The Reel Breakdown

‘Union Square’ star Mira Sorvino talks about Manhattan moviemaking, Marlon Brando, and motherhood

The Reel Breakdown

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Fresh-faced Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite") doesn't give off a sleepless mother-of-four vibe as she perches at a wooden table at Manhattan's Regency Hotel to discuss her latest project. In Nancy Savoca's "Union Square," Sorvino plays Lucy, a married Italian American woman who subways down from the Bronx to Manhattan for a romantic rendezvous -- and ends up sleeping on the couch of her estranged sister, Jenny (Tammy Blanchard). The unexpected visit redefines their fractured relationship as they unpack baggage and share smokes. Both comic and tragic, the movie breaks your heart and pastes it back together again -- a story of aspiration and reconnection told over a few days around Thanksgiving. For Sorvino,"Union Square" was an opportunity to grab a juicy leading role, work with Savoca, and stay close to home and kids.

Thelma Adams: This movie was a guerrilla production -- shot in less than a month mostly in the producer's Manhattan apartment. What drew you to "Union Square"?

Mira Sorvino: Off the bat it was Nancy.

[Related: Adams on Reel Women: Salma Hayek's Working Mom in 'Savages']

TA: She directed one of my favorite underseen independents, "Household Saints," with Lili Taylor.

MS: The first one I saw was "Dog Fight." It was a movie with beauty and heart. And I loved "True Love." Nancy has evolved from making parochial stories to universal ones. "Union Square" deals with essential family relationships and the hard part of being an adult who loves the person they grew up with and hates the person they grew up with...

TA: Female characters like these rarely get written with such compassion and honesty. Tell me about Lucy.

MS: She has so much life force! Nancy was inspired by Italian movies: the Anna Magnani phone-call movie in "L'amore."

TA: Did Nancy have you watch that Roberto Rossellini movie to prepare?

MS: Yes, and I said, "Oh, Nancy, I don't like to watch other people's work as an imitation." And she said, "Watch it and pretend that's your mother."

TA: Did that help?

MS: I know I can never be as perfect and still and iconic as Anna. My character, Lucy, is all over the place. She's falling apart and pulling herself together. Nancy also had us watch the documentary "Children of Fate," about three generations in a Sicilian family. In our movie, the part where the mother, who is dying of lung cancer, is putting her lighter close to the kids' faces and scaring them is like a person in that documentary.

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TA: Growing up, my Uncle Al used to play that game with us. He had a lighter, and he'd entertain my cousins and me by daring us to blow out his lighter. Later, he died from emphysema.

MS: Live by the sword, die by the sword. I've always been a fan of all those Italian movies like Giulietta Masina in "Juliet of the Spirits." I see them reflected in "Union Square," in the dinner table scenes, and in that seance at the end. The sisters are wishing their mother alive again. It's very beautiful and funny. Nancy has this perfect mixture of comedy and drama. It's so rare. Some of the comedic directors like Woody [Allen] give you that depth; this is one of the fullest meldings of comedy and drama I've ever participated in.

TA: Do you have a favorite part of the movie?

MS: The way I come into the apartment. At first, Lucy acts like she doesn't notice that her sister, Jenny, doesn't want her there. But Lucy is totally aware that she couldn't be less wanted. There's just this easing back into each other's presence.

TA: Or un-easing. There's so much tension between the sisters, one who's escaped the Bronx by denying her origins, and the other who remains authentic to where they came from but still has the urge to run away. What, Mira, was your least favorite part?

MS: The only part I didn't enjoy was the scene at the river.

TA: When Lucy is standing on the ledge and Jenny is trying to coax her back onto the sidewalk?

MS: I had to do it over and over again as the sun was coming up. It was a dark scene. I had to draw on a lifetime of destroying myself psychologically. I have a lot of sadness in me, and I can dredge up things that should be resolved, but I have to keep them alive so I can break my heart on cue.

[Related: A civilized discussion with Don Winslow, the author and co-screenwriter of 'Savages']

TA: You broke my heart watching this movie. Lucy was so raw. Would you call yourself a method actress?

MS: You know, I worked with Marlon Brando in "Free Money." He walked in two and a half days late. Everyone was so thrilled, and I the most, because I was the acolyte. He started saying that acting is a terrible profession. You have to think that your dog died. He said to me that he used to realize if it looks like the behavior, the audience doesn't need to know. So, he wrote lines on people's foreheads and butts. He turned it into a degradation of the other women or men. Then he walked off, and I thought, that's like God saying there's no heaven. But he was kind of bullsh**ting, too, because he actually did it for real in our scenes. With me, because I was such an eager beaver, he did this improv for 12-minute takes.

TA: "Union Square" was unusual because you were surrounded by family when you made it. Your kids have parts, and your husband has a cameo at a nightclub scene.

MS: Yes. My kids are in it, all three of them at the time, not my baby that was just born a month and a half ago. They were delightful, and it came through on camera. It wouldn't have worked with anybody else.

TA: How has having a fourth child changed things for you?

MS: My new phrase is "four is more." Three was a lot, but it was all kind of doable. The oldest two play with each other. The youngest one is out of diapers. Now, all of a sudden there's an infant again who needs every minute of my time. She's happy as a clam as long as she is in your arms. It's hard holding her all day long and the three others who need me and maybe more now. Sometimes I feel like I can't make them all happy at once. It's very emotionally draining.

TA: And playing Lucy must have been draining, too. I don't want to put her in a box, but she seems clinically bipolar.

MS: Yes. I happen to be close to someone who is bipolar, so I had a template. I didn't have to research, but then a lot of her is not just being bipolar, There's that soul trying to find its way through. Lucy has a big heart and feels like a nothing, and she doesn't know how to make it work out.

TA: And, finally, what made you happiest about this project?

MS: It made me super happy when we showed it at South by Southwest: Men loved it and were laughing and crying. It wasn't a chick flick; it was a family-relations movie. It's a universal theme. It can hit anybody in any culture, in Iraq or Japan. To ghettoize it would be a mistake: It's by a woman and about women, but it's for everybody.

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