Arena July 2002
by Steve Beale, photographed by Sheryl Nields
"You know you can buy a great place like this here in LA for about the same price as a one-bedroom flat in Brixton?" purrs Milla Jovovich as she reclines elegantly on a couch in a room decorated only by heavenly shards of California sunshine. "The people may be a bit fake here but the property's just so cheap. More of you British should move out here. You can come round. We'll have a barbecue."
Relaxing slightly as the promotional trail for her upcoming movie -- zombie splatter-fest Resident Evil -- comes to and end, Milla's much less hard work than her public image (kooky demanding art-totty) implies. But she's no disappointment. Milla Jovovich has more of the silver screen goddess about her than any other young actress working today; unconventional but intensely sexy beauty; an aloof eccentricity, as if she has given up caring what the dreary world outside thinks; and more style, grace, presence and movie star quality than Cameron Diaz (indeed, men can be divided into Cameron Diaz or Milla Jovovich fans), Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd put together. She's genteel and ladylike in an age when these are under-rated qualities in a woman. Our fathers may fawn over Liz Hurley -- but Milla Jovovich is surely thinking man's crumpet for the digital generation.
"I've never really seen myself as girl-next-door per se, no," she comments with a knowing dry sarcasm, delivered in a coquettish and consequently disarming manner. When she was just 12 years old, around the same time Jenny McCarthy was handing out leaflets dressed as a piece of spam, Milla appeared on the front cover of The Face -- just under a year after photographer Richard Avedon had somewhat shockingly named her one of "Revlon's Most Unforgettable Women in the World". Since then she's fronted campaigns for Chanel, Calvin Klein, Prada and Versace, to name only a few.
Audio-visual glory kindled with a memorable guest star appearance in US TV's Married With Children, as a French exchange student who stole all of blonde bombshell Kelly's sexual glory (no easy task). Milla moved on to celluloid with a courageous turn in 1991's ersatz-erotic Return to the Blue Lagoon (a respectable debut for any up-and-coming starlet in Arena's opinion), and managed to scale the critical ladder with appearances in Chaplin and Dazed And Confused before her pivotal role as sex and war machine Leeloo in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. A convincingly hatstand lead in Joan Of Arc sealed superstar status. She's now at the stage where parts such as that of "an Eastern European militant model trainer" are practically written for her. There's even been two albums of Angela Carter-esque deviant folk songs that received critical acclaim of the "actually it's not bad at all" variety. All of which leaves Milla in a much more noble position for an established model than releasing unsettling workout videos, or unadvisably battling tabloids in the law courts.
It may be difficult to equate this refined existence with the unashamedly adolescent Resident Evil. But the flick, based on the video game phenomenon, has a redeeming cult edge that sanitised blockbuster sci-fi lacks. It's the sort of video that your pubescent self hired in the school holidays and viewed avidly with the curtains drawn so the bastard sun didn't ruin all the glorious destruction wreaked down dark corridors. It's got even better futuristic automatic weaponry sound effects than Starship Troopers. And Milla trying to save the world in a flimsy red dress -- plus some rather inelegant boots.
"My darling, those boots aren't clunky, they're Prada." (Milla is Miuccia Prada's "muse", more of which in a bit) "Resident Evil is probably the only film I've ever done that was purely fun, commercial. The best judge is my little brother and he loved it. I did it for him. The best thing about it is it's such a cool video game with a great fan base. I've always been mystified with how much madness there is in life in general, and I love movies that reflect there may be the chance of other worlds. Besides, it's fun killing zombies and hitting people."
Next up for Milla is No Good Deed, directed by Bob "The Postman Always Rings Twice" Rafelson -- and co-starring Samuel L. Jackson. "I play a quintessential femme fatale," she comments, conspiratorially. "Obviously I tried to stay as far away from the 'quintessential' bit as possible. But she's basically a seductress, so I got to show a part of me I don't normally do on camera."
Milla has more often played the girl who'd kick you in the groin as soon as thrill you; "It's only very recently that tough, sexy women on film have actually worked. There hasn't been a heroine who kicked ass since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. And there's still not many of us out there, just Angelina Jolie, Michelle Rodriguez [Resident Evil co-star] and I."
So Milla's got fashion cred -- as a model-turned-actress she's hardly from the Sports Illustrated stable of Estella Warren and company. She plays contemporary roles doused in panache and exudes a natural air of going-slightly-mad Hollywood diva. And she carts around a miniature Maltese named Madness. But there are many more reasons why Milla is Hollywood's high-brow babe.
Her embodiment of contemporary pizzaz led to a minor cameo in Bret Easton Ellis's party set fable Glamorama. Ellis's stock unsympathetic protagonist reflects, "Nobu before noon and I'm biting off half a Xanax while passing what's got to be Dad's limo parked out front, and inside: various executives from MTV, a new maitre d' being interviewed by the CBS Morning News, Helena Christensen, Milla Jovovich and the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin..."
Nonetheless, she just wants to be alone. "I don't actually go out that much," Milla claims when I ask how she manages to be young, wild and A-list without being caught falling out of taxis or tipsily exposing a nipple. "Since September 11 it's been one thing after another for me [close friend "Solon", English guitarist in her band, died in November] so I've stayed pretty quiet. I've been promoting Resident Evil and I have to conserve my best for that. I've got too much going round in my head right now, and it's not party conversation. When you lose somebody you're never going to get over it, but you have to try and make it something you don't think about every second of every day. When I'm not working I feel I have to stay at home on my own and not bother people with my personal life, and not have them bother me with stuff I don't really care about right now."
Knicker-flashing, Paris Hilton-esque antics are thus consciously, but delicately avoided. Arena can't see Milla with one of those miniature bottles of champagne anyway. The over-100 different magazine covers she's appeared on worldwide include a shoot for stoner bible High Times. "It was something I really wanted to do. It was me looking to support this magazine I was a really big fan of -- and wanting to legalise marijuana."
Boyfriends (and husbands) come very much from the "creative intellectual mould, such as master of the stylised euro-thriller Luc Besson and art-fashion experimentalist Mario Sorrenti. "I suppose I'm attracted to guys I can create with; because it takes up so much of my life I have to have a back-and-forth creative energy going. I can't imagine a lawyer or doctor being able to deal with my life. People I've been with I suppose understand how much my work is a part of my life, and probably how little they're going to see of me! My divorce with Luc taught me that I'm not going to marry unless I'm going to have children with someone. I hate endings, it was a very traumatic experience."
Listen in on any fashion bitching re: Hollywood and you'll soon become privy to the knowledge that all actresses are lost without their stylists -- notable exception, Milla, who splices scholarly designers such as Nicolas Ghesquière's Balenciaga with antique one-off pieces. "It's very important to have something nobody else has. It's like [adopts fevered Joan of Arc screech] 'I have this! Screw you all!'"
Indeed, Milla's innate style has led to the highest accolade going for the unconventionally beautiful: the aforementioned role of muse (a word Milla is careful to avoid using herself) to Miuccia Prada, queen of a fashion empire noted for its intellectual aspirations and challenging philosophy.
"She's amazing, she's my role model, how I want to be when I get older. No make-up, lots of jewellery, totally eccentric, so cultured. How many women have their own art gallery and a playground slide going from her private studios to her office lobby? Actually, I thought it was an installation. I said 'what an amazing art piece' and somebody, thank God, was brave enough to say, 'Oh no, that's Miuccia's slide...' I'm honoured that it's me she's chosen to...design special clothing for. Fabrizio [Bertelli, rather-be-feared-than-loved Prada boss] is very sweet, shy almost. I met him at a fashion party and you could tell that it wasn't his environment, that he'd be much more at home on his sailboat with his old cronies. You've got to admire those two, they've built this huge empire and they have a relationship that really works and a lovely family rather than vile kids who just get given money."
On another tip, will we be hearing anything from Milla's band Plastic Has Memory anytime soon? "In the eight years or whatever since I released anything I've recorded so much music, but actually putting a record out is the last thing I worry about. For me it's much more important to write and record it and have it there. My ideal producers? Radiohead." If Thom Yorke was locked up in a studio with a woman like this, he probably wouldn't know what to do with himself.
Milla also draws, makes her own clothes, and is producing a personal film project based on a short story about a love triangle between a trapeze artist, a stained-glass window maker and the object of their affections. Cirque de Soleil will be honing her no-doubt-innate trapeze skills. So does she do anything not involving dramatic self-expression? "No darling, everything I do is sooo creative! I have to be careful saying things like that because people go and print them literally... Well, I watch the Iron Chef. It's on the food network. This Japanese guy, it's a Japanese show, he has this 'kitchen battlefield'. He has all the best chefs on his side, like Morimoto from Nobu. Then all these amateur chefs have to come on and beat them. The production is wonderfully naff, they have all these random Japanese actresses on with a horrible voiceover saying stuff like, 'Mmm, this egg is so soft.' At the beginning the guy takes a huge bite out of a raw pepper, and looks dreamily into the camera as if to say, 'Oh yes, this is a great pepper.'" Esoteric tastes even in daytime TV.
A younger Milla put the public's nose out of joint by having no problem declaring her wanton ambition. All these years on, at the grand age of 26, is she happy?
"There's a great line in The Little Princess where everybody's saying how sweet she is..." It's not really an Arena set text Milla, you'll have to elucidate further... "And she replies that she's led a life where it's impossible not to be nice, and if she'd led a different life she wonders how sweet she'd really be. I love thinking like that; I can feel really great because my life is really great, for better or for worse I'm a very happy person and I've got a lot of great things happening to me. But to say that I'm satisfied? No. I've been lucky to do some great stuff, but as far as I'm concerned it's nothing. I don't think people could look at my body of work and say, 'That's who she was.' And that's what I want to leave behind, a real person."
Milla's lofty aspirations are encouraging in a generation dominated by "Dude Where's My Token Blonde" actresses. Milla's not a star whose image has been carefully cultivated to appeal to the lowest common denominator, she's not iconic because teenage girls dream of having her hair and tits, or personifying the ultimate trophy girlfriend. She's to be adored for possessing a unique, sculptural beauty and voracious, aggressive sexuality, having grandiose intentions and a love of the outlandish and peculiar. After years of movie stars who really fail to inspire, who are celebrated for no other reason than that they appear in the films, in Milla Jovovich we have someone who looks, acts, and thinks like she deserves a place in the mortal pantheon.
Resident Evil is out July 12 (UK)