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Making the Hollywood Honor Roll : Ivy Leaguer Mira Sorvino Is Drawing Raves as the Dumb Hooker in Woody Allen’s ‘Aphrodite’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“OK, let’s see how I measure up to Marilyn Chambers,” says Mira Sorvino, who kicks off her shoes and slips her slender size 8 1/2 feet into the porn queen’s dainty paw prints.

In town to promote her new Woody Allen film, “Mighty Aphrodite,” the young actress has taken time out to pad around an unlikely Hollywood tourist stop--the Porno Walk of Fame outside the Tomcat Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.

“I’d say Marilyn’s a size 6,” Sorvino decides, before moving on to dip her toes into Linda Lovelace’s sidewalk-cement footprints. “It’s so reassuring to know they have a monument to everything in Hollywood.”

Sorvino’s curiosity about this hard-core Hollywood memorial seems appropriate, since her role in the Allen film finds her playing a hooker who moonlights as a porn actress. At 5-foot-9, most of it legs, Sorvino towers over Allen in the film--seeing them side-by-side on the Upper East Side is like watching Shaquille O’Neal guard Muggsy Bogues.

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But credit Woody Allen. Who else would have the wit to hire a Harvard University honors graduate who speaks French and Mandarin Chinese to play Linda Ash, a dumb blonde?

Dolled up in a platinum dye-job, her heels as high as her skirts are short, Sorvino plays her dumb-blonde superbabe with screwball aplomb. She’s a perfect fit for Allen’s comic tale of romantic misadventure, a Pygmalion-style fable populated with art-gallery mavens, dim-bulb boxers and a sassy Greek chorus that sings, dances and offers Borscht Belt-style moral advice.

Only 25, but with an impressive resume of independent films to her credit, Sorvino didn’t let the juicy part go to waste. In male-ruled Hollywood, playing hookers is the ultimate career move for a young actress, whether it’s Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver,” Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” or Elisabeth Shue, who is getting raves for her work in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

But what has critics dazzled is the fresh spin Sorvino puts on the world’s oldest profession. “Her command of the movie is almost embarrassing,” writes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. “She makes everyone else look listless and indifferent to life.”

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Sorvino is taking the plaudits in stride. She hasn’t forgotten all the parts she lost before landing this plum. Coming from a theater clan--her father is respected character actor Paul Sorvino--she’s seen first-hand the inevitable ups and downs of the profession.

“My father didn’t want me to become an actor,” she says. “He felt it was a life filled with rejection and uncertainty. I think he wished I’d become a professor.”

As a child, Sorvino appeared in plays and put on shows with neighborhood chums. By the time her parents took her to see “Agnes of God” on Broadway, she was hooked. “It rocked my world,” she says. “It made acting seem so potent. I knew it was for me.”

At Harvard, Sorvino majored in Chinese studies, spending a year in Beijing and working on a documentary in the Soviet Union about anti-Semitic nationalist groups. Then she returned to acting, winning substantial parts in the films “Amongst Friends” and “Barcelona,” as well as a role in “Quiz Show.”

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But there’s acting--and then there’s acting with Woody Allen. The notoriously secretive director asked Sorvino to audition for his new film, but never told her what part she was trying out for. “I didn’t know I was playing a prostitute,” she says. “So when I had my first line of dialogue--'Hello, are you my 3 o’clock?'--I was thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe she’s a therapist.’ ”

Even after shooting began, many characters in the film never saw a script--some weren’t even told what character they were playing. “There were no rehearsals--nobody meets anybody until the first day of shooting,” Sorvino explains. “It’s frightening because all the responsibility is on you.”

Sorvino at least had time to research her character before shooting, interviewing a working porn actress, who was, as she dryly put it, “well-adjusted and excited about her future in pornography.” But her biggest contribution to the character is her voice--a deliciously guileless bimbo falsetto. The idea was Allen’s: “He told me, ‘You’re going to need a voice, because not only is she cheap, but she’s stupid.’ ”

Sorvino’s biggest surprise came after the film had wrapped. Allen often re-shoots big chunks of his films, but the actress discovered Allen was redoing “all my scenes with Woody in my apartment--30 pages of script.” Sorvino was told what bothered Allen wasn’t her performance but the apartment’s decor.

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As it turned out, Sorvino found herself far more comfortable doing the scenes the second time around. “I think I loosened up a lot,” she says. “Relaxation breeds inspiration. Nothing seems to occur to you when you’re terrified.”

She laughs. “I took a lot more liberties with Woody. I got more physical with him--I even started licking his ear.”

So what is Sorvino’s take on Allen, who weathered a storm of media scrutiny when he left his longtime love Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi Previn, her college-age adopted daughter? “His private life is his own,” she says. “But what struck me was that he had a real humility about him. When we were on the street, he’d talk to passersby, and take their questions seriously. He wasn’t like most famous people, who don’t have the time of day for anyone.”

Born in Tenafly, N.J., Sorvino is a lifelong New Yorker with an instinctual distaste for Hollywood air-kissers and glad-handers. “In New York, no one’s nice to you in meetings, but in a way it’s more reassuring, since you know they’re being real.”

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Sorvino has few worries about Hollywood typecasting her as a ditsy hooker--in fact, most of her film roles so far have been as some sort of sex object. “I don’t feel exploited. It’s not like they’re selling me as Mira Sorvino in all her sexual glory. It’s not just men who are interested in hookers--I’ve bought books on hookers and found them fascinating. It’s part of a great tradition in film, certainly going back to ‘Belle de Jour’ and Pasolini.”

In fact, it seems to be the men in Sorvino’s life who have the biggest problem with her playing sexy characters. “Maybe that’s why I don’t have a relationship right now,” she says with a wry grin. “I had one boyfriend who was definitely jealous, who couldn’t handle the type of parts I was playing.

“It’s hard for someone on the outside to understand that as an actress, you need to throw yourself into a seduction scene--you’re supposed to be having a good time. But just because you play a love scene with an actor doesn’t mean you’re having an affair with him. Trust me--it’s just acting.”

Not that acting--or the life of an actor--is so easy. As Sorvino’s father warned, it is a life of rejection. The actress says she’d just like to get to the point where “I don’t have a near nervous breakdown” before the start of a new film.

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“I still break down and cry sometimes if I’ve lost a part I really wanted,” she admits. “It’s tough if you do your best work and you lose to someone because they’re hotter than you. But seeing my father maintain a career and be so good at it--that gave me a lot of self-confidence.”

Sorvino frowns. “A lot of the young actors I know get discouraged too easily. . . . But I saw how long it took my father to make it, and if it took him till he was 33, after having had to give up his career and work in an ad agency, then I know I’m a very lucky girl.”

She beams. “Who would have thought it? I’m not only in a Woody Allen movie, but hey--I’m not even waitressing anymore.”


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