Harpers & Queen January 2003

Milla's Tale
Photographs by Sheryl Nields

Russian born and raised in LA, Milla Jovovich was a fashion icon at the age of 11. Now a bona fide supermodel, the dynamic beauty is about to take over every billboard and cinema screen in the country. Sara Buys meets the thoroughly modern muse with a mind of her own.

Milla Jovovich is a Linda Evangelista for the Noughties. Her face, a combination of sharp turns and plump sensuality, has the sort of irregular perfection that re-writes the aesthetic rulebook. On screen, this Soviet-born, Californian-reared beauty is that rare combination of highly charged sexuality and refined elegance - a winning formula that boosts box-office ratings, inspires designers and sells clothes. Like Evangelista, Gianni Versace's favourite supermodel, Milla is a true chameleon. Whether she's looking serene and dreamy for Prada, vamped up for Versace, elegant and timeless for Chanel or all-American for Calvin Klein, she is the undisputed favourite of the fashion world. In February, you can see her looking impossibly beautiful in several major campaigns; she bas just spent three weeks at Giorgio Armani's private villa, on the island of Pantelleria, shooting the campaign for the Emporio Spring/Summer collection with the inimitable fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh. And then there's the lucrative five-year contract as the face of L'Oréal, which she's just renewed. The multimillion-dollar pay-out alone leaves us in no doubt that Milla Jovovich is absolutely worth it.

It is a faultless autumn Sunday in Los Angeles: luminous sunshine, crisp air and not a hint of smog in sight. The fashion team from Harpers & Queen are sorting through the generous pile of luscious Armani samples that Milla will be modeling later. The shoot is taking place in a quiet Beverly Hills suburb, in studios owned by the photographer and formidable Californian fixture, Greg Gorman. It is a massive archetypal Hollywood production: four beefed-up, bearded and tattooed LA roadies are traipsing in and out of the grounds, setting up the heavy camera equipment; American photographer Sheryl Nields, a gregarious, hard-boiled, fast-talking professional is issuing instructions and joking with her team as the caterers prepare a barbecue feast for our lunch. Milla is a little late for the shoot - half an hour to be exact - which, by both LA and supermodel standards, is positively early.

A sky-blue convertible whizzes into the car park, and Milla shouts out greetings and apologies from the passenger seat. Her boyfriend, the British schlock-horror film director, Paul W.S. Anderson (a sort of fuller-faced, sexier Louis Theroux) is in the driving seat. When Milla walks into the studio holding her pocketdog, an irresistibly affectionate miniature Maltese called Madness, she completes the Hollywood package. A star is in the house. In the flesh, Milla Jovovich is just as one might expect. Her singular features are the stuff that make-up artists dream of: a pure palette on which to create aesthetic fantasies. She is the essence of effortless cool, a natural clothes-horse, dressed casually in a light cotton shirt, beige cords and flat pointy pumps. The moment I see her, I want to go out and buy exactly what she is wearing. Milla has that effect.

"I'm at this place right now where people are offering me a lot of money to do crappy films," she laughs in her raspy Californian drawl. "Which is actually a great thing, because before they weren't. Is it hard to say no? Yes, are you kidding? It goes against every Russian instinct I have in my body. Gee, my people lie, cheat and steal for not even a quarter of what I'm being offered, but if there was ever a time for me to say no, it's now."

Milla Natasha Jovovich was born in Kiev in 1975. The only child of Galina Loginova, a successful Russian stage and screen actress, and Borgi Jovovich, a Yugoslavian doctor, her parents emigrated to LA when she was five. From the moment Milla's feet touched Hollywood soil, her mother nurtured, guided and, to a certain extent, pushed her daughter into the glare of the city's bright lights. Magazine and newspaper articles documenting Milla's formative years have painted Galina as the archetypal pushy mother, but Milla's own take on her Russian roots is far more generous and enlightened. "When you have nothing, you use all your resources, including your children," Milla says. "And that's not a bad thing. It's just utilizing what you've made. It wasn't about this modern American attitude, 'Oh, children are their own people.' In Russian families, it's very obsessive. 'You're mine, and you do things the way i tell you.' It's just a different way of looking at life."

The combination of Galina's ferocious maternal ambition and her daughter's precocious talent and beauty meant that it was almost impossible for the young Milla to bypass that most controversial of Hollywood roles, Lolita. She was signed up by Prima modeling agency, and soon caught the eye of the photographer and iconic image maker Richard Avedon, who took her picture for the cover of Mademoiselle magazine. When Avedon chose her, at the tender age of 11, to be one of Revlon's 'Most Unforgettable Women in the World', it broke new ground in an industry that was no stranger to accusations of child exploitation. "A siren's head mounted on a pre-nubile body," roared the press. It caused a fashion-industry furor that went unchallenged in intensity until Corinne Day photographed a semi-naked, childlike Kate Moss in a grubby South London bedsit and reignited the Lolita debate all over again. At 12 years old, Milla was on the cover of The Face. Since then, she has graced a multitude of fashion magazine covers all over the world.

Jovovich's first significant celluloid appearance was as Brooke Shields' successor in the 1991 sequel, Return to the Blue Lagoon. She was 15, and the consequent crawl up the critical ladder was slow. She was unremarkable in the role of Christian Slater's token girlfriend in Kuffs, and heartachingly beautiful but under-used in Richard Linklater's cult slacker-generation flick, Dazed and Confused. Blink and you'll miss her appearance in Sir Richard Attenborough's Chaplin.

In the past five years, however, Milla has emerged as an actress of considerable talent. Her performance as Leeloo, a war-machine swathed in nothing but a few Jean-Paul Gaultier bandages, in Luc Besson's 1997 sci-fi blockbuster, The Fifth Element effectively` silenced critics expecting her to be just another model-turned-actress. Milla rose to every challenge posed by the strange character Leeloo, training rigorously every day in karate and kick-boxing in order to convey the highly physical nature of this alien-woman hybrid.

Meanwhile, her off-screen relationship with the film's director was blossoming and, in 1997, Milla and Besson married in Las Vegas. Their marriage lasted two years, during which time Besson cast her as Joan of Arc in the 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. The film itself was disappointing, but no one could deny that Milla had a potent screen presence, and it confirmed her status as a superstar. The following year, she took the role of Eloise, a hard-as-nails hooker in Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel and proved, if nothing else, her eclectic, intelligent taste in directors. The same year also saw the release of The Claim, Michael Winterbottom's much underrated take on Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which she contributes to a string Of fine performances from the picture's formidable cast.

Milla's latest role is in Resident Evil, a £45-million film written and directed by her now-boyfriend Anderson, and based on the computer game of the same title. She plays the protagonist, Alice: a ball-busting, zombie-quashing, mini-skirted action heroine. Milla and Anderson fell in love while filming, and are now inseparable. Though she is no stranger to the perils of mixing business with pleasure, she cannot find fault with the new man in her life. "I have yet to find a bad thing about working with Paul," she says, sucking on a Peter Stuyvesant and flouting LA's infuriatingly puritanical smoking laws with total indifference. "He is amazing: very hardworking, and he has a great imagination."

It's almost impossible to predict how a film will turn out she says. "Even if you work with a great director and a great cast, things can still turn out to be a disappointment. It can be incredibly disillusioning to feel that you've just thrown away six months of your life, and think to yourself, 'Well, whoever's making money off this, I hope you're happy with your new car or your new driveway or whatever.' So the reason why you do something is really important. I chose Resident Evil because of my 11-year-old brother. He is obsessed with the game, and thought it would be cool for me to be in the film. So at least I can say I did it for him. He liked it; and it was worth it."

Milla is a self-confessed workaholic: "You won't find me just chilling out, doing nothing," she says. When she isn't modeling, she runs her own production company, Creature Entertainment, and she is working on a treatment for a comic book. "I've worked out that, this year, I've spent just four weeks at home," she says. "I am innately lazy, and if I could watch TV for the rest of my life, I swear I would. So my whole existence is made up of this constant battle to resist the lazy person inside me. Like an alcoholic, I am constantly at war with myself."

This drive, and the athleticism that contributes to Milla's formidable screen presence, also comes through when she starts to perform for the Harpers shoot. Energized and encouraged by the photographer's whoops, she dances around the studio and preens like a peacock for the camera. In fact, its only when she is required to stand still that she becomes a little sulky and deflated.

Throughout the day, Milla is by turns spiky and sweet. I attribute the spikiness to what seems to be a slightly ambivalent attitude towards her modeling career. Though she knows it is her bread and butter ("I never bite the hand that feeds me," she says, and "modeling enables me to be selective about the creative decisions I make"), she still becomes a little petulant when the music is off, the energy is turned down a gear, and the boredom sets in.

She is also wary of interviews, and complains at length about negative articles, being misquoted and being made to sound pretentious. But she is undeniably bright, quick-witted and funny: when I ask her - quite ludicrously - "So, you're still 26?", she flashes me a look of amused disdain, and answers wryly: "Yep, still, 26, third year in a row", thus obliterating the enemy faster than you can say 'Mortal Kombat'. Whether giving good face or kicking computer-generated ass, Milla Jovovich puts all other contenders in the shade.