The Scotsman Online June 9, 2001
Venus de Milla The first time I saw Milla Jovovich she was breathing elegance. It was during last yearís Cannes film festival, at the annual Miramax cocktail party on the closing night, when the awards had been dished out and the rabble had gone home. Joaquin Phoenix was there too, hovering shyly and rushing like a gentleman to fetch a new fork for a friend of mine whoíd accidentally dropped hers. It was a warm, quiet night and Jovovich made an unexpected entrance in a chic, flowing white dress and high heels that seemed to make her much taller than her 5ft 8in. She seemed at home in such elite company, and as the music played, she waltzed affectionately with Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein, a short, porky, bullish man who represents pretty much everything that Jovovich isnít.
This time, just a year later, Jovovich couldnít be more different. Itís the dead of night, in a creepy country mansion just outside Berlin. The building is being used as a location for her latest film, a video-game adaptation called Resident Evil, and everything about it makes the crew and just about everybody else feel uncomfortable. In the makeshift dining-room, there is an Iron Cross mosaic on the ceiling, complete with a crouching Aryan eagle and an ominous white blob where a swastika used to be. Hitler apparently used to visit this place twice a week, and the main dining-room has all the hallmarks of Nazi architecture: giant drapes, long tables and sculptures so huge that they dwarf anyone who enters.
After the war, the building passed into the hands of the Communists, whose tenure is much more visible in the upstairs of the main building. On my way in, I am collared by one of Jovovichís co-stars, Girlfightís Michelle Rodriguez, a striking, tomboyish Latina who hands me a torch and suggests we go exploring. Among the dank, empty, windowless rooms, padded cells and observation booths, there is one that is particularly unnerving - a dark cell with tatty, peeling wallpaper. "This is so spooky," whistles Rodriguez. Not as spooky as the attic, however, which is so reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, we both refuse to go in.
Downstairs, Jovovich is gearing up for her scene. Itís close to the beginning of the film, in which she plays the lead, an amnesiac called Alice. She wakes up in a strange house with no idea how she got there, but her investigations soon unveil a secret conspiracy that has unleashed flesh-eating humanoids on civilisation, and in the scene being shot we see the house being invaded by a clean-up team in frightening full-length rubber suits and gasmasks. One is especially menacing, but Milla looks totally at ease as she smiles up into his jet-black goggles and leads him in a parody of a waltz. "I waltz with a lot of different people," she deadpans later.
Itís cold enough as it is, but to replicate the effects of a helicopter arriving, director Paul Anderson is using a wind machine to give that extra oomph when the clean-up team kick the windows in. Jovovichís outfit - a skimpy red dress, cut to the thigh, with a tight, short black skirt underneath - is hardly warm enough, so she wraps up in a snug grey robe between takes. When she gets a free moment, she comes over to talk but is immediately called back. "Hold that thought," she advises light-heartedly.
She returns a few minutes later holding the stump of a cigarette, which she drops into a plastic cup then promptly douses with a big gob of spit. How ladylike, I say. "Well, yíknow..." She settles down in front of me, beside a single-bar electric fire, then adopts an arch, flirty tone. "Iím a lady when I need to be."
This may well be the secret to her success. With so many of her peers, what you see is definitely what you get. But Milla Jovovich is smarter than that; a self-aware free spirit, she can turn it on when she has to, then turn sharply back to her unaffected self. Itís hard to imagine Liz Hurley or Kate Moss being relaxed enough in front of a journalist to go into the toilet, carry on a conversation with a friend, then come out mid-sentence, still pulling up her skirt - which Jovovich will do within the hour.
She has been modelling since she was 11, and Resident Evil is her 16th film so far, from a career that includes starring roles in the likes of sci-fi romp The Fifth Element and period drama Joan of Arc, in which she played the 15th-century French saint. She speaks with a worldliness that belies her years, and though the age-difference between her and the wide-eyed Michelle Rodriguez is only two and a half years, it could easily be 10. At one point I hear her talking about one of the assistant directors, who is "cute", she says, but only 21. "Iíd feel like a cradle-snatcher," she jokes half-seriously.
For the record, Milla Jovovich turned 25 at Christmas, but the story so far involves enough for several lifetimes. Born in Kiev, she came to the USA in the early í80s and remembers little about her former life in the Ukraine. Her mother was an actress, her father a doctor, and they split up soon after the move to California. Jovovich says she went into modelling with a degree of reluctance, doing her best to rebel against her motherís wishes, but once she discovered music (she plays guitar and has released a couple of albums), she learned to tolerate it as a means to an end.
Incredibly, she has been married twice already, first, at 17, to her Dazed and Confused co-star Shawn Andrews, with whom she eloped to Las Vegas. It lasted less than a year. The second time, to French director Luc Besson, the 42-year-old romantic who cast her in those two previously mentioned lead roles, was a little more serious; it lasted 18 months, but they remain good friends. She recently finished a seven-month affair with John Frusciante, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist. There is nothing vulnerable about Milla Jovovich, however, and nothing to suggest that she has been a victim in any of these relationships.
In the flesh, she is, of course, beautiful, her hair now golden blonde and almost shoulder-length. Sheís also surprisingly accessible, and thereís little of the diva about her. She wanted to do Resident Evil, she says, simply because her 12-year-old stepbrother is obsessed with the game and thinks sheís God for making it. She also wanted a break from the kind of roles sheís been doing of late.
"This last year Iíve had one goal," she says in a voice that crackles with a slight Slavic accent, "which is to have a lot of fun, because Iíve been doing movies that have been really serious in terms of my character. I felt like it was just engulfing me emotionally. For The Fifth Element I spent four months learning a whole alien language, which Luc made up. I had a dictionary and I had to study it and memorise it. I donít now how youíd feel about sitting there going -" she adopts a twittering, cartoon-character voice "- Menna-loy-in-ay, acta-say-tunde-monda-CHEE-won, and making a complete fool of yourself."
Her role in Joan of Arc was especially punishing, an epic depiction of the Maid of Orlťans that saw Jovovich in a suit of armour and a page-boy crop leading hundreds of soldiers into war. "It was something that Luc and I were really interested in at the time," she says. "We were trying to find another angle from which to look at her story. We went into talks and those talks turned into a film. It was pretty much a project of the heart, something that sort of started between us on a plane, just talking about images and things, and it turned into a movie, which was pretty amazing."
Bessonís film brought the Joan of Arc story back to life in France, where the accepted truth was re-examined and found wanting. Did she expect that to happen? "Well, I donít think anybody had ever looked at Joan of Arc in the sense of being a human being who had a lot of blood on her hands - in the name of God. Thatís something that happens all the time in the Middle East and in Third World countries, where God is worshipped by fanatics. The film is about what fanaticism leads to and, most of the time, how bloody religion is. Joan of Arc is a saint, but why is she a saint? She wasnít a saint because she killed in the name of Christ, she was a saint because, in the end, she understood that what she did was wrong. I mean, thatís not a very Christian or Catholic way of doing things - proclaiming war on people in the name of God. So that was our take on it." It sounds like a pretty exhausting film to make, but Jovovich claims otherwise. "This," she says wearily, "is the most tiring shoot Iíve ever had. We have a 10-hour turnaround, which is hard, because by the time you get home itís late and you donít have time to do anything apart from go to sleep. But I just canít do that. I need to play guitar for a couple of hours, return phone callsÖ"
Music is an important ingredient in her life, and a big factor in her break-up with Besson, simply because she couldnít find time for both. Sheís still playing, even here. "That boy over there I was talking to," she says, pointing out a smallish guy with an unfinished tattoo on his right arm, "is my guitar player from LA. We just recorded a lot of music on Sunday, on our day off, and he brought a tape of three new songs. Iíve just been doing it at the weekends, and hopefully during the [actorsí] strike Iíll really be able to get down to recording."
Of all her parallel careers, music is definitely her favourite, followed by acting. Modelling is very much relegated to third choice and is now nothing more than a necessary evil. "I do LíOrťal and Donna Karan," she says, "but thatís pretty much all, modelling-wise. I love clothes. I just adore clothes. Theyíre part of the way I express myself and I love that. I like to make clothes, I sew, but I try to do as little advertising for clothes as possible, because even though I love them, I hate posing for pictures."
At which point her guitarist friend approaches with the demo tape they recently recorded together. Jovovich canít wait to play it and invites me to her trailer to listen. On the way out into the chilly night air, stepping over cables and tubes in the hallway, she turns with a few words that sound like a half-hearted admonition. "Please," she says, "donít be too British." Which sounds rather ominous. "You know," she begins hesitantly, "just donít beÖ judgmental. Iíve had some bad experiences in the past."
As we sit down in her trailer, a smart, tidy Winnebago with an unopened bottle of champagne on the table, her guitarist slips on the tape while Jovovich waits excitedly. Soon she is lost in her own music, a surprisingly good guitar sound forming a rocky backdrop to her ethereal vocals. She is especially keen to hear the harmonies, mouthing the words and miming their rise and fall with each sweep of her hand. The other two tracks, though, arenít quite what sheís expecting. Left to his own devices, the producer has embarked on mixes of his own, which donít go down too well, even after her guitarist has warned her. Excitement turns to disappointment, but she takes it very well indeed. "Iím going to have to whup his ass," she says wryly.
Picking up her acoustic guitar, she sits down on the floor with her knee-length boots tucked under her and begins picking out a riff theyíd worked on that afternoon in the car on the way over. The guitarist joins in, and they strike up a hypnotic jam, which revolves around a crawling, bluesy riff. Jovovichís brow furrows in concentration as her fingers roam the fretboard, but the spell is broken when a production aide knocks on the door to call her back to the set. Shouting, "Okay," Milla Jovovich plays a few more impertinent bars, just to prove a point, then heads back to the set, ready to be thrown to the ground and menaced by stormtroopers for the umpteenth time.