was trying to decide what to do with her life, her father advised her not to try acting if there was anything else she liked better. Her father, of course, is the actor Paul Sorvino, a star in "Reds," "GoodFellas" and about 30 other films.
"He said, `Don't do it unless it's the only thing you can do,' " Mira remembered, sitting one day in the gardens of the Hotel des Bains, on the Venice Lido. "I guess he just didn't want me to go through the waves of working and then not working, and lacking artistic control over the end product. So I went to college and tried to see if there was something else I wanted to do, and within a year I was missing acting so much that I realized that's what I had to do. I did see the world, and I still wanted to act. It's in my blood as well as his."
Once she got serious about acting, the roles came in fairly quickly - including a lead in "Barcelona" (1994), the film about young Americans in Spain. But then there was the problem of her parents actually seeing the film:
"My mother came with her friends from New Jersey. They all came and I was, like, getting very nervous because there's like a little sex scene in it, and I was, like, `OK, Mom, you might want to close your eyes now for about 50 seconds.' And so she turns to the ladies and whispers, `OK, we're all supposed to close our eyes now.' So they all shut their eyes waiting for scene to be over and I'm, like, `OK!' " and she says, `OK,' and they all watched again. I was so excited that she cooperated because I was really going to be embarrassed if she sat there and saw it."
So like, OK, that was the little 50-second sex scene in "Barcelona." But now here is Woody Allen's new film "Mighty Aphrodite" (in its opening weekend at Chicago area theaters), and Sorvino co- stars with Allen, and plays a hooker, and has almost nothing but sex scenes, and how is her mother going to handle this one? Of course, we should establish right away that Sorvino never takes off any of her clothing in the movie, but man, does she have a vocabulary.
"My father said, `Mira, do not worry about what I think about anything you might do in your career. There may be certain films to which I will not go because I know there's certain things that I don't want to see my daughter doing. But don't think you shouldn't do them because I'm your dad. You have an artistic career that you are the master of, and don't worry about the parental opinions.'
"So that was reassuring. But I'm more worried about my mother, honestly. . ."
That would be during the scenes where Allen plays a man who goes to visit the hooker, and she describes in enthusiastic detail many practices that he is not enthusiastic about.
"These are the kinds of things she says all the time," Sorvino said. "Would I use them in front of my family? No. I feel funny about them for myself. They were fine in character. I felt that I had to warn my mother. I said, `Well, you're not going to be unhappy about anything you see occurring in this film. You won't have to cover your eyes. But you may want to cover your ears.' "
She smiled. This was the morning after "Mighty Aphrodite" had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and it had been a big hit - the Italian critics were calling it Woody's best film in years - and Sorvino was getting good reviews for her role, which can only be described by dusting off those discredited words, dumb blond.
In the film, Allen plays Lenny, a sports writer who is married to a Manhattan gallery owner, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who convinces him they should adopt a child. Of course he falls instantly in love with his son the first time he sees him, and soon baby Max is the light of his life. ("What do you want to be when you grow up?" "An interior decorator. Just kidding.")
But Allen grows obsessed with the identity of the child's parents, and turns into a private investigator, tracking down the mother, who turns out to be the Sorvino character, a call girl. Allen makes an appointment, pretending to be interested in sex, and eventually the two become good friends even though she never discovers he had adopted her boy - a secret that adds a doubly ironic twist at the end of the film.
Sorvino plays Linda, the hooker, with a high-pitched voice that sounds breathtakingly sincere. It's the kind of voice that grates a little the first time you hear it, but then you settle in and get accustomed to it. It's not a hard voice, and in fact it carries a certain naivete, even when she's saying the most shocking things.
"She's not hard-bitten," Sorvino said. "She's not a master seductress. She's not the sort of woman who uses sex as a weapon. I don't even know how well she uses sex. I mean, she really has a hard time getting people to do what she expects them to do. She may not even be good at those things. But she has a kind of excitement about her life, and she has plans, and she's a dreamer."
And she's kind of dumb.
"Yes. Sometimes the things she says are not that dumb; at other times they're really dumb. But the one place where she's smart is about the human heart. She kinda knows how people feel about her and she knows how to love people, I think. Her only area of intelligence, really, is about people inside. She kinda gets it."
She smiled. "I loved playing Linda," she said. "She was my favorite character to date. She's just a fun person to be. I find myself, like, finding excuses to turn her on sometimes in conversation with people, but. . ."
You turn on Linda?
"Yes. I spent so much time doing her; I spent a lot of time on that film that it became almost second nature. There's a quality to her that made people respond to her as a human being. It was like they liked her better than me. I was almost hurt. I was like, people were never this nice to me! What's going on?"
Working with Woody Allen was interesting, she said, because although he was the writer and director as well as her co-star, he gave her a lot of freedom:
"With Woody, you're given an artistic license that no one else gives you. He basically says, "OK, it's your baby now. You go home, you do the work, you come in, you present it and be as real and natural as possible. Don't worry about the lines,' he'd say. `You don't have to say any of the lines I've written if you don't want to because all I care about is that you be the most real, natural and funny as possible.' Now, for a writer to say this about his own work is almost unheard of. What trust that is in the actor! I mean, he's saying, `You are the expert on the character.' "
Allen, who has starred in a lot of his own films, seems at ease as he moves back and forth from in front of the camera, she said: "He seems very easy about it. He could go in and out of being in charge of the whole ship and then to being Lenny. His screen persona is different from his real persona. He's a lot more calm in real life. He doesn't crack a lot of jokes. I mean, he does once in a while but he's not one of those funny people who's always on. He improvs a lot. He changes his lines a lot and that makes me feel like, OK, the scene is not set in stone, so I can move with it."
Their big scene in the film is one where he goes to her apartment the first time, and she all but smothers him with willingness to move on to a next stage he is totally uninterested in reaching. There are big laughs as he gradually realizes that almost everything in her apartment, from the wall clock to the bubbler in the fish tank, is phallic.
"We shot that scene and reshot it. Once he wanted to try it with different decor in the apartment. It was a 12-page scene and we worked and worked on it, and finally one day we just jumped in there and did it, and it came out just right. We were bubbling. It was great that he allows the freedom to keep trying a scene in different ways until it works."
Talking to Sorvino, you get the strange sense that a little of Linda is peeping through. Not the dumb blond hooker part, but the naive, sweet part. She's tall and good- looking, but at 25 she doesn't have that toughness that some ambitious young actors develop so early. Maybe that's what Allen saw in her, and wanted for the Linda character. As we finished talking and she walked through the gardens of the famous old hotel, she said she was happy to be in Italy at last because her grandfather was from here, and she somehow felt like he was watching her. And not with his hands over his eyes.
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