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What Drives Sorvino? Well, a Variety of Things

April 20, 2002|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Memo to studios: Mira Sorvino is ready to do a big fat Hollywood comedy. Anyone who has forgotten how funny Sorvino can be need only see "The Triumph of Love," an 18th century screwball sex farce that opened Wednesday in which she plays a princess bent on seducing a pompous philosopher (Ben Kingsley) and his spinster sister (Fiona Shaw) in order to restore her true love (Jay Rodan) to his rightful place on the throne.

Sorvino's comedic gifts have not been demonstrated much in recent years. Most of the 17 films she's made since 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," released a year after she took home the supporting actress Oscar for her role as the helium-voiced hooker in "Mighty Aphrodite," have featured the New Jersey-bred actress in serious roles.

"Triumph" marks a highly theatrical return to comedic form, and Sorvino says she's ready for more. "I can't predict what's going to come across my desk, but I'd love to do a big comedy."

Given its limited release by Paramount Classics, "Triumph" might not qualify as a "big" movie, but Sorvino's role is super-sized. She drives virtually every scene as the devious, gender-switching Princess. "When I first read the script, I thought, 'Oh God, I can't play this woman, I can't stand her, she's such a monster,'" says Sorvino, sitting down for a bowl of seafood soup at a cafe in Malibu, the community where she's lived for the past few months. "She's this master manipulator who divines each character's true desire, figures out what they really want to hear and then tells it to them."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wording error--In Saturday's Calendar story about Mira Sorvino, the word "old" inadvertently appeared in a sentence about the New Jersey-bred actress. The sentence should have stated that she is 34 years old.

The appeal of playing Princess/Phocion was elemental, she says. "It's what you'd imagine as a little girl, you know: I got to be a princess, I got to be a boy, and I got to do all these naughty things and it was thrilling." Among the thrills: going toe to toe with Kingsley's Hemocrates, a repressed academic who tries to fend off the Princess' charms. Kingsley likened his scenes with Sorvino to a tennis match at Wimbledon. "The crowd holds their breath when you get two really good tennis players against each other, but at the same time, playing with each other in the same game. We can only hit the ball back as well as it comes at us."

Sorvino was living in Paris two years ago with her boyfriend, actor Olivier Martinez, when she first talked to "Triumph" writer-director Clare Peploe about the role. Peploe recalls Sorvino's impromptu audition. "We went to my apartment, which Roberto Benigni had lent me, and Mira just read me a bit of Phocion seducing Leontine in this flawless British accent, and I felt like Leontine. I was completely seduced."

Once Sorvino clinched the deal after meeting "Triumph" producer Bernardo Bertolucci, the Harvard-educated actress did extensive homework. She read Pierre Marivaux's original 1732 play, in French. She studied 18th century portraits at the Louvre so she could mimic the artificial poses as a "tip of the hat" to the era's preening sensibility. She also borrowed some moves from contemporary figures. "I pulled from a lot of crazy pop culture icons to play the guy. I watched the Albert Finney movie 'Tom Jones,' and Capt. Kirk is in there a little bit to get that larger-than-life, macho, bravura thing.

"It's like 'Twelfth Night,' or any of those plays where you have women masquerading as men. You want the audience to be laughing: 'Well, she doesn't get it quite right, because she's trying a little bit too hard.'"

Before filming "Triumph," Sorvino made "The Grey Zone," a fact-based Holocaust drama slated for an October release. She plays a concentration camp captive tortured for smuggling gun powder to a group of Jewish prisoners planning to blow up the crematoriums at Auschwitz.

When casting "The Grey Zone," writer-director Tim Blake Nelson found Sorvino's performance as a downtrodden Bronx housewife in Spike Lee's 1999 urban drama "Summer of Sam" particularly intriguing. But would she buy into his vision of a deliberately flat, documentary-like film? And would she be easy to work with?

"I encountered none of that difficult attitude others had told me about," Nelson says.

Sorvino has confronted those "difficult" rumors more than once. "When I won the Oscar, my life became a total whirlwind and I got rocketed into doing one film after another very quickly, and no one really tells you how to do it, what the rules are, and how to be the consummate professional.

"You sort of have to learn as you go. Now I know what needs to happen on a movie set and how the actor has to be a team player, which I don't think I really understood before."

Nelson says Sorvino delivered precisely the muted performance the picture required, without "a moment of movie-star antics.... Hers is a lean, entirely unsentimental performance and it takes a lot of guts for an actor to resist the impulse to embellish."

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