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“As a kid, I wanted to be an actor, an astronaut, or an anthropologist,” muses Mira Sorvino ’90. “I think I stopped at the As, for some reason.”
Thankfully so. We can forgive the dreamy Sorvino for her wide array of childhood fancies—but if she had gotten past the first letter of the alphabet, who knows what other careers she may have entertained? The Oscar-winning, Mandarin-speaking Harvard grad has already made it quite apparent that she can do whatever she sets her mind to. And if she had chosen to set her mind on something else, would she have found the time to kick-start her career in 1995 with a breakout performance in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite? Luckily, the young starlet-in-waiting decided against anthropology and astronomy, and instead became a star in her own right.
While her childhood daydreams may have stopped at the beginning of the alphabet, Mira’s meteoric rise has shown no signs of slowing down. Before bursting onto the Hollywood scene, her penchant for As got her all the way to Harvard, where she graduated magna cum laude in East Asian Studies. As the former Cabot House resident—she loved the Quad, by the way—lounges in a spacious conference room on the second floor of the luxurious Ritz Carlton Boston Common, she chats casually about her latest film, Triumph of Love, while reflecting on her unconventional career path. All students with starry visions in their eyes, take notice. Mira Sorvino is living proof that the path of a bonafide Hollywood star can indeed go through Harvard.
Though her professional career didn’t get started until after her college years, acting was something that was always in Mira’s blood—literally. The daughter of actor Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas, Nixon), Mira grew up close to the movie industry, but was discouraged from following in the footsteps of her famous dad. “My father would not let me be a child actor,” reveals Sorvino, “and I’m very glad that he didn’t let me. It’s a terrible life for a child. They lose all of their childhood and become little adults who professionally try to be cute and need people’s approval, and it totally messes with their heads.”
The decision to spurn the Hollywood life in favor of a normal childhood was the right one, but the acting bug was never fully squashed. Mira eventually got a manager at the age of 16 and began auditioning for parts prior to her first year at Harvard. During these early years of her career, the opportunities were less than stellar. “In the middle of college,” says Mira, “I was offered a horror movie which was so salacious and disgusting that I turned it down. The director said, ‘I don’t understand, many girls would give their right arm for this part!’ I finally had to tell him that I had to say no on religious grounds [laughter], that my religion wouldn’t allow me to do a movie with two nude shower scenes and a lesbian wet T-shirt kissing scene in a pool, after which one of the two girls gets hacked to death by an axe murderer. Just disgusting stuff! So that was the kind of level of work that was available to me.”
Still, the temptation of stardom was strong, and between her sophomore and junior years, Mira nearly decided to leave college behind. “I was in California for the summer,” explains Mira. “I was auditioning for things, and I almost got a couple of big movies. When I didn’t get them, I was so disappointed, and as I was swimming laps in the pool, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to get the next one, I’m going to get the next one.’ I was doing 50 laps, and between 20 and 30 I thought, ‘I’ll take a semester off, and I’ll stay here and I’ll work at it, like Jodie Foster, and then I’ll go back to school.’ And then, around 40, I thought to myself, ‘But you can’t build a career in less than two years...so I’ll have to stay out here for at least two years, and then all my friends will have graduated.’ Finally, at lap 50, I said to myself, ‘I’m going back to school, and I’m not going to do this until I’m done.’” Having decided to put off her acting aspirations years before, Mira decided to delay her dreams for a little longer. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions of her life.
“I’m so glad that I went back and finished my education, because I had the best time at Harvard,” says the proud member of the Class of 1990. “It was the best four years of my life, it was just fantastic. When I came back, I rowed crew, I directed a play and I kept singing with the Veritones.”
Indeed, the future movie star was one of the founding members of the popular a cappella group. “I took a photography class, wrote a thesis, and lived in China for eight months. None of this would have happened if I had just gone straight to Hollywood. I’m so happy I didn’t.” By delaying her acting career for a few years, Mira was able to take full advantage of the college experience—and when she graduated, she was ready to tackle her dreams. “When I got out, I did end up missing acting, and I had to go back to it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. In 1995, Mira landed an Academy Award for her breakout role in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. From there, she went on to amass a genre-defying collection of credits, including dramatic turns in Summer of Sam and At First Sight, rough-and-tumble action roles in Mimic and The Replacement Killers and comedic romps like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
In her latest film, Mira mixes romantic comedy with a dash of period drama in director Clare Peploe’s Triumph of Love, a film adaptation of an 18th-century story by French playwright Pierre Marivaux. As a princess struggling to win the heart of a prince (Jay Rodan) while restoring the rule of her kingdom to its rightful heir, Mira dons a cunning and passionate persona that manages to crack the stoic visages of the prince’s rationalist guardian (Ben Kingsley) and his withdrawn sister (Fiona Shaw). “I offer them the idea of love,” explains Mira. “[All the characters] have resolved themselves to live lives without love, completely secluded as hermits on this philosophical and scientific hideaway. But as my character says, ‘Love can derange any mind, even a famous rationalist’s.’ They’ve been fooling themselves into thinking that they were impervious to love, and that they didn’t need it—but I think everybody needs it.” To that end, the Princess disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the circle of the prince and carry out her plans for winning his heart.
Despite the archaic costumes and classical setting, the story itself is surprisingly modern, a fact that Mira attributes to the strength of Marivaux’s writing. “Great dramatic literature is timeless,” she says. “You can still perform the Greeks, you can still perform Shakespeare. And Marivaux is on a very high level in France. He’s not quite as well known in America, but in Europe, everybody knows this play. The female character in it is so modern. She’s a queen who has ultimate power in her little kingdom, and she’s not afraid to use any tool at her disposal to achieve her ends. She basically says, ‘If I have to be a man, I’ll be a man. If I have to be in drag, I’ll be in drag. If I have to kiss a woman, I’ll kiss a woman.’ Nothing to her is insurmountable. And yet, she’s very vulnerable on the inside, and she’s terrified of losing this dream of love that she has. I think she really believes that marrying the prince will change her life forever, that it’s just the happy ending that she longs for.”
As for happiness in her own life? Mira’s career is as strong as ever, and she finds herself in a position to pick and choose the projects that speak to her. Still, the future is never certain. “You’re always at the mercy of what material is available at any given moment—what’s being offered to you, what you’re in the running for, what people are making at that moment in time,” explains Mira. “But now, I’m really just trying to go with my heart and my mind. If I love the project and I really connect with it, I have to do it. I’m trying to be more of a pure artist these days about what I’m doing, rather than taking other reasons into account. I just ask myself, do I love this material? Do I want it to be part of my body of work? And that’s what I’m doing.”
When contemplating the future, Mira finds herself going back to a familiar well—the advice of her father. “He always said, give yourself the license to fail. Go in there, take your best swing at it, and just say, ---- ‘em. You can’t worry about whether you’re going to fail. What’s the worst that could happen? You could get fired. Every actor’s been fired once in their life, so it’s not the end of the world. Don’t worry about being awful, just take your best shot at it. You have to have courage, otherwise you will never lift off the ground. You have to take a flying leap. So it’s very important, I think, in anything artistic, to have the courage of your convictions. Make a choice and go for it. Even if you end up with egg in your face, it’s better than playing it safe and sticking close to home and never exploring what you might really be able to do.”
Wise words—and not just applicable to matters of career. “All of my roommates are married and have multiple children!” she exclaims towards the end of the conversation. Is the hard-working Hollywood mainstay ready to settle down and start a family? “I would be so happy to have a baby,” she says. “I’m ready. I’m not married yet, but I’ve been with somebody for three and a half years, so who knows? It might be soon. But when I have children, they’ll be more important to me than my career.” Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure—we’re glad she chose that first A, oh so many years ago.
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