For people who are new to the show, how would you sum up your character in Intruders?
She starts off as a quietly vulnerable person. She’s a lawyer but she’s struggling with something internally and you’re not really sure what it is. Then she goes missing after behaving a little strangely at home – listening to music she’s never liked before, shutting her husband out a little bit – and as the story goes on you start to realize she’s being intruded upon by another personality. She’s the host for an intruder, someone who is basically trying to take over her body. That second personality is far more Machiavellian and plotting and powerful and passionate. She still has a heart but it cares about what it cares about and it doesn’t really care about everybody else. She’s driven by this former love that’s an obsession for her.
It’s a far darker, more femme fatale role than I’ve ever played. It’s fascinating because sometimes I have to play them both at the same time; one takes over for part of the scene, then the other one rises and gets to say a few lines, then disappears again. It’s quite an acting challenge but it’s wonderful and fascinating.
Yes, and the writing for the second character is extraordinary. The scenes she has are really dark and dramatic. I’ve done far more drama than I’ve done comedy but arguably the biggest successes have been comedic.
Is there anything about either of these two characters you can relate to?
You have to be able to relate to your characters to play them. You have to find reasons for them doing what they do. Amy is consumed by a sense of loss and shame and guilt, and for that reason she’s kind of receding from the world. She’s so devastated by a recent tragedy that she can’t right herself. She’s just in a tailspin of depression and that I can relate to – especially the reason for it, which you find out midway through the show. The other character, I just like her zest for life. I like that about her, even if I don’t approve of her methods.
One of the themes of the show is immortality. If you had the option of being immortal, would you say yes or no?
I’d want it if I could everybody I loved around me. I wouldn’t want it alone. I’d go crazy. I’d have to have the people I love sharing it with you.
No, they’re far too young. Even though there’s a child in it who’s just a year older than my eldest daughter they can’t watch it until they’re old teenagers. Can I relate to the storyline involving the child? [Laughs] Well, she’s being possessed by a 75-year-old serial killer so not really! Sometimes my children do seem possessed by something a little bit meaner and stronger than myself but only for flashes.
Have your children seen any of your work?
They’ve seen the things that are PG-13 in the States but I’ve made very few things that are not R-rated. I’ve made a few children’s-ish movies in the past few years that they’ve seen and I did a television movie where I played Mrs Claus [Finding Mrs Claus] solely because their favourite movie in the world was my dad playing Santa Claus. Then I got this offer to play Mrs Claus and to my mind there’s never been a Mrs Claus movie before. It wasn’t very high-profile but I knew they’d love seeing their mummy as Mrs Claus. And they did – they love it.
In theory they’re opposed to the transplanting to somewhere new while I go on set, but when we did Intruders they all came up to Vancouver. We rented a house and lived there for five months. They went to school there and they did amazingly well. I was amazed how well they adapted, made really good friends, had fun and did really well in school. My husband coached little league, my daughter did dance performances and everyone was fairly happy. One of my sons was a little more complaining about missing home than the others but he too had this little gang of boys that worshipped him so it kind of worked out.
It was such an intense role to play that I don’t know how I would have survived had I not had a real life that’s not full of tragedy and darkness.
You’ve done such a wide variety of work. What have been your own career highlights?
There are a couple of movies that not many people have seen. One is called The Triumph Of Love with Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, and it’s just a wonderful, fun romp through the Italian countryside. It was a ‘trousers’ role – I played a boy who’s actually a princess – and it was a delight to do.
There’s another movie I did called Union Square that is one of my personal favourite performances of mine in my entire career. If you liked Mighty Aphrodite and you like New York-based comedy dramas, it’s very slice-of-life, a New York family dramedy and very moving actually. Surprisingly it brings a tear to people’s eyes but it’s also very funny. I love that movie.
How did being directed by Woody Allen on Mighty Aphrodite compare to Spike Lee on Summer Of Sam?
The two of them both encourage improvisation, which I think really helps you when you’re playing intense emotional scenes or comedy, because you can just riff on things that are actually occurring. It takes the stiffness out and you have these flights of fancy that, if they work, have little flashes of lightning in a bottle.
Woody did single-camera master shots that would dolly in or dolly out so it was all very live. You had to keep that energy up because it was like you were on stage and there was no stopping. The way Spike achieved that spontaneity on Summer Of Sam is that he had two cameras running at all times, so he was shooting both sides of the scene at the same time, whereas generally when you watch a film and it cuts from one person to another it’s never shot at the same time. Your answer to the other fellow is shot sometimes a day later. That’s why we had these amazing emotional scenes where sometimes funny things happened and sometimes you had these really gritty moments.
As an actress, it must be interesting that films like those two live on on DVD, in Blu-ray reissues and digital downloads?
I love it. People can discover them. The other day was the 20th anniversary of the release of Barcelona and they showed it on TMC, plus it’s out on DVD of course. I’m so happy that maybe a new generation is discovering a film that was one of my first big breaks.
It’s one of the reasons I got Mighty Aphrodite because after my first audition they thought the film was too far from my natural personality. My agents were arguing: ‘They wouldn’t even give her the script until five minutes before she walked into the room. We didn’t even know the character was a prostitute.’ I didn’t play it as wackily as I ended up doing in the film. Then Barcelona came out and Woody, who wasn’t at the first audition, watched it in his private screening room and said ‘That girl has nothing to do with the girl I met last year for Don’t Drink The Water’. I’d auditioned for that too. Anyway, he saw Barcelona and said ‘Have her come in again’.
When I got the call I was just wrapping the BBC miniseries The Buccaneers in England so I did the second audition for Mighty Aphrodite at the Dorchester in London, I’d developed a much more radical take on the character by that point and I got the part.
And you won the best supporting actress Oscar, which means you’ll always be known as ‘Academy Award Winner Mira Sorvino’. What does that mean to you?
Winning was an enormous blessing and a wonderful gift that I didn’t expect. I was so young and didn’t think I’d win; I was just so honoured to be nominated and to be in that company. It sort of freed me up in a way because I felt I had my colleagues and betters’ approval.
Where do you keep it?
It’s on my dresser at home.
That you have to have the courage to fail – meaning that when you make an artistic decision about a character or a performance you have to really go for it 100% and make bold and brave choices, things that could perhaps go wrong, but if you hold back, try and stay safe, and try and please everyone, you’re never going to come up with anything really strong. You have to allow yourself the courage to fail, otherwise you’ll never soar. You have to take a flying leap and either you’ll end up on the other side or you’ll plummet but that’s the only way to do it.
You work tirelessly for various charities. What motivates you in that area?
I’ve been very oriented towards social justice issues from the time I was a kid. My parents spoke a lot about Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, and my mum worked for a suicide prevention helpline. She’d come home to New Jersey after spending four hours in New York City and she’d said ‘Today I literally talked a man down off a ledge’. She’d talk people down from killing themselves, which was amazing to me.
Then when I went to college I ended up writing my thesis about racial conflict in China, between Chinese and African students who were like guest students of the government. I couldn’t understand why there was this conflict because there was no historical co-existence of the two ethnic groups in the same place, and they didn’t have our history of slavery and the tumult that came from that. I was just trying to understand racism in a broad sense and also in a local sense. I wrote my thesis about racial prejudice and then I did a documentary about anti-Semitism, so that was about religious prejudice.
The thing that’s always gotten to me is the other-isation of people, where one group or one person can look at another and see them as less than human, less deserving of human rights and kindness and empathy.
How did you get involved with Amnesty International?
In 2003 they asked me to be their Stop Violence Against Women campaign spokesperson and under the canopy of prejudice against women I discovered human trafficking. At the time I was also very active on Darfur and I did a lot of activism on that, to sadly very little avail; it seemed that no-one really cared about that genocide even though after Rwanda everyone said ‘Never again’. They said that Rwanda happened so quickly that no-one was able to mobilize and respond to it, but in fact the Darfur genocide took place over years and hundreds of thousands of people died between the time I started working on it.
Then I was asked to be a goodwill ambassador for the UN but on human trafficking exclusively. It felt like a hard call for me because it felt I’d have to put more of my energies into modern day slavery, which was true, but I did feel that with the UN appointment I could perhaps make a difference. I now work in the sphere of modern day slavery, which is an incredibly worthy cause. To me it’s the ultimate expression of that lack of empathy and lack of humanity.
On a massively more trivial note, is there any truth to rumours of a Romy & Michelle sequel?
It’s fine to ask that. We all need comedy in our lives, heaven knows. I’d love it to happen but it’s not up to me. My support is there and I’d love to do it.
Are there any other characters you’d like to revisit?
Linda Ash from Mighty Aphrodite would be fun to catch up with. She’s a hairdresser married to a fireman and I’m sure she’d manage to get herself into some kind of trouble. She’s just not the cleverest person. She’s good-hearted but she could make mistakes that would lead to very funny stuff.
I think television is the brave new frontier of artistic expression. For a fraction of the budget of a big movie – which makes you wonder why movies cost so much – you can do really daring things on television and you have somewhat of a built-in audience and you have somewhat of a built-in return on your investment because you have advertisers. It’s sort of paid-for already whereas films have to go out there and compete, plus so many things are predicated on past successes whereas in television it seems the marching orders are: ‘What hasn’t been done yet? What’s new and different for viewers? What would really grab their attention?’
I think Intruders is really original. It’s a thriller but it’s paranormal, it’s not horror but it has a horror style to it, it’s very violent but it doesn’t dwell on the violence – you know that horrible stuff is happening but you see it briefly, then you move on – but it’s intended to scare you the way a Hitchcock or Stephen King movie should scare you. But it’s also something more. In the beginning it’s very chilling and stylish and mysterious, but as you go into it and your questions start getting answered – and they will all be answered by the end of the first season – you really get drawn into the characters’ lives and you start feeling for them and caring about their fates. It has a supernatural setting but it’s about relationships and the things that tear us apart and bring us together.
It’s really a delight because on film you generally have 90 minutes or two hours to tell a story and that’s it, unless it’s part of a franchise. Intruders is the perfect length because it’s an eight-part series and there’s no fat. The stories don’t run out of steam and it builds to a very powerful conclusion, but you do get to explore the depth and breadth of your character in a way you can’t do in film.
Intruders lends itself to binge-watching on DVD and Blu-ray. Is that something you do yourself?
I am definitely a binge-watcher. It’s like a way to get your fix. If you like a show you can get more and more of it right away.
What are your own TV favourites?
I was really crazy about True Detective. I also loved Deadwood. I’m enjoying Orange Is The New Black, and Arrested Development is pretty hilarious.
Intruders is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK and US, and is available from the BBC Shop