ON this, her first press junket, Margarita Levieva is often met by people surprised by the asymmetry between the petite, polite, soft-spoken actress and her on-screen persona in "The Invisible" as the two-fisted miscreant Annie.
The 27-year-old Russian native and former champion gymnast professes embarrassment at being listed among New York magazine's 50 Most Beautiful New Yorkers but acknowledges that in the last few days she has been compared to Angelina Jolie and Jessica Alba. To that mix, one could add Eliza Dushku and Ani DiFranco.
Over lunch at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, she says, "The one thing that I've gotten, which is weird from people who get to know me, is Janis Joplin. Maybe it's the energy ... whatever that means."
"The Invisible" director David Goyer says he "was looking for a young actress you could feel sympathetic for but who had a real feral quality, someone who had this untapped rage.... Everything I hear when people see this movie is, 'I liked the movie but, oh, my God, she was amazing.' " It opened Friday.
Although Levieva never doubted she could play Annie, she concedes it was a stretch.
"I've never gotten into a fight before," says the shy actress, best known for the short-lived Fox TV series "Vanished." "I have a twin brother, and he was always eager to get into fights and I was the voice of sanity. From very early on, it was sort of the yin and the yang -- who's the evil twin, who's the good one?
"I'm sure there were parts of me growing up that didn't always come out because of the relationship I had with my brother. To play a character who was the opposite of that was fulfilling because part of what we do as actors is get into these areas of ourselves that we don't live out."
Raised in the former Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) until age 11, Levieva grew up in the rigid framework of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics team.
"I was walking with my mom, and on the street I saw this huge window with girls playing with ribbons and balls and a hoop," she says. "I was 3 years old. I was like, 'Mom, I want to play with those things!' ... Yeah, I didn't know what I was getting into, but it was definitely my identity for a long time."
The young gymnasts trained four to six hours a day, usually seven days a week, starting at age 5. The regimen -- and the coaches -- could be brutal. Then, on the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse, Levieva's mother left Russia (and Levieva's father) to take 11-year-old Margarita and her brother, Michael, to the United States. "The biggest thing for my mom was, she wanted us to have opportunities," says Levieva, who knew no English upon arrival and now speaks it without a trace of an accent. "It's only in America that you can study economics in college ... and become an actress.
"I've really witnessed firsthand what it's like not to have those opportunities. In Russia, if you go to school -- at least at that time -- by the time you were 16, you'd have to decide on your major so you could go to the university that was catering to that major. And that was your career for the rest of your life. You couldn't study to be a doctor and become a fashion designer. You can do that in America."
She continued to compete in rhythmic gymnastics in America but found her lack of U.S. citizenship (she is now a legal resident) a bar to contending at the highest levels, as the clock ticked down on her athletic career. Although she dreamed of acting, she couldn't justify pursuing something so unrealistic. She earned a degree in economics at New York University and could, with some excitement, imagine herself in that world but hesitated at the portal of her new life.
"I saw myself walking on Wall Street into board meetings with my briefcase. I studied psychology and I had the fantasy of sitting in my office with my patients and saving them all one at a time. But when I graduated [I felt] I couldn't do any one of those things as a permanent career. Eventually, I came to my mother and said, 'I really feel like my only true passion is to be an actress ... unless I try I'll never be satisfied. So let me just try.' "
She studied in the Meisner training program at the William Esper Studio and in short order acquired an agent and booked three pilots, none of which was picked up. Then, after an extensive and frustrating search for the perfect Annie for "The Invisible," Goyer invited Levieva to cold read. Given her lack of credits, expectations were low.
"It was an amazing experience," says Goyer of that audition. "I said, 'My God, you're watching somebody who's going to be a star.'
The actress plays the film's ostensible villain, but as the disembodied spirit of her victim finds, Annie has her demons, loves and regrets.
Levieva says the fighting and other stunts in the film were the biggest challenges, even for a trained gymnast. She wasn't the only one worried.
"I remember meeting with my stunt coordinator and he was concerned because she's so small and seemingly frail," says Goyer. After a week, he asked the coordinator, " 'What do you think?' 'What I think is that I'm worried that she's gonna hurt the stunt people.' She actually gave some of them black eyes and things like that."
She doesn't know her own strength, but she does know about the power of the Land of Opportunity. With her odd mix of humility and self-confidence, she says in her quiet voice, "Probably the only thing I can't do is be president."