How Hollywood Found Mira Sorvino (Again)

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Jeanne Crandall was originally an afterthought in Hollywood, Netflix’s latest offering from Ryan Murphy. The glitzy revisionist history reimagines what Tinseltown might have looked like if the gatekeepers of post–WW II entertainment sought to create a more inclusive film industry. Hollywood mixes real-life screen icons like Rock Hudson and Hattie McDaniel with fictional creations like Crandall, a blonde bombshell whose glamorous exterior camouflages the rejection she’s endured as a casualty of the Hollywood dream machine. She is styled after Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe. Or if you’re like Murphy and think in more contemporary terms, Mira Sorvino.

“There wasn’t really a place for her,” Sorvino recently told Vogue over the phone, quarantining at home with her family in Los Angeles. “My favorite kind of character is funny, strange, and vulnerable all kind of mixed together, so this is sort of my sweet spot.”

“She is the platonic ideal for that character, so getting her was such a coup,” says Hollywood cocreator Ian Brennan. “Ryan and I have both admired Mira for a long time, so casting her was an excuse to fill out that character’s story.”

Crandall’s fortunes change when she’s offered her first leading role in a biopic about Vogue war correspondent Lee Miller. As a longtime contract player, Crandall—and in the moment, Sorvino herself—is overcome with emotion. “My character thinks she’s getting put out to pasture. Instead, she’s told, ‘We see you; we know what you can do,’” Sorvino says. “I had empathy for the very narrow range of choices in her life, and when I read that scene, it was an absolutely authentic moment from my heart.”

Mira Sorvino in HollywoodPhoto: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

Born in Manhattan and raised in the neighboring suburb of Tenafly, New Jersey, Sorvino grew up with an at-home film school courtesy of her father, Goodfellas star Paul Sorvino. She excelled academically but had her sights set on acting even as a preteen, regularly writing and staging plays in her backyard. A talent search at her high school resulted in four callbacks and a screen test for the family film Sylvester, giving a 16-year old Sorvino her first taste of the industry. (The producers ultimately went in another direction.)

Sorvino majored in East Asian Studies at Harvard and sneaked in auditions when she could for anything filming nearby, like Mystic Pizza or Dead Poets Society. The day after graduating in 1990, Sorvino bleached her hair platinum blonde and packed her bags for New York City. “I can be a silly person, but my own baseline personality is pretty serious, so I wanted to get away and just do something kinda crazy,” she says. “I stopped playing the straight brown-haired girl and started getting in touch with my inner blonde.”

Under the mentorship of legendary acting teacher Wynn Handman, who passed away last month due to complications from COVID-19, Sorvino experienced acting as a form of “free-flying” and learned to “exist on a more subconscious plane of a character.” Her bathtub was in the kitchen of a roach-infested apartment on the Upper East Side but she didn’t care.

She landed substantial roles in films like Quiz Show and Barcelona, while a BBC adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers allowed her to stop moonlighting as a waitress to fully focus on her career. Up next was Mighty Aphrodite, the 1995 Woody Allen comedy about a man who discovers that the biological mother of his gifted adopted son happens to be a ditzy sex worker-cum-porn star player by Sorvino. “It was a total whirlwind,” she says now. “I was not prepared for fame and it was very overwhelming.”

 Mira Sorvino and Woody Allen in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)Photo: Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

When the film debuted in the fall of 1995, it was Sorvino’s hilariously gusty performance as the nasal-voiced Linda Ash that won over critics. “Her command of the movie is almost embarrassing,” wrote The New Yorker. “She makes everyone else look listless and indifferent to life.” Sorvino quickly found herself heralded as the mid-’90s answer to Julia Roberts, who broke out playing her own “hooker with a heart of gold” just a few years earlier.

“I had a panic attack one day on the couch in my apartment because I was so overwhelmed with having to be so public and do all the interviews and photo shoots,” she says. “I didn’t want the attention and fame nearly as much as I wanted to do the fascinating work.”

Sorvino is one of the few actors to win an Oscar for a comedic performance. Then boyfriend Quentin Tarantino was her date to the 1996 ceremony, where she took home the statue for Best Supporting Actress. Holding back tears in a strapless white gown, a remarkably poised Sorvino dedicated the award to her father: “When you give me this award you honor Paul Sorvino, who has taught me everything I know about acting. I love you very much, Dad.”

Roles started coming in for the newly anointed It girl, with Sorvino appearing in 12 films over the next five years alone. “I would just take things as they interested me, and I’m not always sure I made the right choice,” she says. “But then again I was told not to do Romy and Michele because it was too lowbrow.”

Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)Photo: ©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion remains the most beloved—and quoted—film among her fans, who still run up to its stars today asking about a businesswoman special. The comedy about two ditzy best friends who hit the road to attend their 10-year reunion is a beloved cult classic now, but in 1997 represented pivotal next steps in the careers of its leading ladies—a recent Oscar winner and rising sitcom star.

“I was on a girl’s trip with Courtney and Jennifer when I got the news Mira Sorvino was going to be Romy and I thought, That’s too much,” says Lisa Kudrow, whose performance as the lovable airhead Michele marked her first starring role after Friends became a megahit. “I mean she’d just won an Oscar, like my God.”

The two actors bonded immediately during rehearsal, says Kudrow, talking over the phone from Los Angeles. “She’s this very old soul who just knows more than her life experience. It’s so rare to meet someone who has no guile; you just don’t get to meet a Mira that much in your life,” she says, adding “And forget that she also went to Harvard and studied Chinese!”

Sorvino credits Tarantino, whom she dated from 1996 to 1998, with influencing her to explore different genres and be more open-minded about what an Oscar winner could do—like fight off mutant cockroaches (Mimic) or play a tattooed assassin (The Replacement Killers). “I always worked with tremendously talented directors right before they got very famous,” Sorvino says, referencing Mimic—an early Guillermo del Toro creature feature. “My dad said not to do it because people have an inherent disgust for insect,s but I was like, ‘Jennifer Lopez is doing a giant snake movie!’”

When she was shooting At First Sight with Val Kilmer in 1999, Sorvino couldn’t walk her dog without being ambushed by People magazine. But the plum leading roles started to dry up by the turn of the millennium. That same year’s Summer of Sam, an orgy-laced disco drama directed by Spike Lee, would be her last major role in a studio film for more than two decades.

“I was still working, just not at the level that I had been,” Sorvino says now. “I would say to my reps, ‘My career does not represent the level of my capacity.’ I’m capable of doing more than this.” This “professional dry spell,” as Sorvino puts it, overlapped with her marriage to the actor Christopher Backus and the birth of their first child in 2004. She also found a natural avenue into activism during this time. (At Harvard her thesis was about racial persecution in China, and she had worked on a documentary about neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups shortly after graduating.) Sorvino began working with Amnesty International after starring in the Lifetime miniseries Human Trafficking, eventually making a documentary for CNN about the sale of young girls in Cambodia. She became a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to combat human trafficking in 2009, galvanized by the lack of government action. “Everyone is vulnerable to sexual abuse,” she says. “I became a part of the Me Too movement in a very organic way.”

In a New Yorker exposé published in October 2017 and written by her Mighty Aphrodite director’s estranged son Ronan Farrow, Sorvino recounts two instances when Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and tried to pressure her into a physical relationship. (Weinstein’s studio Miramax produced the Woody Allen comedy and a number of Sorvino’s other projects, including Beautiful Girls and Mimic.) At the time, Sorvino reported the harassment to a female Miramax employee whose reaction “was shock and horror that I had mentioned it.” Quentin Tarantino says that Sorvino told him about the incidents at the time they happened. Coming off the cultural juggernaut of Pulp Fiction, a Miramax film that turned the studio into an industry force, Tarantino was Weinstein’s golden child. Sorvino believes dating Tarantino kept her career safe from Weinstein’s wrath, telling the Hollywood Reporter that the mogul “would never mess with the girlfriend of his star director.”

It was a different story once they broke up in 1998. Farrow’s New Yorker piece and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times story detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein sent shock waves across the entertainment industry that are still being felt today. Among the revelations unearthed in the aftermath were admissions from directors confirming Sorvino’s biggest fear: that Weinstein initiated a whisper campaign negatively affecting her career.

Peter Jackson was in early talks with Weinstein to produce his Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1998 when he expressed interest in casting Sorvino and Ashley Judd, who came forward with her own allegations against Weinstein in Kantor and Twohey’s story. “I recall Miramax telling us they were a nightmare to work with and we should avoid them at all costs,” Jackson told a New Zealand publication. Their names were removed from consideration and Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett were later cast in the roles. Not even 24 hours later, Terry Zwigoff tweeted a similar story recounting how he’d “hear a click” every time he mentioned wanting to cast Sorvino in Bad Santa: “What type of person just hangs up on you like that? I guess we all know what type of person now. I’m really sorry, Mira.” Lauren Graham eventually got the role.

Sorvino was gutted. “He absolutely blackballed me,” she says. “I’m a very private person and I’ve never been one to pity myself, so I don’t think I shared my concerns directly with anyone except the people trying to get me jobs. Maybe I should’ve shared more; maybe it would’ve been healthier.”

“At the time, I said, ‘Look, just do the work,’” recounts Kudrow. “You’re great; keep going—that’s all you can do.”

A now infamous GQ cover story around Romy and Michele’s release also didn’t help matters. Written by her former Harvard classmate Andrew Corsello, the profile has since been written off as a sexist hatchet job. But it nonetheless fueled speculation Sorvino was difficult. Corsello portrayed her as a humorless diva who’d let fame go to her Ivy League–educated head, describing the actor as “mercilessly intelligent” and “high-maintenance.”

The fallout was bad enough that Variety wrote a piece about the downside of the celebrity profile. Sorvino’s father told the New York Daily News that Corsello “assassinated” his daughter’s character because “he was attracted to her and she didn’t return it.” A narrative had been crafted that Sorvino would have to spend years dismantling.

Though she speaks frank and openly about the more unpleasant details of her past, Sorvino is grateful for certain aspects of her life during that period—her family in particular. ”They’re the most joy I have ever had and the deepest, most fulfilling and heart-expanding part of my life,” she says. She and her husband, Brackus, an actor who recently appeared in the second season of Big Little Lies, have been creating potential projects together while quarantining. “We’re trying to hold down the fort in so many different ways, and we’re having a great time collaborating,” she says.

Shortly before stay-at-home orders went into effect, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison and convicted of rape and a criminal sex act. Spending months before the sentencing on pins and needles, she broke down in tears upon hearing the news of his conviction. But, she adds, “there’s a lot of predators out there who have yet to see their day in court.”

With Hollywood widely heralded, Sorvino is turning her sights to what comes next. With several films and a Quibi series from American Psycho director Mary Herron in postproduction, Sorvino is staying optimistic. Romy and Michele screenwriter Robin Schiff recently approached her and Kudrow with an idea for a follow-up. (The two actors loved the idea but Disney—which owns the rights to the original film—passed.) The sequel lives on in real life, however, with the duo keeping in touch now more than ever. “She’s just the loveliest person,” says Kudrow. “Mira is all the things I hold in very high esteem. There’s no agenda other than doing the work and connecting with you.”

Being open with her story has given Sorvino the freedom to take back control of her career in a way never granted before. The darker periods have taken up enough space in her life, so she’d rather focus on brightening up audiences’ lives with the absurd and ridiculous. Maybe even embrace her inner blonde again: “I think more comedy is definitely in my future.”

“I’ve always had faith in the goodwill of others,” she says, wrapping up our conversation to go spend the afternoon with her family. “I feel like a really lucky person to be able to have a second act based on merit and perseverance more than anything else.”

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