Her status as a leading lady is undeniable, but Mira Sorvino shouldn't mind being called a character actress. After all, she's played some crazy characters.
Her latest, a bipolar damsel in distress from the Bronx who loves life one minute, then detests it the next, is juicy Lucy in the New York indie drama Union Square, which will be in limited release beginning Friday (July 13).
"It's perhaps the juiciest of all roles I've ever had because she can swing in both directions," Sorvino said during a phone conversation two days after the film's June 25 premiere in New York.
That's saying a lot for a talented performer who won the Academy Award in the delicious title role of Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite in 1995 as a prostitute/porn star, then won over an entirely different crowd as the hilariously flaky (and Post-it notes inventor) Romy White in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion in 1997.
It's a family reunion that drives Union Square, which has its share of comedic moments but definitely isn't a comedy. Lucy is the flirtatious free spirit in cheap but eye-catching attire who comes into the city to make up with her estranged and seemingly strait-laced sister Jenny (played by Tammy Blanchard).
The sexy, sassy Sorvino displays a wide range of emotions in a riveting starring role. As a bonus, she also made a touching film that stresses the importance of family -- even if they all just can't get along.
The familial aspect relates to audiences in a very personal way because, Sorvino said, "It's about the old adage that you can't live with them and you can't shoot 'em. The third part of that is that you have to love them. And the film is really ultimately about love."
It's a subject Sorvino certainly embraces these days while raising a family of her own. In early May, the 44-year-old statuesque beauty gave birth to her fourth child.
Admittedly overconfident after going through labor three times previously, she waited until the last minute to get to the hospital and said she came close to delivering on the 10 freeway in Los Angeles.
It sounds like something Lucy might have done. And though Sorvino (left, in Union Square) didn't draw from her past to create Lucy, she said, "There were elements that I could relate to from my family... and people that I've known throughout my life.
"And so the character's really sort of an amalgam of many different people and people from the Triborough area that happen to be Italian-American, which I know a little about. There's a lot of drama in Italian families."
Sorvino learned a lot about drama -- and performing -- from her acting parents, Paul Sorvino and Lorraine Davis, who met at a class in the 1960s conducted by esteemed teacher Sandy Meisner.
Her mom, who quit acting to raise a family that included Mira's younger siblings Michael and Amanda, went on to provide drama therapy to Alzheimer's patients. Her busy dad, Mira reported, just completed his fourth movie of the summer that included Raging Bull II, the Jake LaMotta sequel that MGM is trying to stop, and Last I Heard, in which he plays an aging Don.
During a long and successful career, Paul Sorvino forever established himself among New York pop culture royalty as mob boss/father figure Paulie Cicero in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.
Making sure to set the record straight regarding her own New York roots, Mira pointed out that -- despite what's on websites such as imdb.com and Wikipedia -- she didn't become a Jersey girl until she was 4 years old.
"I was born in Manhattan (Beth Israel) not in Tenafly, as the Internet says," Sorvino revealed.
"We moved to New Jersey actually after a homeless man almost fell on top of me in a sandbox. And my parents freaked out and they decided to move to the suburbs. This is pre-Giuliani time [referring to Rudy Giuliani, who was New York's Mayor from 1994-2001]. So we moved to New Jersey.
"I had a lovely, bucolic, suburban upbringing with lots of trees and grass and running around and playing and catching frogs and things like that," said Sorvino, who first started learning improv through games and skits her mother developed for the kids at birthday parties. "And then when I graduated from college, I promptly moved back to the city and have had a place here ever since."
Dad gave Mira acting tips but discouraged her from joining the profession until she finished school, even nixing his daughter's chance to do a TV series when she was 8. "I appreciate that," Sorvino said of his firm stand. "I'm really glad that I didn't."
Instead, Mira performed in school plays while Paul turned into a backstage father.
"It was a little hard because other kids, their parents would come backstage and say, 'Honey that was great. You were fantastic.' And my father would be like, 'Oh honey, that was wonderful. I just have scene notes for you,'" Sorvino recalled. "And he'd be with me for two hours and break down the performance and tear it apart. But, in doing so, I got really thorough acting lessons and learned my craft from him at a very early age."
Those principles will be passed on to Mira's children, although three of them had cameos in Union Square, the film directed by Nancy Savoca that was first unveiled at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
"You've only got one childhood," Mira Sorvino said. "Why should you spend it as a professional? You're gonna have to work the rest of your life."
Sorvino eventually got her parents' blessing to audition for a role when she was 16 1/2 after "a talent scout came to my high school looking for girls who could horseback ride and act." She wisely waited to make it her chosen profession until graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1989.
While Lucy's IQ falls short of Mira's, she's not a dumb blond, a reputation forever attached to Romy White and Mighty Aphrodite's Linda Ash. Lucy has street smarts, and uses that to her advantage, whether dealing with the vendors at the Farmers Market or trying to make herself at home in her sister's loft apartment.
That character "really inhabited me," said Sorvino, who found Lucy to be different from a number of previous roles "because I think it's sort of a meatier story than some of the other ones who were on the surface similarly uncensored and funny."
"If you compare her to Romy or to Mighty Aphrodite, this is definitely a smarter character even though she can't manage her life very well," Sorvino added. "But she really understands other people very well. She's very insightful. She's just kind of a mess at this moment."
That duality made it both gratifying and taxing for Sorvino, especially on a low budget film that was shot sequentially over a two-week period in November 2010. It required a lot of quick thinking and improvisation during some of Union Square's intense, confrontational moments.
"Yeah, certain days I just wanted scenes to be over, over, over," Sorvino said. "But other days, I just kind of loved being her because the fun side of her is really delightful. [...] She's crazy like a fox. She knows what's she's doing half the time and kind of gets her way by just kind of barging in and steamrolling people.
"But she's also kind of... she's lovable. I think that's the thing about Nancy Savoca's directing is that she's really compassionate to all the characters and she doesn't make judgments on them."
Inventing a new character required a refresher course in Bronx-speak from Savoca, a reliable source since she was born there. Sorvino originally got the accent down while tape-recording borough residents for roles as Italian-American girls in Gary Winick's Sweet Nothing with Michael Imperioli in 1995 and Spike Lee's Summer of Sam in 1999.
Sorvino obviously feels at home on the streets of New York. (Sorvino's Lucy, middle, appears ready for a free hug in Union Square while Tammy Blanchard's Jenny isn't so sure.)
A handheld Canon 5D camera was used throughout the production, and a number of exterior shots were taken without the public's prior knowledge. That included the powerful opening scene, when Lucy falls apart while cursing out one of the men in her life during a cell phone call.
"I had people running up to me... where I'm crying my eyes out in the park, asking me if I was OK. Literally saying, 'Are you OK?' And I would have to duck out of sight, end the take and tell them it was a movie," Sorvino said of the non-actors who were later asked to sign releases to be in the film. "But I appreciated their concern. ... It was nice to know New Yorkers care."
Saying she's a "New Yorker at heart," it's obviously tough for Sorvino to talk about moving with her family to the West Coast -- for the time being.
"Hopefully it's only a temporary farewell and not a permanent one," she said. "Basically, we're sort of streamlining and our kids are going to school in L.A. We have a full-time home in New York and a full-time home in L.A. and it just doesn't make sense because we really didn't get here enough last year to justify kind of keeping the full-time home here."
The business requires more time in Los Angeles now for Sorvino and her actor/husband Chris Backus, who's directing his first feature film, The Sessionist.
"We're committing to (the move) now because we have school-aged children and we can't just be as bicoastal as we used to be," said Sorvino, who's trying to balance a career with family and personal projects.
Sorvino remains deeply committed to her volunteer role as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime to combat human trafficking. Except while making films such as The Grey Zone, she said she rarely has the chance to "express my intellectual side and my social activism side."
So for a deep thinker whose summa thesis on racial conflict in China won a Hoopes Prize, Sorvino welcomes the opportunity, even if it requires finding time when the kids are asleep or at school to write speeches or meet with trafficking survivors.
Sorvino's art and life will interact with her next film, scheduled for a September release. While Trade of Innocents, with Dermot Mulroney, deals with the Cambodian sex trade of children, Sorvino works to end a problem that also hits close to home.
Trying to influence lawmakers in this country to write legislation on the state level where it reaches the victims is important, she said, because trafficking of minors affects "our own sons and daughters and sisters and brothers."
Staying heavily involved in that role does limit her options in choosing other film projects. Especially since being "pregnant four times in like seven years" has "affected my acting career in one huge logistical way."
Sorvino recently made a run at prime-time TV as the star of Trooper, a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced pilot about a New York State police officer, and was disappointed that CBS didn't pick it up for the fall.
At least that might give her time to attend another High School Reunion.
"Hey, your mouth to Disney's ears," she said when asked about the chance of Romy and Michele teaming up again. "We've tried and, for some reason, it's not something that they want to approve at this moment, but (costar) Lisa (Kudrow) and I and Robin Schiff, the creator of the original script, are all down for it. So, while we can still walk and have our teeth and eyesight, we would love to do another one."
Sorvino believes there's a market for it, noting how fans reacted after seeing her and Kudrow posing in Post-it note dresses for "The Reunions Issue" in Entertainment Weekly last October.
"We had so much fun getting together on that," Sorvino said of Kudrow, her friend from Friends whose Web Therapy appears on Showtime. "Lisa just brings out this side in me that very few people have brought out in me except for my friends when I was in high school. Like she turns me into a clown, and I'm not usually the clown."
Maybe not, but she is a character. And expect this portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Union Square to make viewers living on the edge of their seats say:
"I love this Lucy."
See the official trailer for Union Square:
Union Square images courtesy of Required Viewing.