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Photography by Warwick Saint

Model Resident

by Michael B. Dougherty | Angeleno magazine | September 26, 2011

Milla Jovovich just can’t understand why you’re shocked. “I’ve had a really great, really long, diverse career, but I feel like people are still constantly surprised that I’m good at something,” says Jovovich, admittedly a bit loopy from the cold medicine she took just prior to our conversation. Suddenly, she launches into her best mock movie critic voice to drive home the point: “Surprisingly great performance by Milla Jovovich!” It’s followed by a peal of laughter, but also by the wistful acknowledgement that after more than 20 years in front of the camera, both in film and fashion, it would be nice for some more-than-faint-praise commendation. Still, it’s not about to keep the woman dubbed by VH1 as “the reigning queen of kick-butt” up at night. “Whatever, it is what it is. I take everything with a pinch of salt,” she says. “I feel very blessed to still be around and relevant, doing lots of exciting things with my life.”

And what a life it is. The model-actress-singer-designer-mom, 36, helms a mega-successful action movie franchise (Resident Evil) with director/husband Paul W.S. Anderson; has sung with rock acts like The Crystal Method and Maynard James Keenan of Tool; was a Council of Fashion Designers of America award finalist as co-founder of the now defunct line Jovovich-Hawk; has appeared in more than 150 magazines; and has a nearly 4-year-old daughter named Ever Gabo J. Anderson (who gave her that cold). She is also a worldwide spokeswoman for L’Oréal Paris, thanks to her piercing eyes, impossibly high cheek bones and pouty Eastern European exoticism that have made her one of the most recognizable faces of the last three decades. With the release of The Three Musketeers: 3D and the indie comedy Dirty Girl this month—and the announcement of a fifth Resident Evil—it doesn’t look like things are going to quiet down for her anytime soon. Which is exactly the way she likes it.

When Jovovich’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Sacramento in 1981 (later settling in Los Angeles), it wasn’t exactly the best time to be the Russian kid in an American elementary school. Cold War prejudices and a strange last name meant that Jovovich stood out, and not for the reasons that would catch famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s eye just a few years later. Her mother, Galina Loginova, had been a successful actress back in the Ukraine, emphasized the arts at home and sought to give Jovovich a head start on a career of her own. “She definitely took the liberty of taking matters into her own hands and made sure that I worked hard to do what I do,” she remembers. “Everybody has to work hard to be good at something.”

Jovovich may have been groomed for a life on the stage, but when Avedon selected some of her early test shots at 11 years old, it was the catwalk that propelled her to stardom. She was barely out of that primary school when she appeared in his photographs for Revlon’s “Most Unforgettable Women in the World” campaign. Two years later she would sign her first professional modeling contract. Covers for the likes of Vogue and Cosmopolitan soon followed, along with ads for Dior, Versace, Donna Karan and many more over the years.

Suddenly Jovovich, hardly into her teens, was traveling the world and attending flashy industry parties, but always with her mother in tow. Rather than the expected embarrassment of a child, Jovovich says that she never questioned her mother’s stewardship of her career. “My mom really has this thing where she makes you feel like she knows everything the best,” she says, before slipping into a Russian accent to mimic her. “You can’t even wash a dish without her saying, ‘Please, you do not wash dishes like this, this is how you wash dish!’ I didn’t question that.”

For those who peg Jovovich as part of the maligned model-turned-actress crowd—“that was completely my generation, too; crossover people were frowned upon”—you may be surprised to find it’s always been the other way around. Modeling arrived first but Jovovich’s end goal has always been acting—even if in the early years she was playing to her strengths by sticking to fashion. “The modeling projected me into the public eye in that sense where there was a buzz,” she says. “Which is fine. I was definitely a better model than I was an actress.”

Supporting roles and TV appearances led to her first lead with 1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon, a film seemingly invented to give audiences lingering shots of a young Jovovich in various states of island undress. It wasn’t until Richard Linklater’s cult stoner comedy Dazed and Confused, and later, Luc Besson’s trippy sci-fi fantasy The Fifth Element, that Jovovich began to transcend the model-actress label for something approaching real recognition.

But what really propelled the supermodel into film stardom was zombies. Based on the hit video game, Resident Evil (and its sequels) features Jovovich as a sword-swinging, machine gun-packing, action heroine out to save the world from an outbreak of the undead. “It’s like my evil baby,” says the actress of the nearly decade-old franchise, noting that the opportunity to return again and again to the same character has been especially satisfying. The series is also responsible for bringing Jovovich and Anderson together, as the English director has had a hand in each one. “Paul and I have this incredibly creative relationship,” Jovovich says. “We make fun movies together.”

Anderson agrees: “We have fun making movies, and the movies are designed to entertain,” he says. “They are the kind of movies that if the audience stands up and cheers, we’ve done our job right.” Asked to describe the experience of directing his wife, Anderson says, “From a director’s point of view, it’s a pleasure to work with her. She literally puts 1,000 percent into what she does.” From his end of the camera, Anderson also notes that he’s never met another actor so concerned with the well-being of others on set.

Riding the success of their creative partnership, Jovovich and Anderson paired again for this month’s 3-D reimagining of the classic Alexandre Dumas story The Three Musketeers. “When I think of the essential elements of the story—love, friendship, intrigue, betrayal—all of that is there, and then some,” says Jovovich of the film, in which she plays the conniving M’lady De Winter alongside Orlando Bloom, Christoph Waltz and Juno Temple. Jovovich says the “sensational experience” of shooting in 3-D allowed the epic scenery of castles, duels and battles shot on location in Bavaria to come to life. Jovovich assures that Anderson was “very methodical and technical” about the technology, not allowing it to fall into the realm of visual gimmickry. “He knows the physics of [3-D filming] very well, which is important,” she continues, joking, “so your eyes don’t hurt when you leave the theater!”

Admitting Jovovich’s knowledge of European history rivals his own university degree in it, Anderson said the chance to work with his wife again was a motivating factor behind the production. “It was one of the reasons why I made The Three Musketeers,” he explains. “Just as a fan of Milla’s, I always wanted to see her in a period movie.”

It’s hard not to see the pattern of strong female roles in Jovovich’s career and wonder if it’s not the firm-handed legacy of her mother at work. But she downplays the notion, instead crediting it more to things like the theatrics and the fantasy aspect inherent in modeling, which she thinks translated into a casting perception of her as the femme fatale or bad girl. “People just didn’t view me as the girl next door,” she says. “[For the] things that are going to be big-budget movies they’re not going to hire me to be the girlfriend.”

Abe Sylvia, who directed Jovovich in this month’s indie comedy Dirty Girl, describes Jovovich as an actress whose “performances are never safe.” The story of a rebellious Oklahoma teenager (Juno Temple again, as it happens) in the ’80s, on the road to California to find her estranged father, Jovovich was cast in the role of her ditzy mother, Sue-Ann. “A lot of actresses would be threatened by [this character], but not Milla,” Sylvia says. “She isn’t precious or vain in any way. Milla approached Sue-Ann with real sensitivity and an advocacy for the bad choices the character has made in her life. She never judged Sue-Ann for her limitations.”

“It’s only very recently that I’ve come to terms with understanding myself and understanding when I’m lying,” says Jovovich of her acting process. “Understanding what that uncomfortable feeling is, and how to go beyond that to find something real to draw from.” These days she’s drawing more and more from the experience of parenting her daughter. Jovovich admits that the “juggernaut” of a career she’s created will need to accommodate her newfound responsibilities as a mother, saying, “In the next few years I have some major choices to make. I want to give my daughter 100 percent.” She also wonders how early she’d let her daughter start working, acknowledging that “big money can be dangerous, but discipline is important and being passionate about something is important.”

Regardless, Jovovich hopes to wind things down a bit soon so that she can show her daughter a larger world, one that extends even beyond the cosmopolitan cities of Paris, Munich, New York and London young Ever has already seen. “I want to take her beyond there, go for a month to Mongolia and do some trekking.”

Wait, Mongolia?

“Well, I’ve been there before… they still have the plague! If anyone asks you to eat rodent meat, just say ‘no.’”

Duly noted.